Review: The Gibson Brothers – Help My Brother

If you google the Gibson Brothers and you get as far as “gibson b,” the list of suggestions put forth by the mighty search engine puts the bluegrass group before the Gibson Banjo. Anyone who knows even a little about bluegrass music will tell you that this is a big deal indeed. The Gibson line of banjos are revered by bluegrass pickers the world over; the Gibson Brothers are not: at least, not yet. That’s because they believe in earning their success the old-fashioned way; touring a lot, engaging with their audience, and writing honest, heartfelt songs. These things take time.

With the release of Help My Brother, their 10th album, the Gibson Brothers ably demonstrate that they are both a long way from where they started in the borderlands of northern New York State and well on their way to cementing their reputation as one of the finest brother acts in bluegrass music.

There has been a great deal of musical water that has passed under the bridge since the esteemed IBMA voted them its emerging artist of the year in 1998. They’ve bagged a hat-full of IBMA honors since then, culminating with the 2011 Album of the Year award for this very album. Keep an eye on this year’s awards ceremony too, as I have a feeling they’ll be putting another shelf in their trophy cabinet when it’s all said and done.

Help My Brother is the kind of record a group makes after 14 years of writing, travelling, and performing with each other. With the same musicians the brothers have had for at least the last 4 years, they bring a certain maturity and self-assurance to this recording. It sounds like an album as opposed to a collection of tracks.

“Just Lovin’ You”

The Gibsons bring their tight vocal harmonies to bear here across the majority of the songs on this record; whether on their original compositions or covering the earlier brother duets such as Jim and Jesse’s “I’ll Love Nobody But You” and the Louvin Brothers’ “He Can Be Found.” We can only speculate as to the many reasons brothers who sing harmony sound so good, but with this album the Gibsons firmly establish themselves as members of that storied sub-genre of brothers who make great bluegrass music together.

Of course the brothers themselves are only two fifths of the musicians in the band. Mike Barber’s bass, Clayton Campbell’s fiddle and Joe Walsh’s mandolin are an equally important part of the sound they have honed so well. Each song features an abundance of accomplished musicianship and yet the playing never once overpowers the song. Bluegrass music is well known for its feats of individual musical virtuosity but it’s the song and the songwriting that’s on display here and the record is better for it.

In music, as in life, a little success can go a long way. In this case, the group’s growing reputation in the business means that bluegrass notable names like Alison Brown (banjo), Claire Lynch (vocals), Mike Witcher (dobro) and Ricky Skaggs (vocals) all willingly lend their talents here, but there are no egos to be heard. Only good songs performed honestly and with feeling. It takes a natural born song writer to take a weighty subject and turn out an uplifting song and there are several examples on this recording. The bleakness of “One Car Funeral” about a man with no one to cry for him, the quiet desperation of “Talk to Me” dealing with a relationship’s breakdown in communication and the introspection from reflecting on their family’s past, present and future in “Safe Passage” all showcase the brothers’ aptitude for tackling serious issues and still getting the listener singing along.

There’s something for everyone on this album: gospel and secular; old and new; original and cover. The band pays homage to the traditions of bluegrass music as well as polishing their own distinctive style and sound. Every once in a while I got the feeling they were holding something back and could take it up a notch in terms of speed and energy but that would probably detract from the overall vibe of the album.

Help My Brother is likely the best album the Gibson Brothers have produced thus far. Like other records of theirs, it references their upbringing on a dairy farm. They are proud of their rural roots and rightly so. Farms and successful music careers are run on hard work. The Gibson Brothers deserve all the success that is no doubt coming their way.

Compass Records

Iain Birchwood

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