Cleburne singer/songwriter Bill Sibley exudes a spirit of an old soul raconteur surveying the world through the merry eyes at odds with a countenance of a man who’s passed through the thresher once, twice if not a few dozen times, cosied up close and personal with the killing floor yet somehow emerged out the other side wiser and surprisingly chipper.
He has an unmistakable scratch trademark voice.
The same voice, in song, shifts into plaintive blues growl not unlike those of Muddy Waters, Keith Richards, ZZ Top and such.
It’s a voice that’s earned Sibley no small measure of success and a lot of love fan base wise.
“People really like my voice, especially on the blues numbers,” Sibley said with a laugh. “People will be singing along and trying to sound like I sound. When actually I’m always trying to sing like everyone else sounds naturally. I love to sing though. Course, I wouldn’t be much good as an opera guy.”
Sibley, 64, also wasn’t an early starter when it came to music.
“I had a heart attack when I was 47 and started playing guitar just to kind of relax more than anything,” Sibley said. “I just kind of got things off the internet. You can get those tabs off the internet for songs and I would just watch and learn you know. It gave me something to do to relax is all and so yeah, I taught myself. But, when you get in the music business and get to playing around other people they’ll show you, you know, don’t do this and do that and that kind of stuff, and that helps.
“I’ve always been, in anything I’ve ever done, construction or anything, been real good on taking peoples’ advice. I like stealing stuff off their brain. Cause that’s how you learn. I’ve been around people who don’t like people telling them what to do. I like it because I can take it and use it or throw it away.”
Though Waxahachie born, Sibley’s called Cleburne home since the fifth grade.
“I mean I always had a thing for music as a kid but didn’t really, never really thought about it till later,” Sibley said. “I always liked blues, but was more rock Steppenwolf and, yeah, the Rolling Stones. I was more a Rolling Stones guy than the Beatles.”
Pretty much off of them, Sibley replies, when asked his favorite Stones’ song before finally settling on “Honky Tonk Woman.””
“One of the first albums I ever had was Steppenwolf, remember that one?” Sibley said before singing a few lines of “Born To Be Wild.” “Man I listened to that thing over and over.
“But I liked all kinds of music. I liked the Beatles, a lot of their stuff. My dad worked for Capitol Records and got us a copy of “Meet the Beatles” before it came out in America. I remember looking at the cover and thinking, ‘Man, who are these guys?’”
Thinking back, Sibley remembers that he was slightly musical after all.
“I played a little harmonica when I was real young,” Sibley said. “But I didn’t even know to use different keys. I just played. And people really liked it. But when I started smoking I quit playing. But now I play guitar and harmonica at the same time cause I quit smoking.”
Decades later, after figuring out the guitar, Sibley found himself playing in the Rio Vista Social Club, a local band that’s featured several different musicians through the years.
Song writing followed a few years later.
“Wrote my first song in probably 2014,” Sibley said. “That was it. That’s when I knew that’s what I wanted to do. Then I won the Texas Troubadour Songwriter of the Year Award in 2015.”
Fellow Cleburne singer/songwriter Peter Pope played a role, Sibley said.
“Yeah, in fact, we started playing together and he had started writing one or two songs and was doodling with it but I think we only knew maybe two or three songs when we started playing,” Sibley said. “I’d go over to his house and play and stuff like that. It’s kind of weird we both turned out to be songwriters.”
It’s a natural process, Sibley said of his song writing.
“I just sit down and start playing and I’ll just be thinking then, poof! All the sudden it pops into my head,” Sibley said. “Sometimes it takes a few days to write one. Others, a song like “The Gift,” took me about an hour to write. I’ll play guitar for a while then the words, a phrase will come into my head then I just kind of goof around on guitar and it will come together. Sometimes I’ll switch the guitar bits around a little bit as I’m figuring out the song.”
However Sibley’s process works, Pope said he’s just glad that it does.
“My friend Bill Sibley is super talented,” Pope said. “I love his songs. He makes people feel what he’s singing about. He’s also an excellent guitarist and harmonica player and his voice is unique and entertaining. He is truly an artist.”
Alvarado singer/songwriter Brittany Oviedo agrees.
