Joel Gibson Jr. of Silverdale has played music most of his life, but his career as a musician began in earnest in 2017. Since that time, the country rocker has built a loyal fan base from the ground up.
We spoke with Gibson about his journey as a musician, his work ethic, and the innovative ways he found to continue playing live music throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Tell me about yourself and your background as a musician.
I was born in Tacoma, Wash., at Madigan Army Hospital. I was pretty much born and raised here. I spent my summers primarily in the outer banks of North Carolina. I’ve been a huge connoisseur of music my whole life, from the earliest stage I can remember.
As far as this specific journey, it started in 2017. So it’s only been going on five years.
Previously, would you just tinker with music, and 2017 is when you got serious about becoming a musician?
Yeah, for sure. I got my first guitar when I was 17. It was gifted to me by a really good guitar player. He taught me how to play and it just kind of grew from there. Naturally, it took a considerable amount of time to gain any kind of confidence to play in front of somebody. And then when I started getting there I would play around the fire out camping and around friends and family and stuff. It kind of spiraled from there, and then I got together with my wife, and we’d play out camping and sitting around with our friends. Prior to 2017, it kind of got to the next level.
I got enough confidence to throw some videos up on YouTube and started getting good feedback from that for my cover songs that I put on there. It’s kind of a slow rolling thing. It took me a really long time to get the confidence to get out there and do it, and it really was my wife and her friend that ultimately went, you know, the only way you’re going to find out is to go out and do it — kind of a put up or shut up kind of thing. And that’s really how it started.
YouTube and social media play a huge role in music discovery nowadays. How have you used these online tools as a musician?
It’s kind of weird — I’ll describe it the best that I can. Like I said, there was definitely a confidence piece to it, because anything online and any kind of social media can be kind of brutal, so I wasn’t sure if I was ready for that. It was really taking a leap.
But even on that aspect, we were pretty blessed right out the gate to get primarily positive feedback from those YouTube videos. So we kept posting and posting and all the while I was writing my own music, and building up courage to put that out there, and then we started putting out the local stuff.
I want to say the first one we did was “PNW (Hoodies & Romeos),” which was my local song, and we put that out there. I don’t remember how it went about, but it got the attention of, at the time, one of the radio stations over in Seattle, The Wolf, and we got some feedback from that, like, “Hey, look at this Pacific Northwest guy getting it.”
And it just kind of grew from there. And I got in contact with Aaron Crawford, who’s been doing this a long time on the country side. And then from there we’ve been learning as we go. It started in its infancy phase, just dipping your toe in the water, and then learning how to do this, and all of a sudden we had an opportunity to go play a show in public, and then from there we started getting opportunities — my wife started booking shows for us around Kitsap and such, and then the word grew pretty rapidly as far as demand and people coming out to see us and the word spreading.
Social media is a big thing, starting a Facebook page specifically for the business — and we run this as a business. This is Joel Gibson Music LLC, because we started growing and growing and growing.
Figuring out how to get a band together was another piece. I didn’t really know any other players that weren’t already in a band. And then it was a matter of getting in and recording our music. People really wanted our original music, so getting into the studio for the first time … this would have been somewhere around late ‘17, early ‘18, we went in the studio and I recorded an acoustic EP called “Here up North,” because people just kept asking and asking for a CD. I know it sounds crazy, but people really love albums still, like CDs, especially from a live performer. Streaming’s great, but anybody in the music industry knows the artist doesn’t make much off of streaming — unless you’re Drake or something — but it does help your music reach a much wider audience and it’s definitely important. You know, the Spotify, Pandora, and TikTok now is a thing. Again, we’re learning how to navigate and really help spread the word out there a lot more.
You hear people lament that artists don’t get paid much on the streaming services, but the upside is that it’s an amazing discoverability tool. I’ve found lots of amazing artists on streaming platforms that I never would have found otherwise. It seems like a double-edged sword.
Absolutely. It’s definitely that. Just like YouTube, the “you may also like” type feature on a lot of these platforms is how people discover. I’ve discovered artists I never would hear on the radio, so it’s definitely more of an advertising tool. And then the segue from the CDs is turning to merchandise. You know, when you have a song called “Hoodies & Romeos,” people are asking you why you don’t have hoodies for sale.
And our retort to that is, well, it’s expensive to get merch going, you know … hoodies, shirts, hats. Our online store grew. And then we started seeing people wear this stuff and then they’re taking it on vacation with them and posting photos on Instagram, Facebook, going to Watershed, which is the biggest country festival in the state, wearing our gear, supporting me. It’s pretty wild. I know a lot of artists say it, but we really do have a pretty incredible fan base and they’ve really got us to where we’re at. I would say it’s our hard work, but a lot of the fan base, too.
