Bluegrass music wouldn’t be bluegrass music without the brother duet. From the earliest days of country music on, the tight, intuitive harmonies that seemed to come naturally to so many boys with a stringed instrument and a sibling became the sound that defined the genre and the one that subsequent generations of musicians would try to emulate, whether they were related to each other or not.
It makes sense, then, that the Gibson Brothers, for their 12th album – Brotherhood – have chosen to cover 15 songs previously recorded by other brother acts. These are carefully curated tributes to the duos that inspired and influenced the young Gibsons, shaping their own sound and commitment to upholding the tradition.
Any bluegrass fan will recognize some – though not all – of the names of the original recording artists in the liner notes. Songs by the Everly Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, and the Monroe Brothers give the listener something comfortably familiar while tracks by the Church Brothers and the York Brothers introduce us to some of the lesser known brother acts that would, perhaps, be forever forgotten were it not for the musical sleuthing that uncovered these hidden gems.
Musically, a good number of the tracks sound like they were purposely written for the Gibson Brothers, which is testament to their ability to render a genuine interpretation of the original song. “I Have Found a Way,” recorded by the Monroe Brothers, for example, is a guitar and mandolin only offering, reflecting the way Charlie and Bill would have performed it. Conversely, their take on “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” first popularized by the Stanley Brothers, puts the song in ¾ time, giving it an up-tempo waltz vibe and giving one of the most frequently covered songs in the bluegrass canon an entirely fresh feel: no easy task.
“How Mountain Girls Can Love”
The inclusion of percussion (Sam Zucchini) and pedal steel guitar (Russ Pahl) on several tracks adds extra depth to the sound. The pedal steel on the Everly Brothers’ “Crying in the Rain” in particular lends an emotional, dramatic quality to the song.
There’s a balanced feel to the album with something to suit all tastes. There are moody ballads such as “Long Time Gone,” and more feisty up-tempo numbers like “I’m Troubled.” There are songs spiritual and secular; vintage and modern – all presented with the unifying, unmistakable vocal sound that only two brothers could attain.
“The Sweetest Gift”
Of course, all this talk of fraternal harmonizing shouldn’t prevent us from acknowledging that Eric and Leigh are ably assisted by some first-class musicians. Long-time band members Mike Barber on bass and Clayton Campbell on fiddle along with more recent addition Jesse Brock on mandolin, are equal partners in creating the poised and polished sound that has garnered the band a banjo case full of group and individual accolades.
The album is further enhanced by appearances from Ronnie Reno, formerly of the Osborne Brothers who sings the Osborne’s “Each Season Changes You” and, in a nice touch, Ronnie and Rob McCoury join Eric and Leigh in covering the Four Brothers Quartets (made up of the Webster Brothers and the Brewster Brothers) “What a Wonderful Savior is He.”
Brotherhood is an album of covers but a wholly original work. In it, the Gibson Brothers have refined their sound. Moreover, they have perfected the art of sounding like themselves which, in a genre that puts so much stock in formula, tradition and stylistic mimicry, is easier said than done.
For anyone with an interest in the history of bluegrass, as well as established fans of the band, this album is a must-have. Brotherhood is a thoughtful presentation that pays homage to a unique and vital sub-genre of music. It gives us a melodic window into where the Gibson Brothers are from and illuminates the principles that guide them as they continue their upward musical trajectory; carrying the mantle of the brother duet into the modern era. It seems certain that the other brothers would approve.
Fred Robbins: Here’s our own intimate preview of the great CD.