We Write Songs - 1/21/2016

     I’m up early this morning, too early to get the guitar out and try writing songs.  It would be a selfish act when everyone else is sleeping.  I was only in California for three and half days or so, but I have not adjusted since I have been back.  The warmth and sunshine were well worth making my sleep topsy-turvy though, a shot in the arm during this bone-chilling stretch in Northern New York. 
     Speaking of writing, I don’t know if there is anything more satisfying to me than writing a song, recording it, and performing it for an audience.  I know Leigh would say the same thing.  We have both been writing quite a bit lately.  I am so excited with the material that we are coming up with.  Our goal is to write and record an entire album of original material.   Brotherhood, our tribute to the fine brother acts that came before us, was a lot of fun and has been a good record for us in terms of sales, airplay, and critical acclaim.  However, 90% of our requests out on the road are for songs that we have written.  That says something, I think.  What a reward it is for someone to tell us that one of our songs has touched them or helped them get through a rough patch.  I know others’ songs have done that for me.  There was a span not long ago when Don Williams’ music soothed my troubled soul.  He was all I wanted to listen to, his voice and his songs like a warm blanket against a biting wind.  The thought that our songs have helped someone along the way, to help the hard times heal, makes me feel like we are doing something worthy.  I think a mixture of head and heart is where it’s at.  Joan Wernick gave us the best compliment one time when she said, “Your music is real.  It has dirt under its fingernails.”  I like that.
     There is a lot that has to go ‘right’ for a song to make it to the stage.  Once a song starts to come, my heart begins to race.  Usually I will have a little piece of melody in mind.  That always helps.  Finding a melody after all the words have been written is tough for me, so I will usually have a working melody that I can always change later.   It seems every time I pick up an instrument, if I am left alone for awhile with no interruptions, a melody will come.  I am not saying all of my melodies are good, but I am proud of a lot of them.  Then when I am in that state, a phrase might come, something that has been on my mind, something someone has said, or something completely out of the blue.  I think that is what Tom T. Hall meant when he said that songs are on the wind.  He also told me they are inside guitars.  Who am I to argue with Tom T.?   The easy part is that initial burst of energy when the first verse and chorus appear.  It is harder to write that second or third verse that measure up.  Every song is different.  Some take me years to write while others take less than an hour.  It seems these days that I do more revision, and that is a good thing. 
     I used to make the mistake of showing my songs to Leigh or Mike before the ink was dry on the page.  I would call them like a hyperventilating puppy and make them listen over the phone, always convinced I had something.  Many times I could tell in their voices that they were searching for something nice to say like, “Oh, I like that melody” or “That one line was cool.”   I always love the song when it is first written.  The question is, do I still love it the next morning?  I seldom do, admittedly.  For every keeper, I bet I write twenty duds.  The key is to never let the world hear the duds.  Also, never throw the dud away.  One line from that dud could make its way into a potential keeper.  Leigh and I have gotten pickier and pickier with our writing, especially since we’ve written with the likes of Tim O’Brien and Shawn Camp.  Those guys make every single word count.  That is what we’re trying to do as well.  When we wrote “Something Comin’ to Me” with Shawn, he read the lyrics aloud like a poem.  When it flows poetically, it will flow musically as well.
      I will admit that I run every song by Corina.  She never lies.  She never trashes a song either.  She’ll just be kind of quiet when it isn’t hitting her.  I love it when I am working on one and she says, “Where’d you get THAT?”  I know I am on to something at that point.  Kelley is funny.  If he likes one, he’ll say, “That’s good.  You should get Uncle Leigh to sing it.”  Thanks, son.    
     It am always nervous to show Leigh a new song.  I can tell immediately if he doesn’t like it.  He doesn’t come out and say he doesn’t like it, but I have known him since 1971 and I know his body language.  And he knows when I’m not crazy about one of his.  We have agreed to be honest.  Neither of us wants to be on stage singing songs we don’t love.  That is one perk of this job, singing what we want to sing.  I am sure there are times when his feelings have been hurt as mine have, but we’re not babies about it.  If he doesn’t like one, I’ll write another.  Same with him.  Leigh and I have a lot of co-writes together.  In the past, it seems our co-writes were mainly songs that one of us wrote 90% of and then needed a little help sealing the deal.  Lately, we’ve written a few nose-to-nose in the same room from the ground up.  I like that. 
     Once we both agree on a song, we bring it to the band and work up an arrangement.  We have been so lucky to have guys in the band who enjoy new material and bring it to life with their wonderful musicianship.  Sometimes we have a preconceived arrangement in mind while other times an arrangement evolves.  Mike, Clayton, and Jesse can make anything sound good, but they can make a good song sound great.
     It is scary to show a new song to the world.  Will anyone like it?  If they don’t like it at first, will it grow on them?  Have we written something worthwhile?  Have we said what we want to say?  Can they sing along?  Musicians are all insecure, but I think we’re doing something right and have made some good choices.  We have put a lot of years into this and have those songs like old friends to lean on.  We have never had any big mainstream ‘hit,’ but our songs have taken us many miles and have made us many friends along the way.  You can’t put a price tag on that.

