In a March column about the “big tent” of bluegrass I discussed some of the reasons that I don’t care for a lot of contemporary bluegrass. My main complaint was that, in my opinion, many modern songs are poorly written, full of clichés and cheap sentiment and lacking any originality and vivid images or turns of phrase.
In contrast to such material, and keeping the focus positive, I cited three songs written and performed by the Gibson Brothers (Leigh and Eric) as examples of well done contemporary bluegrass. I said that the Gibson Brothers, “make music that is solidly rooted in the past but nonetheless is contemporary. The Gibson Brothers perform their songs in stunning brother duet harmony. And the songs, many written by the Gibsons, often explore classic country and bluegrass themes in a thoughtful and original way. Recent Gibson Brothers songs like “Remember Who You Are,” “Friend Of Mine,” and “In the Ground” are good examples of modern works that, in my view, hold their own with the classics.”
In this post I would like to elaborate about the things that I like about the Gibson Brothers. This is not a review of their HVBA-sponsored appearance this past Sunday in Poughkeepsie, although I very much enjoyed that show.
First has to be the music itself. Over the past three decades, Eric and Leigh have written and recorded a large number of really good songs about many different subjects. The songs are sensitive, elegant and often deeply moving, and if one thing comes through clearly from their impressive body of work it is that the brothers are men of real substance with a deep feeling for the people and places in their lives.
Eric and Leigh write their songs individually and together and sometimes with other fine songwriters, like Shawn Camp and Joe Newberry. The following songs are a small sample of the ones that demonstrate bluegrass songwriting craft at its finest. “Something Comin’ To Me” (by Leigh and Eric with Shawn Camp) is the gentle and plaintive lament of a farmer’s son who has “been a poor boy all my life.” “They Called It Music,” written by Eric with Joe Newberry, celebrates the power of music to heal, comfort, and inspire. Eric wrote “She Paints A Picture,” a beautiful and romantic love song to his wife. You’ll wipe away a tear, maybe more than one, after cueing up that number. “Railroad Line,” written by Leigh, vividly describes the death of the singer’s town when the timber gave out and the railroad tore up the track that was the community’s lifeline. From “Mockingbird,” the brothers’ most recent recording, with more of a country flavor, comes another beautiful ballad, “Special One,” written with Dan Auerbach and David Ferguson. These songs each paint a picture evoking a deep feeling with a few very well chosen lines. You can’t ask for more than that.
The three recent songs (from the 2017 CD “In The Ground”) I mentioned in the March column merit further notice. The title track, written by Leigh, laments the passing of the family farm, where generations poured their blood and sweat “in the ground” and were buried in it. Eric’s song “Remember Who You Are” is a father’s advice to his son, who is leaving home to make his way in the world, not to forget where he came from and what he learned there. Leigh’s song “Friend Of Mine,” ostensibly about an old guitar, was inspired by Leigh’s long friendship with bassist Mike Barber. As I heard Leigh sing it, I thought of all the friends I had made in the music over many years. Good music resonates.
The Gibson Brothers pair their lyrics with melodies that blend perfectly with the feeling of the words. Both Leigh and Eric are deeply expressive singers, and powerful vocal soloists. When they sing together the effect is striking. Think of the first time you heard the Louvin Brothers or the Everly Brothers. The Gibsons’ vocal blend is distinctive, instantly identifiable, and very much their own, but you can tell they listened hard and long to the great brother duets that preceded them.
Exceptionally talented pickers themselves on guitar and banjo, the Gibson Brothers Band has included many outstanding musicians, including Mike Barber, who has played bass with the brothers since the beginning, and in the early days, Mike’s dad, dobro virtuoso Junior Barber. More recently, they have played or recorded with mandolinists Joe Walsh, Jesse Brock, and Justin Moses, dobroists Rob Ickes and Justin Moses (he’s a talented guy), and fiddler Clayton Campbell.
The Gibson Brothers grew up on a family farm in northern New York. Their hard earned bluegrass success, including back to back International Bluegrass Music Association entertainer of the year awards, shows that one need not be from the south to make compelling modern bluegrass music that honors its traditions while establishing new ones. They continue to set a very high standard.