Talk a bit about your musical style and influences — I’m a little familiar with country but I’m more of a rock guy, so I’m not as familiar with the subgenres and different sounds.
We brand ourselves as country and rock, because it’s kind of a hybrid. Especially as far as my own original music. Our live shows, whether I’m solo or with a band, we run a really eclectic mix. We do rock, we do classic rock — you know, Skynyrd. We’ve done Five Finger Death Punch, Sublime, Steve Miller Band, all kinds of different things to really reel in a vast demographic of people who come to our shows. We reach a pretty broad audience just by the covers, and then we kind of mix in our original music, which tends to get the best feedback. People are like, “You did awesome on the covers, but we really like your original music. You need to play more of that.” That’s a common piece we get.
As far as me and my personal influences, I have a lot. I always go back to being a kid: James Taylor was huge for me when I was a kid. Bruce Springsteen. Randy Travis and Alabama on the country side were huge for me.
As far as today’s influences, I would say Eric Church, hands down, is my No. 1 guy, just because of his style and his writing ability. I love songwriting, so I like the writing piece of things. People that write their own stuff and record their own stuff has always been fascinating to me. I’ve always been interested in who writes the music just as much if not more than who’s performing it.
I look on the Facebook events calendar for story ideas sometimes, and you seem so prolific in terms of live shows. Can you talk about your work ethic? It seems like you’re everywhere.
Yeah, that’s a fair assessment. Again, work ethic is definitely a big thing with me. My wife started doing the managing and the booking full-time in 2019, just because of the demand. When I say demand, it’s people reaching out to us whether it’s email, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, all these things, like, “Can you come play a show?”
That’s kind of how it started to grow, like I mentioned earlier, but then the pandemic hit and we’re like aww, shit. And it was really when we were gaining steam, at least locally. The band was finally lockstep and we had a good catalog of music. This hit, and we thought we were going to be dead in the water like a lot of other live entertainment.
We shifted gears because of an idea my wife had called the Tailgate Tour. She got that idea looking on Facebook. There was this photographer going around taking socially distanced photos with people, like, on their porch. And she said, “What if we do that with our truck? What if we just go play private parties in somebody’s driveway, or in a cul-de-sac, or on their property, and we just pull up, we have our sound equipment, and they just literally toss us an extension cord, and we plug in and we play a one or two hour show for them, and we just play for tips and they can buy merchandise online. We’ll have it with us and we can toss it to them or whatever.”
And that really took off. That was in 2020 in the middle of the pandemic. And we did 16 of those in four days. It was insane. The kicker to tie it back into your question is, we met people and people found us who would have never saw us at a bar or a casino. That was a lot of feedback we got: “I had no idea who you were,” and even at the time we were playing a lot. So we reached those people and when that ended, being who we are, we were like, “What else can we do?”
It was in the heat of summer and my wife, again, in her infinite wisdom, went, “What if we do it on a boat?” And we came up with Anchors Down. So my buddy’s pontoon boat, we brought the sound equipment, we went out on Dyes Inlet, played to over 100 boats, kayaks, and paddle boards.
It was outdoors; it was right when we could get outdoors in limited capacity, and it was just people needing to be around other people, really. I’d like to say it was part us, but really I think it was the right place at the right time. People needed it, so we were the ones by default that gave it to them. We ended up doing it again in Liberty Bay in Poulsbo, and did something a little bit similar out in Gig Harbor. But then what happened is, for the Tailgate Tour, we got nominated for Best of Kitsap. And then we won for best outdoor concert, best annual festival, which again, probably on some level by default because these other festivals didn’t happen. But what it really showed was the Kitsap community in general went in and voted for us because it meant something to them. It meant a lot to have us come to them rather than having to come to us.
A lot of people took it really seriously. They did barbecues, hung out with their friends and family. It was really jovial. It was pretty cool to watch and to be a part of. And it actually kept us going. It got our name out there. Even last year, we’re still pushing 150, 160 shows during the year, but then I also work a full-time job, too. So I’m walking through the gate, changing my clothes in the truck, and going to the gig, wherever that may be: in Centralia, Portland, or wherever. It’s been pretty wild, but I can’t help but say we’re really blessed with the support we’ve had thus far.
You talked about people needing to be together. How does music facilitate that need? For the two years we’ve gone through COVID, entertainment and music have been among the hardest hit industries. It seems like music has always been a very community-centered thing.
It’s the age-old thing, paraphrased on some level, that music is a universal language. I think that was really evident during the pandemic, even now. We had a motto on the Tailgate Tour: “Music is spiritual, music is medicine, therefore music is essential.” So we deemed music essential, just in our tagline. And again, what I saw out there was all walks of life, and I’m talking in neighborhoods and such that we played — people didn’t even know we were coming out, neighbors would come out, put their lawn chairs out there.
