Over five decades and 46 albums, singer/songwriter Eric Bibb has entwined the messages of hope, social justice, and empowerment in his art. Bibb's empathic, folksy approach to societal difficulties holds court even when his lyrics express anger, spirituality, love, or prophecy. Recorded in Brooklyn, Nashville, London, Chicago, and Quebec, Dear America is a tough-love letter to his homeland. Aided by a star-studded guest list, he puts their collective and individual talents to excellent use on these 13 original songs.
Opener "Whole Lotta Lovin'" is a sweet, tender folk-blues. In his warm, slightly grainy baritone, he sings: "Give me a little bit of jazz, a lit bit of blues, a little bit of calypso, honey you can’t lose/Little bit o' rockin', little bit o' roll/whole lotta gospel music, soothes my soul…" atop a fingerpicked, West African highlife-style guitar, jazzman Ron Carter's upright bassline, and a small backing chorus. "Born of a Woman" is anti-misogynist Delta blues driven by electric slide guitar, handclaps, and longtime collaborator Shaneeka Simon's duet vocals. "Whole World’s Got the Blues" emerges from a hypnotic, slow-burning Delta blues that recalls Junior Kimbrough and John Lee Hooker and features Eric Gales on lead guitar and Steve Jordan on drums. Bibb's lyric acknowledges blues as a feeling that haunts the entire world at present -- and he can't shake it. The title track commences with a spoken quote from Dr. King amid fifes and flutes that sound like Otha Turner and the Rising Star Fife and Drum Ensemble. Deep-blue moans, electric resophonic guitars and mandolins, swampy drums, and handclaps help to carry Bibb's lyrics with ragged force. Chuck Campbell's dirty pedal steel guitar, a Hammond B-3, and funky drums join to become the conduit for the grimy "Different Picture," which depicts the bleak history of violence and unrest across the U.S. with stellar backing from Simon. "Tell Yourself" offers a breezy series of hard-won affirmations above the layered guitars. It's a break from the hard stuff that re-emerges with the quietly devastating "Emmet's Ghost" (about Emmet Till), pairing acoustic guitar and Carter's upright bass. "White and Black" is a gorgeous folk-rock waltz that holds a mirror up to the history of racism, past and present. The two parts of "Talkin' 'Bout a Train" are choogling blues tunes with harmonica ace Billy Branch, brass, organ, and funky NOLA-style drumming. Bibb shares lead vocals with Tommy Sims on the glorious, Curtis Mayfield-esque "Love's Kingdom" before closing with "Oneness of Love," in duet with Lisa Mills and accompanied by a string quartet. It's arguably the most resonant paean to committed relationship Bibb has ever written. Despite a catalogue of fine, groundbreaking albums, Dear America stands apart. It's a tender, wise, album-length manifesto of love for a place, history, and people that haven't always loved him back. Throughout it, he invites listeners to abandon small thinking and hate and to engage empathy in order to set real change in motion. Ultimately, Dear America is Bibb's masterpiece.