Inspiration - 11/22/2015

     I took Mom and my son Kelley to see Skaggs, White, and Cooder, a collaboration between Ricky, the Whites, and Ry at the Flynn Theater in Burlington, Vermont on Monday night.  I had promised Kelley I would.  Following in his father’s footsteps, Kelley is a huge Skaggs fan.  He met Ricky backstage at the Podunk Bluegrass Festival several years ago, and Ricky was kind enough to let him play his prized “Peewee” mandolin, a Gibson Lloyd Loar that Peewee Lambert played on legendary Stanley Brothers recordings.  I’d always been a Skaggs fan, but he permanently sealed it that day with that act of kindness.  If you’re good to my son, you’re good to me.  I had to go to the concert, even though I left Maryland early that day after playing a gig, got home to pick up Kel and Mom, and had nearly two hours more to drive to the concert.  It was worth it.
     The whole band played and sang with such joy.  It was hard to take my eyes off Ry Cooder as so many ideas were hitting him at once and his fingers were doing their best to respond.  His playing is so “in-the-moment,” inspired and exciting.  It was great to hear Ricky on not just mandolin, but fiddle and Telecaster as well.  I marveled at Buck White, 84 years old and playing piano like a man possessed.  The Whites’ singing melted me like it always does.  Ricky’s singing, of course, was on the money as well.  It was fun to steal glances at Mom and Kelley throughout the show, to see their faces lit in enjoyment.  Ricky had invited us backstage after the show in a text earlier in the day.  My mom brought him some of her prized raspberry jam that she makes from berries she picks at home.  Ricky has lost a lot of weight and I said, “Maybe you’re staying away from stuff like this.”  He said, “I am, but this is worth eating a biscuit for.”  Mom told me later that he said to her, “Mrs. Gibson, you and your husband did a fine job raising those boys.”  He talked to Kelley about music, encouraged him, and gave him a pick.  A thousand dollars wouldn’t have made that boy happier. 
     I don’t get to sit in the audience for a lot of shows.  I play so much music that when I am off the road, I really don’t want to leave the yard.  That said, I need to do it from time to time for inspiration.  To see people like Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, and Merle Haggard, guys who have done it all, still doing their thing, still following their muse, gives me hope that I always will.  It is fun to see Del playing not only with his sons, but in other situations with people like Sam Bush and in concept shows in tribute to Woody Guthrie.  Merle is STILL writing songs as he nears 80.  It was so enjoyable yesterday to listen to Tom Petty Radio for a long drive.  He is still cranking out great records, still loves the music so much.  This is a good time in my life as I see my son immersed in music, improving and feeling that feeling like all of us get when we get the fever, like we are the first to discover fire.  I have never attained anywhere near the level of success of these heroes I have mentioned, but I think I love music as much as anyone I’ve ever met.  Eric O’Hara, the man who gave Leigh and me lessons early on, told me once that he “wanted to keep learning ‘til the day I die.”  Me, too.