The reality is just like at our shows, it’s people with different political backgrounds, different beliefs, whatever it is. To me, at least from what I’ve observed and what I believe, music is always the common thread.
People forget that there’s no stress typically involved in music. It’s there for every emotion. People cry at music, people laugh, they remember people. Melody is always associated with a memory, I would say. Specifically during the pandemic it was a lot of people’s saving grace, including my own.
I still record a monthly livestream called Couch Concert on Facebook Live, which started during COVID. Originally when I started doing those I think it was weekly. It’s really weird to look at your cell phone and sing and see little thumbs up and hearts coming up on the side and learning how to read the comments while you’re playing and interacting.
Now we’ve got people from literally all over the country that know our music from a livestream. And we’re going to Arizona and I’m doing four shows down there, and then going to North Carolina. We’ve got people coming to those shows that have never seen us other than the Couch Concerts. It’s just so far-reaching. I would say music is incredible when you strip it down, forget all the bullshit, for lack of a better term, and just have a good time and be happy. And, definitely during COVID, to forget about what’s going on and just be happy, even if it’s for an hour, 90 minutes, two hours, and have that memory to look back on. Because that’s what I do.
When people think about country music, I don’t know that the Pacific Northwest is necessarily the first place that pops into their mind. It’s more known as the birthplace of grunge and all that. But I’ve lived in a lot of rural areas in Washington, and it seems like there are areas here where the culture is more aligned with country music. Is that your experience?
I think it’s bigger than we’ll ever get credit for, because it’s exactly what you just said. People still feel like it’s 1992 here. And rightfully so. I mean, Chris Cornell is easily in my top three vocalists of all time. We’ve always been associated with an incredible music scene. We haven’t been pumping out country artists from the Pacific Northwest of any real Garth Brooks-level recognition, but I’ll tell you, from a tour standpoint, when country acts come here, they sell out just like any other act, if not faster in some cases. Sometimes they play two nights. People love country music and I’ve always thought it’s because it’s universal. I think it speaks to the average person.
People love country music because they can relate to it differently than most other genres. I’m really eclectic; I listen to reggae, hip-hop, country — and when I say country, I’m not a fan of hardcore country, like pop-country — but up here, people just love that feeling, that rural tie. It’s not just the South. There’s plenty of country fans north of the Mason-Dixon.
We get a lot of people who come to our shows that aren’t country music fans. You know, they hear we’re country-rock and they’re probably crossing their fingers hoping it’s going to be more rock than country, or they’re thinking country like twangy twangy country — which we do play some of — but hands down, the biggest compliment and/or feedback we get is, “I hate country music, but I like you. I love your show.” And a lot of times that could be a spouse, like the girlfriend or the wife dragged the guy out, “She made me come to this, she said I’d like it and I didn’t think I would, but I love it.” And these people continue to come. And then they go tell their friends, “He’s not what you think. Don’t pigeonhole him. They’re real eclectic, they’re all over the map.” That’s the big thing we’ve seen and continue to see at a lot of our shows.
Anything else you’d like to add?
We haven’t really got to let our foot off the gas. This four-and-a-half years has not been your typical four-and-a-half years for any artist of any genre. Definitely not locally, just because we don’t have time to sit down and really digest the sheer volume of work that we put in, the shows, the people we meet, managing the business, not just for merchandise, but for booking, and going to the next level, making the time, and making that step to go OK, now we’ve got to get out of this state, we have to travel more. We’re going to spread the music organically.
I’ve always been a proponent of that. Social media is necessary, but nothing beats the old-school way of just putting the grind in and going and playing these bars in the little towns, and growing your fan base from the ground up. To me there’d be nothing worse than running to Nashville because you think you’re popular, coming back and maybe having some level of popularity, but nobody in your hometown knows who you are, or they’re falsely saying, “Yeah, I know him,” but never got to see you before that happened.
I personally take a lot of pride in going out and putting in the work. I like to say I won’t be outworked. Because there’s guys doing it full-time that don’t play as many shows as me. So when we’re at the point where we shift gears and I start doing this full time, we’re just going to go that much harder. So that’s what’s on the radar moving forward. We’re building our team, looking for more social media presence, people that know a little bit more than we do about it. This year our slogan’s “full throttle.” We’re putting the pedal down and not stopping. In ‘23, we really want to get out and start traveling a lot more and really spread the music out there face-to-face, organically, in the meantime really balancing the social media side, too, get the streaming up, and get the music out there.
Joel Gibson Jr.
Catch Joel Gibson Jr. at one of his upcoming shows: