Note: Read the interview with Eric Gibson and Mike Barber.
D: I notice your schedule is pretty broad. After Tennessee, there is Georgia, California then Germany before coming back to the HVBA concert on April 17th.
L: We’ll be moving around quite a bit. Some years we might have a string of dates together in a region but in bluegrass you take the dates as they come
D: Guitar is your favorite instrument?
L: Yeah. It’s the only one I play well (chuckle) so it would have to be my favorite! I’ve been playing guitar since I was 11 or 12. My dad and mom got me my first Martin guitar when I was 13 and that hooked me, an old D-28.
D: Did you try to play other instruments?
L: I played fiddle when I was 14 or 15 for a while. I can’t play the banjo at all. I play a little bit of bass. A little tiny bit of mandolin but not enough to say I’m proficient at all.
D: How did you get started on guitar?
L: I learned from Eric O’Hara. He’s not a bluegrass musician but good enough to get me started on the instrument.
D: Which guitarists do you appreciate?
L: So many good guitar players in bluegrass today including Brian Sutton, Tony Rice and newer players that I admire like David Grier, and Jim Hurst is awesome. I admire Mark Knopfler’s playing a lot and his songwriting. I listen to a lot of things outside of bluegrass and get some ideas there.
D: One of my favorite songs that you wrote is “The Open Road.” Can you tell me a little about writing that song?
L: I was just sort of picturing a guy with a girl in a convertible. I spend a lot of time on the road and that phrase keeps sticking in my mind. You know, not that it’s not a lot of fun riding around with Mike Barber and Eric Gibson in the car, but a thought of driving around with a beautiful girl just kept coming back to me.
D: When you wrote that song, it was on the Bona Fide CD. Is that where the name came from? Your lyric in “The Open Road,” “She’s bona fide, she’s the number one”.
L: Yeah. It was after the movie, Oh Brother Where Art Thou came out—I like that line that Holly Hunter said, “Well he’s bona fide.” That might have played a part…
D: How did you decide on the rhyme scheme for “The Open Road?”
L: That song just came together. We were writing with Tim O’Brien and I had what he described as the perfect rhyme; it was the same word that follows the next line. I say, “She’s a number 1, And we smile through every mile we make, Every single one.” It was what I wanted to say and I couldn’t think that it worked as well or even close, so the perfect rhyme is the same word! It’s gone by people for 10 years without them saying anything so I’ll fess up right now!
D: What about the melody for that song?
L: I don’t know where that came from. They sorta just dance in your head a little bit you know. I’ve never really tried to craft a melody. In my experience it’s already there. One melody line leads to the next one immediately and I never really have to think about where it’s going. If I think too hard it usually means there’s something wrong with the previous one.
I like to make melodies that are sort of parallel and differ slightly. Like I said, they’re usually there already and I’m sorta getting them out there. They’re just coming out.
D: How do figure out the arrangement of a song that is recorded at the last minute like “Farm Of Yesterday?”
L: Well again it’s what feels most natural. Arranging should be natural and logical and if you’re lucky you might have a few little surprises in there. You don’t want it to sound arranged in a sense that, “Oh there’s a bump, or a rhythmic bump or there’s a stop there.” Eric sort of had it crafted in his head just from writing it. I don’t know whether he or Joe came up with that little counter melody that starts the song…
That sort of sets the tone for the instrumental accompaniment or the mood that the rhythm section was going to present. It’s not a forceful song; in a sense, I think lyrically it’s forceful. It tells a great story and I think all the music logically and naturally supports the story. And if that musician can get in the same emotional spot by listening to the lyrics or delivery of the song from the vocalist, then everything works out pretty good generally. And I think that’s why that came out quickly and easily and has some impact emotionally for a lot of people.
D: Is there someone in your group that directs the harmony?
L: No, not really. Eric and I, being just a two-part harmony, we just lay the harmony together. Eric is singing lead on that and I just laid the harmony with him. We may adjust the harmony a little bit as far as how our phrasing goes. He might say, “Why don’t you phrase it like this…”, or I might say that to him and then we both do it the same way. In recent years, the last few recordings, we’ve been recording the harmony and lead vocals simultaneously on one microphone, which is like a dual, stereo mic. We found that’s pulled the harmony together a little bit more and we get a tighter blend. It saves more time if we both sing at the same time. It might not work for everybody but it seems to work for us.
We’ve been singing together like that for so long live and even just jamming together that it makes sense to us but might drive some people crazy.
D: Is there a CD that might be considered a turning point for the Gibson Brothers?
L: I think Bona Fide was, I really do. You know, we worked on a record in Nashville in the late ‘90s that never came out and it was a real frustrating period for us. Frustrating in the sense that the industry was not welcoming us with open arms. There was a lot of sitting around waiting for something to happen and we’re not good at that.I feel like we put that record out, you know–it was our first record with Sugar Hill Records, which at the time was a very powerful bluegrass label. It sort of solidified the fact, well, they [The Gibson Brothers] really haven’t gone away, they’re still here, and we were able to get out all these tunes that meant a lot to us that we’d written during our hiatus. That felt like we put our foot in the right direction again.
Then I’d have to say Iron & Diamonds was sort of a turning point for us, in the sense that we went into the studio to record with the idea that we weren’t going to record anything bigger than what our bluegrass band would support on the road. It had a lot of stuff with just the two of us or three of us and other musicians filtered in. I think it gave us renewed confidence in ourselves. We could put something out that was not a five piece bluegrass band on every track.
D: I think Mike Barber supplies some great bass lines in your songs.
L: Oh yeah. He’s very much under appreciated by the outside world. But people who know what good playing means really appreciate him.
D: What do you have as a favorite bluegrass memory?
L: We’ve had a lot of them. A lot of good times. I would think the opportunity to meet and become friends with people you respect like McCoury, or Tim O’Brien, there’s just so many of them. Most people that are in this music business, this bluegrass music that we are in, if you have longevity, I think you have to be very fair to people and treat people well. Which is beneficial to us because it means the people we are working with at multi-artist shows are generally really nice people. And you get to socialize with some really cool folks who are also amazing musicians.
D: Well, thanks very much, Leigh. I wish you luck in all your travels and can’t wait to see you in April.
L: Thanks very much. We’ll see you then.
I love your music I would just like to know what kind of guitar you’re playing acoustic it sounds fantastic