The first thing that's different about the guy we're talking to is that he says "a boat" instead of "about." He's from Canada--Hamilton, Ontario, specifically--so it's an easy and obvious joke, and it's also very true, making us smile to ourselves every time he does it, and he does it quite a bit. He also can't get enough of Dallas, and that's different, too. Most musicians, and we've written about them often enough, want nothing more than to get away from here. (See "Around the Block" on page 90 for another example.) But not Tim Gibbons, "part-time musician and full-time drifter," or so says the back cover of his latest, Streets of Dallas, a collection that sounds like the devil growling through a folk set in a graveyard.
Let's back up for a second: It's 1999, and Gibbons is on tour, opening for Chris Whitley. The tour makes a stop in Dallas at Gypsy Tea Room, and in the audience is Steven Collins, front man for Deadman. He came because he'd heard Gibbons' solo debut, Shylingo, online; he left with a new friend.
"Steve came up to Canada a year later to hang out with me up there," Gibbons remembers. "Wanted to design a Web site for me, which he did. He kept telling me that his band were all big fans of that record, that he wanted to put together a little tour down here and bring me down to Texas and play with Deadman." Collins wasn't joking. Last year, Gibbons came down to Texas again for a few shows, this time with Deadman backing him up onstage. It wasn't long before that collaboration made its way into the studio.
"We tried one tune, and that worked out good," Gibbons says. "We played this one night in Fort Worth, and I really dug Fort Worth. There's this little hotel there called the Hotel Texas, where a lot of the famous country singers--going way back--had stayed there, and there's all sorts of pictures on the wall: Willie Nelson, Porter Wagoner, people like that. I said, 'I wanna stay here in this hotel and do some writing.' So I ended up checking into the Hotel Texas out in Fort Worth, and basically wrote the Streets of Dallas album there. And we just recorded it really fast. Was mostly me and Steve, and then I hopped on the plane and the band filled in the blanks later."
Let's back up again, a little further into the past: It's 1982, and Daniel Lanois--who'd later work with U2, Bob Dylan and Peter Gabriel, among many others--is recording Gibbons' band, The Shakers. His friend Mark Howard (who produced Deadman's Paramour, which came out earlier this year) was running sound at clubs around Hamilton. Gibbons introduced Lanois to Howard (or maybe it was the other way around) and they began working together, starting a professional relationship that has lasted for two decades. That's how Gibbons ended up in Los Angeles in 1996, where Lanois and Howard were recording music for the soundtrack to Sling Blade.
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"It started as a joke, but I became the janitor, working at the Teatro," Gibbons says, referring to Lanois and Howard's former studio, constructed out of the abandoned ruins of an old Mexican porn theater. "Met Billy Bob Thornton, and he had heard my song 'Lonely One' and really liked that song, and that was the key to me getting a job on the Sling Blade soundtrack."
Though the movie was an unexpected hit, the soundtrack was not; Gibbons, probably rightly, blames Island Records for its failure to follow up on the film's success. "It was the first time I'd ever dealt with a major label," he says. "You know, incompetence on that level. It sort of blew my mind. I couldn't believe you could get a job and not know anything about what you were doing. That proved to me you could."
But his song got a number of spins on Los Angeles radio, and the album did well enough that he went back to L.A., where he stayed off and on for the next three years. ("Strange fit," Gibbons says.) That stint produced Shylingo, recorded at Teatro while Lanois and Howard were finishing up Dylan's Time Out of Mind. "A lot of the gear was set up," he says. "So when he and Dan would finish a mix that day, Dan would leave, and Mark--he's a hyper guy and he always wants to do a little bit more--and he'd say to me, 'OK, what do ya got?' I'd sort of sit down and come up with something on the spot. That became my first solo album."
Which led Gibbons to the Tea Room and Deadman. And the Streets of Dallas. The disc is available through Deadman's Web site, www.deadmanonline.com, until they can find a proper label to release it. For now, though, the album will drift along with Gibbons. Which has worked pretty well for him so far.