When he got his hands on Delta bluesman Booker White's guitar, Eric Bibb knew he had made it.
“There was a direct physical link through the guitar to his whole generation and that whole tribe of players,” said Bibb, a singer, songwriter and guitarist who plays tonight in Olympia with fellow blues singer-guitarist Ruthie Foster. “It was like, ‘Yeah, you’re included.’”
Bibb got a chance to hold and play the famed instrument after a longtime friend and fan of White’s attended one of his concerts in Britain.
“The more I thought about it afterwards, I thought, ‘Wow, what an interesting thing to happen to me, to be able to actually hold and play this instrument that I’d heard on records and I’d seen in photographs,’” he said. “It was basically an appendage of this legendary bluesman.”
The 1930s National Reso-Phonic steel guitar wasn’t just any instrument.
“This instrument really rang and had a wonderful sound because of the way he’d opened it up and really played it,” Bibb said. “It had a sound that I hadn’t experienced with another guitar of that type.
“And his set list was still taped on the guitar. I was holding this neck that his hands had held. It was a visceral thing. That guitar retained something of Booker White, and that was palpable.”
The moment inspired a song, “Booker’s Guitar” – recorded with Bibb playing the guitar that inspired it – and an album of country blues songs, most of them original. The album named for the song is pretty much all Bibb, with a little help from harmonica player Grant Dermody.
“This record is more stripped down than any of my other recordings,” Bibb said. “It’s more exposed in terms of really being able to hear what I’m doing on the guitar.
“My idea was to emulate my heroes who had made those wonderful old scratchy 78s back in the day with just their instruments and their vocals.”
Bibb first thought the album the experience inspired would be mostly covers, but he wrote all but two of its songs, letting the traditions of the genre inspire his style but expanding the subject matter, notably on “Turning Pages,” a celebration of reading.
“As the album spins through, Bibb’s art accumulates enough weight to suggest he belongs in that lineage that Booker White’s guitar comes from,” Justin Cober-Lake wrote in a review for the online magazine PopMatters.
Bibb, who has been nominated for a Grammy and four W.C. Handy awards, last played at The Washington Center for the Performing Arts in 2002. Foster, also a Grammy nominee for 2009’s “The Truth According to Ruthie Foster,” was here for last year’s Solid Blues show and in 2006 on a tour with Bo Diddley. She’s been compared to the likes of Aretha Franklin and Ella Fitzgerald.
“Ruthie is one of the most wonderful singers I’ve ever worked with,” Bibb said. “I’m looking forward to maybe doing a song or two together.”