The latest CD from the Gibson Brothers, Darkest Hour, their fourteenth release, is all about the songs.
In addition to their extraordinary talent as singers and pickers, Eric and Leigh Gibson have a knack for creating country songs with intelligent lyrics and strong melodies.
And they are smart about working with the right producers, as they demonstrated a few years back when they selected Dan Auerbach and Fergie Ferguson to produce their decidedly non-Bluegrass release, Mockingbird.
This time around, the Gibsons have turned to Jerry Douglas as producer. Douglas, who is best known as the world’s premier dobro player, has also established himself as a capable producer, having overseen the creation of recordings by Alison Krauss and Union Station, the Del McCoury Band, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, the Steep Canyon Rangers and a number of others.
Together, Douglas and the Gibson Brothers have crafted in Darkest Hour a record that perfectly fits the instrumentation and arrangement to each song.
Six of the twelve songs were recorded with traditional Bluegrass instruments, and they feature some of the best acoustic session players in Nashville these days: Justin Moses on mandolin, Eamon McLoughlin on fiddle, Mike Barber on bass, and Douglas himself on dobro.
Songs of loss—whether blues, Bluegrass or country—are particularly enduring when they manage to blend simple heartbreak with beautiful music—pleasant melodies transporting loneliness and pain, what songwriter Blaze Foley termed the “sad songs for us to bear.”
Many of the best traditional Bluegrass songs pair broken-heart lyrics with upbeat picking. The Gibsons’ “What A Difference A Day Makes,” is a fine example of the form, as are “So Long, Mama” and “Dust.” Like the best early work of the Bluegrass Boys, Foggy Mountain Boys or Clinch Mountain Boys, these tracks explore sorrow in the context of some damn fine picking.
The Gibsons recorded the six acoustic tracks in Nashville in March 2020, just as the pandemic started shutting down most of the music business in the country. When they returned to finish recording with Douglas in February 2021, their sessions included Guthrie Trapp on electric guitar, Todd Parks on electric bass, John Gardner on drums, and more of Eamon McLoughlin on fiddle, and of Douglas, of course, this time on lap steel.
While the songs supported by this country rock ensemble might have worked with acoustic instrumentation, they seem particularly well-matched with the electric sounds that Douglas and the Gibsons chose for these tracks. The lyrics here describe more heartbreak, of course, but they also stray into dancing, driving, deception, impending death, agricultural economics and nostalgia, with the depth and sensitivity that listeners have come to expect from Eric and Leigh Gibson.
All the songs on this CD are exceptional. The standout tracks include “I Go Driving” and “My Darkest Hour,” as well as the previously mentioned and quite Bluegrassy “What A Difference A Day Makes,” which was released as a single in August 2022.
“I Go Driving” captures the feeling of tooling along on familiar backroads at night and pondering life’s highs and lows. Stellar fiddle and quite tasteful electric guitar are joined at the end by voices and lap steel in a blend that seems as if it could cruise along forever.
Encountering “My Darkest Hour” as a title, one might reasonably expect a dreary song laden with despair. Instead, the lyrics describe having a loved one to reach for in troubled times. The simple vocal arrangement weaves solo lead with occasional harmony on just a few phrases, and the almost understated acoustic instrumentation is perfect for the mood. What might have been dismal rings hopeful in the end.
Darkest Hour is scheduled for release on Bull Run Records on January 27, 2023.