I reached Eric by phone while he was on the road traveling south for a few dates in Florida. I asked him about his (relatively) new Henderson guitar, brother duets, and life on the road. Always gracious, Eric is as delightful off stage as he is on it.
GH: How did you get turned on to bluegrass? Was it from your father?
EG: Yeah, my dad listened to it on the radio. Had a few bluegrass records, not a lot of them. I think the reason we ended up in bluegrass was because I just started playing the banjo, and Leigh started playing the guitar. I got turned onto Flatt and Scruggs, and then he did. And I think just the fact that we were playing bluegrass instruments lead us into the field. We liked classic country just as much, but Leigh once said that, you know, the banjo is what drove us into bluegrass. I never really thought of it like that. But, anyway, we got hooked on it early—in our teens or pre-teens—and we listened to a lot of different first generation bluegrass artists and then got into the more progressives styles as well. But cutting our teeth on the traditional stuff has informed our music more than anything.
Some people want to take the music further, and others want to stay closer to the tradition. It seems that your latest release is consciously sticking a bit closer to the roots than the branches.
Well, I honestly don’t think that there was any kind of design when we made that record. We weren’t making a statement about tradition or anything, but on the spectrum we probably lean more to the traditional end of things. I find myself listening to all kinds of music and I think there is room for it all. But, my favorite bluegrass has moss on it. The older stuff is what I like the most. I don’t think there is anything out there today that does it for me like that sound.
There are performers and writers that seem to feel that that there is only value in doing things that haven’t been done before.
I’d like to think that, with our writing, we’re doing things that haven’t been done before. Maybe not groundbreaking in some people’s view, but I’d like to think that we’re adding to it in our own way. I’d like to think that. [Laughs] I don’t know if it’s true or not, but we take pride in our songwriting and in finding strong material. And I think doing that is helping us carve out our niche in the music.
But I also think that we have our own sound, and we have a band that we’re really proud of. All the guys really trying to serve the song, and no egos. There’s not a lot of look at me stuff, it’s look at the song stuff. I like that.
Your harmonies are fantastic. What is it about brothers singing harmony? There seems to be something special there.
Leigh and I have talked a lot about that quite a bit. You learn to talk at close to the same time, from the same people. Perhaps it’s just they way you pronounce things, or the timbre of your voices. It’s hard for people who aren’t siblings to get that close a blend. Some people do, but being siblings gives you a leg up.
Certainly, it seems to, as with the Louvins, the Everlys, the Carters …
I love the Louvins. They’re my favorite duet, and I think Leigh would say the same thing. We’re actually working real hard right now at that stuff, going through material from all kind of brother duets because we want to do a tribute record where we go back to songs by the Louvins, Everlys, Delmores, the Monroes—all kinds of different brothers throughout country and bluegrass history. I think it would be a fun record to make, and every time we mention it, people seem excited about it. It would be a bit of a departure for us to devote a whole album to that kind of thing. We hope to record it this spring and then it would be out in early 2015. It’s something we’ve been kicking around for ten years or more, and now just seems to be the right time to do it.
Of the covers you’ve been doing from the stage these days, which are the ones that are really working well?
We’ve been doing “Childish Love” by the Louvin Brothers. I think that’s beautiful. And, you know, “Bye, Bye Love” by the Everlys—it’s instantly recognizable and people just love it. We’ve been doing “Long Time Gone” by the York Brothers. The Everlys recorded it too, but the York Brothers wrote it. “You’re Running Wild” is going over very well.
We’ve added some songs to the show just recently, but we’ve got a bunch of others that we’re just getting ready to work up. But we agonize over these decisions [around song choice]. I don’t know if people realize that, but we really do. We want every song to have its own space, and on a record I don’t want two songs that are similar. I want them all to have their own little spot.
You’re playing a Henderson guitar. How long have you had that?
I’ve had it for about two years. Leigh’s playing one as well and they’re a matched pair, made out of the same batch of wood. It’ll be two years this summer since we got them, and they’re just getting better all the time. And they were great to begin with. We’re very fortunate to have that.
Did you have to visit Wayne Henderson all the time, and take him donuts and stuff.
[Laughs] You know all about that, huh? Yeah, we made some visits. We had a friend that just went through that. He had to find out what pie he liked. But Wayne’s so cool. I’ve never seen a more humble or more talented guy. He’s just so humble! But it would be good to be Wayne, you know? We played his festival, and just to see how much people respect him when he walks into a crowd. He just has a way about him. I feel really lucky to know him. He’s a joyful guy. Happy to be alive, and to have found what he’s really great at. And he really is.
You guys are on the road a lot, for a lot of years, and I just wonder if it gets tiresome?
There’s that Claire Lynch song, “Hills of Alabam” where she sings “tomorrow brings another town/and we’ll be on our way/we’ll hit the road and have a song/and then we’ll have nothing to say/for hours on end.” Have you ever gotten to that point? Do you ever run out of things to say?
Oh, yeah, sometimes. But most times we marvel at the fact that we still have things to say. Lots of times we’ll drop Leigh off in the Albany area and then Mike and I have got three more hours until we’re home. That’s usually how our trip ends. And we still find things to talk about. Some of them are pretty foolish. [Laughs] But there are times when there’s nothing to say, but that’s when you read, or listen to music, or think. But that is a great song. [Lynch] recorded that one at least twice, and I love both of them.
Mary Burdette: Great! Nice interview!