“Bill is hands down one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met,” Oviedo said. “He’s one of the best songwriters I’ve ever met. I once watched him play his song, “The Gift,” a song he wrote about his mother and there was not a dry eye in the house. I’m grateful to call him a friend and thankful for his support and guidance.”
The cover of “Sweet Rain,” Sibley’s recent CD, shows his feet, shoelaces untied, walking down Criner Street in downtown Grandview.
“Because 30 years ago I walked out of town and stopped drinking,” Sibley said. “Been 30 years sober this year. Walked to my mom’s in Alvarado then walked to Cleburne and began going to meetings [to stop drinking]. Two years going, didn’t miss a meeting.”
The CD — Sibley said he’s working on a more acoustic sounding follow up — delivers a from-the-heart mix of bluesy rock to more straightforward country. “Skeletons,” with it’s nod toward “The Munsters’” theme frat party comical Halloween fare. Had it been released in 1963 it may well have become a garage-rock classic.
Other tracks impart more genuine emotion and longing heartache.
It’s a sound that’s won Sibley fans far and wide.
“I’ve got probably 35 or so songs and about 15 on the radio,” Sibley said. “I get played on the internet and streaming stuff a lot and iTunes, Spotify, YouTube and all that. But regular radio too. Got played on KNON this morning. I also get played probably three times as much in Europe as hear. Some station in Germany I hear from a lot.”
Sibley, along with guitarist Bill Hudson, recently won a Trinity River Blues Society competition in Dallas, which resulted in a paid trip last week to Memphis to compete in the International Blues Challenge, an annual event that draws musicians from all over the world.
“We were selected from several pretty good groups to go their and represent North Texas,” Sibley said. “It’s a competition. But it’s more to represent your region. But people from San Angelo, Houston, Austin, rest of the country and all over Europe, Australia, South Korea and other places. I didn’t realize how huge a deal it was till we got up there.”
Sibley laughs when asked if people from South Korea get the blues.
“Yeah, I guess.”
Sibley said he was nervous early on.
“We didn’t win anything in the end,” Sibley said. “We played two nights down there and didn’t move on. But it was strange cause all the other musicians, and they were really good, all tour and that’s all they do. I kind of wondered if we even belonged but when we played we got one of the loudest applause there. Both nights were like that. So we proved that we belonged there and that was real encouraging.”
The trip marked Sibley’s first visit to Tennessee, something he and his wife, Julie Sibley, took advantage of.
“We went to Graceland but didn’t go in,” Sibley said. “It’s too expensive now, not worth it. But we did tour the Sun Records’ studio. And the food in Memphis is fantastic. The ribs and catfish and the barbecue, oh, it’s good. Coming back someone said should we stop for barbecue and I said, ‘No, I’ve had all the barbecue I need for a while. I’ll just eat fish sticks or something tonight.’”
Closer to home, Sibley continues to play throughout Johnson County and the Metroplex a labor of love more than a carefully planned out mission other than to see where the music takes him.
“I just like to get my songs out there,” Sibley said when asked what’s next. “I’m not much on playing bars because I’ve been sober 30 years but also because my music’s not really bar music. It’s more songwriter stuff. Which is why I prefer the listening room type places and wineries and things like that.
“Cause bars, it’s just people drinking, dancing, fighting, making racket and yelling at their wife,” Sibley said. “I always look at it as I’m not a great musician and I’m not a great singer. So I figure if they’re not at least listening to my songs then I must stink.”
The number of awards, live radio appearances and fans won over over the past few years runs contrary to any such sentiment.
Either way, Sibley remains a strong proponent of his hometown’s scene.
“I do notice a difference,” Sibley said. “A few years ago it was almost impossible to get people to come out in Cleburne. I remember wanting to listen to live music one New Year’s Eve several years ago and couldn’t find anyplace in Cleburne that had live music.
“It’s getting better now because of Songbird Live, Loaf’N Dog and places like that. It still has a long way to go, but it’s better. And that’s a great thing because there are some people in this town that are pretty good musically that nobody ever hears about. Those open mic nights at Loaf’N Dog and things like that have helped with that quite a bit.”