On an uncharacteristically warm and bright day in mid-February, I caught up with Eric and Leigh Gibson to talk about their music and their upcoming April 14th performance for the Hudson Valley Bluegrass Association. The Gibson Brothers were touring in Florida, enjoying a little down time and the relaxed atmosphere around the Hollowpoint Farm. Eric had previously said to me, “I hope to get in some good walks.” What follows are some highlights from our conversation that touched on music, community, story-telling and creativity. I spoke with Eric first, then followed up with a separate conversation with Leigh.
Chris: The HVBA is an organization and audience that knows you well. In many ways, they are your home audience. What do you want them to know about the Gibson Brothers that is new and enticing when thinking ahead to the April, 2018 show?
Eric: Yeah, it’s been a couple years since we played for the Hudson Valley folks, and it’s been fun every time. They’re just fun to hang out with. In addition to providing a good place to play, they entertain us! (laughs)
Chris: So this will be the first time you’ve seen them since In The Ground came out?
Eric: It will be, yes. The last time we played there we were not playing any songs from In The Ground. We’ve been playing at least a half dozen of those songs recently. So, we’ll have that… We never do a set list. We never know exactly what we are going to play. We have guys like Mike Barber, who’s been with us for 25 years, Clayton (Campbell) for 12 years and Jesse (Brock) for 4 years now. They know a lot of songs. I think that’s why people often come to see us for multiple shows in a year. I don’t think they get bored with us.
*The Gibson Brothers band includes Mike Barber, bass; Clayton Campbell, fiddle; Jesse Brock, mandolin
Chris: The HVBA, like most organizations, wants to grow its audience. What should always be up front about the Gibson Brothers as a contemporary bluegrass/roots music band that can interest people who don’t know your music? Why should they come and see you?
Eric: Huh, we should always be mindful of that! I think Leigh and I are singer/songwriters that happen to play bluegrass instruments. We’re very mindful of our material; we do mostly original material… (pause)… you hear, there’s so much in bluegrass… there’s a big phrase you hear so much in all kinds of music the last decade, ‘In their face, let’s put it in their face.’ Like, no! Sometimes let’s listen to the lyrics and see what they are talking about, let’s see where their heads and their hearts are. I think fans of singer/songwriters, fans of folk music and early country music will all like the Gibson Brothers– not just bluegrass fans. That’s my hope.
Chris: Let’s throw a more contemporary look at things, both in terms of your songwriting and the times we live in. One thing I think about with bluegrass is this urban/rural divide. Or, if not a divide, there are distinctions about it– distinctions culturally, politically and historically. I grew up in a rural area. You grew up in a rural area, and it’s a theme that comes up frequently in your songwriting. I wonder how you articulate that vision in the contemporary and divisive world we live in now?
Eric: Boy… (pause)… I don’t know any other way. I’ve almost always lived in a rural setting. I didn’t like living in an apartment… Leigh and I are both country boys. We can’t help but have that come through in our lyrics. They say write about what you know. But so many of these things are universal. You’re writing about your mom or writing about your dad… Sometimes we write a song where I think, oh, this is just too personal, no one is going to get this.. writing about the farm, the family farm is dying… And yet, people come up and they apply it to their lives… from completely different settings. But they understand heart, they understand feelings and those emotions– and we connect somehow. As far as politically, I don’t ever talk about it. But I do recognize that these are very divided times. And it’s sad. It’s sad how divided we all are right now.
Chris: I’m reflecting about how you communicate with different audiences across different class and cultural boundaries. Ultimately, I feel like you guys, as songwriters, come from a place of honesty.
Eric: Thank you.
Chris: I wonder if that’s really… where music offers a way to communicate that is a different place– a better place than other areas where we don’t communicate as well…
Eric: Right, you’re right… (pause)… These are all great questions. I don’t know…(laughs)
Chris: I’m just enjoying the conversation.
Eric: Every audience is different. Sometimes we try to have more humor in our shows. Sometimes it seems like an audience wants more hard-driving stuff, sometimes it seems they want more story songs or ballads. We try and read it; you have to.
Chris: Have you guys thought about having your own bluegrass festival in upstate New York?
Eric. Yes! We have. We’ve talked about it. But we realize how much work it is! Every year we get a little more serious about it, but we’ve never pulled the trigger on it. It would make sense as we get older and have somewhat of a name. There are dumber ideas! (Laughs)
Chris: I’m first going to talk to you about singing. How have you developed your singing and how have the last 25 years melded your sound?
Leigh: Well, I think that a lot of the distinctiveness comes from a certain amount of geographic isolation. We started singing in our late teens, I mean we heard records and such…but we were learning on our own. We had the template of Flatt & Scruggs and Jim & Jesse, but we weren’t learning to sing from other people in person…. And there’s the simple fact that we say words the same way, learned in the same household, so, early on you could probably attribute some of it to that. Now, once you develop an identity, you have more confidence… you forget that you are singing. It’s about the words and the emotions, and you aren’t thinking about the singing anymore. The people I really admire– it’s not a performance any more–you don’t think about them singing. It’s just the emotion. It’s just the words.
Chris: Let’s focus on this last record (CD). When you think about singing and the themes you like to embrace, which songs in this last CD do you connect with the most?
Leigh: Well, for me, the ones that I wrote.. “Friend of Mine”… is one I can very much connect with. I mean it. I didn’t write it with anybody else. I first started writing about my guitar and I finished up writing about Barber, someone who’s been with us for so very long. So it’s not hard to get into the vocal on a song like that. You really feel it because I truly mean it. I’m not singing somebody else’s story, I’m singin’ mine. It’s truth, and I think that’s the key (pause)..for an audience to feel sincerity, to not overreach– you sing about something that means something to you– and it takes its own shape in their mind because they can hear the honesty in it and it means something to them. And… “In The Ground” is another one… is my take on the regression of the family farm, you know, what’s going on. It certainly means a lot to a lot of other people who have experience in farming– and people who feel like the world has changed on them when they weren’t looking.
Chris: Do have any other things you want to say about the new record?
Leigh: (Sighs) I was really proud of the new record. It’s the most – I don’t know if intimate’s the right word– it identifies us the most, it’s the most truthful album. It’s not us singing somebody else’s songs, we wrote the whole thing, much of the record was all out of our own background.
Chris: It was your first record of all original material, is that correct?
Leigh: Yeah. I co-wrote a song with Shawn Camp. And one with Eric’s son, Kelley, wrote one with us. But Eric and I wrote all the rest.
Chris: Where are you getting your creative jollies the next few years? How do you see that?
Leigh: As I’ve gotten older, I guess you feel a little less worried about failure. We’re going to try whatever we want to try. You have to please yourself as much as anybody else. In years to come it’s going to behoove us to be surrounded by people who just want to make music and be creative and see what happens. We couldn’t have written another In The Ground record. Those records don’t come that often, where you can get into yourself and into your story and things that mean a lot to you. That takes a lot out of you– and, I think, if you try to do that record again, you’re just trying to do that record again.
Chris: Yes, I think that’s very sage.
Leigh: Well, Thanks. So, you know, we want to continue doing this and continue to have fun doing this.
Chris: Well, that’s great, man. I’m going to let you say whatever else you want to say about this upcoming performance, then I’ll let you go.
Leigh: Ah, I’m just looking forward to getting’ back and visiting with those folks. They’re some of the best people we ever get to hang around. It’ll be a good time.