Migraine Mike - 11/3/2015

     ike Barber woke up last Friday morning at the Cataloochee Ranch in the beautiful Maggie Valley of North Carolina with a migraine.  We’d played at the picturesque venue the night before, had a wonderful time playing in a fireplace setting for very appreciative people, hung for a little while and then turned in.  Mike suffers with migraines from time to time, and he has told me before that if one hit him at full force that there would be no way that he could perform a show.  As we made our way to Morganton in the van I felt so sorry for his suffering and tried not to think selfishly what we would do without him for that evening’s show.
     I watched Mike put his collapsible travel bass together and could tell it was an ordeal.  He carried the stand-up in slow motion on stage for sound check.  Luckily for us, the sound man was really good and dialed us in quickly.  Leigh sang one of the songs he sings lead on and then I sang one of mine.  Mike was playing like Mike does: right on the money.  We asked for a few adjustments in our monitors and they were quickly made.  Leigh said, “Well, we’d better play a fast one to make sure we can hold it together.”  I whispered “Poor Mike” and blasted into “Shucking the Corn.”  He drove it like he always does.  I left sound check thinking that ol’ Mike was all right if he could get through that.
     Leigh and I have been trying to write as much as we can and are getting a group of songs together that excite us, honestly. Brotherhood, an album of brother songs that we are really proud of, is a cover album.  We would like to show folks that we haven’t forgotten how to write.  I started messing around with a melody and the lyrics started coming, just like a songwriter hopes will happen.  Leigh came into my room, and his look told me that I was onto something.  He made some great suggestions and a song was written between sound check and show time.  I think it is a keeper.  I have the same feeling I had when “They Called It Music” was written, that I am a kid with a new toy who cannot wait to take it for a ride.  What I didn’t realize at the time was that Mike was in his dressing room with his face against the cool wall with the lights off, suffering yet listening.  He told me the next day that the chorus’ melody was similar to another song Leigh had written, so Leigh and I tweaked the chorus on our new song.
I was fixing my tie fifteen minutes before show time when Clayton came to my room, his face red.  “Barber is really sick.  He has been throwing up for fifteen minutes straight.  It’s bad.”  Jesse worriedly asked, “What are we going to do?”  I said, “Can you play bass?”  The Mandolin Player of the Year said, “No pressure.”  Jesse then went backstage to tune Mike’s bass in the event Mike could make it.  I was thinking that we’d have to play a show without Mike, a staple in our band and such a huge part of our sound.  I figured we’d lean heavier on stripped-down brother duets than normal.  Leigh, Clayton, Jesse, and I waited in the wings and saw Mike coming.  He looked pale and wasn’t wearing a tie, but his step told me that he was going to will his way through this.
     I have never been more proud of a band mate than I was of Mike on that night.  He pulled that fat tone and played with that metronomic timing that I hope we never take for granted.  I noticed that his eyes were closed most of the time and that he leaned his head up against his bass’ neck between songs, but when I closed my own eyes, I heard no difference.  I don’t know how he did it.  I don’t know why the guy never gets nominated for bass player of the year.  He belongs in that elite category, but I could say that about any of our band mates.
     Thankfully, Mike woke up feeling pretty much pain-free and he devoured his meal at a wonderful family restaurant we discovered called Adele’s like a man who hadn’t eaten in a day and a half.  We were all happy to see our old Barber back, happy and joking around.  People might not know the ribbing that everyone takes in this band I refer to as a rolling locker room.  After our show the next night in Raleigh, in which Mike had his old bounce back, Leigh said to Mike as we left the stage, “I think you play better sick.”  Laughter ensued.

Honorary Doctorates - 5/2/2015

     Leigh and I will be presented with honorary degrees of doctor of fine arts by the State University of New York at SUNY Plattsburgh on May 16th.  A lot has been running through my mind as the date approaches.  As with any achievement, my first thought was, “Wow, I wish Dad could have seen this.”  I know he’d have chuckled and made some kind of joke about it, but I also know that deep down he’d have been proud.  Mom has always been easy to impress.  Maybe too easy, but I love her for it.  Dad used to pick on her about “puffing up like a peacock” over anything Leigh, Erin, and I did.  Dad was, at least outwardly, harder to crack.  He’d have attended the ceremony, too, I think.  I graduated from Plattsburgh State in 1993 but did not attend the graduation ceremony.  Where was I? Picking stones with Dad, doing spring’s work on the farm.  Ask Leigh about that the next time he says I was more an observer than a worker on the farm.
     Mom and Dad made a lot of sacrifices so that we get to do what we do for a living today.  Mom brought us to lessons for a year and half at Dick’s Country Store in Churubusco in the early 80s with the wonderful Eric O’Hara.  He was fresh out of college and had a lot of patience for a couple of pre-teen farm boys.  Our parents listened to us practice and I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant for the first few years.  We went to our grandparents’ house on many a Friday and Saturday night, and they helped fuel our progression.  Our Finlayson aunts, uncles, and cousins would often be there, and the stories we heard between the songs would make my sides hurt.  There was always laughter.  We also started playing in church and Reverend Finley encouraged us to start singing because “words are important to people.”  The congregation was patient and encouraging.  As we improved on our instruments, our parents made sure that we would get better instruments.  I remember attending a one-day festival with Leigh and a veteran musician kind of shaking her head that a fourteen year-old had a Martin.  That guitar was purchased from Dick Decosse, our old friend and supporter, at Dick’s Country Store.  I remember coming home from school to find a 1976 Gibson RB-250 banjo on the bed in our music room ordered from Gruhn Guitars, all the way in Nashville, Tennessee. I remember playing that banjo for a few years not wanting to admit to Mom and Dad that it had a disappointing sound.  Many instruments made in the 70s were subpar, but I knew the sacrifice they had made to buy me what they thought would be a wonderful banjo.  One Saturday morning a few years later, I played a Flatiron at Dick’s.  I came out to the truck and told Dad about it.  He asked, “Is it better than your Gibson?”  I told him that it was.  
     “Do you really need it?”
     “I think I do.”  
     Dad kind of grimaced, but he worked something out with Dick and bought the banjo for me.  He sold a cow to help pay for that banjo, the same as he did to help get his little sister back home from Florida at one point.  Our father did a lot of great, selfless things that no one knows about.  He did them quietly.  There is honor in that.  I now feel guilty for asking for that banjo, but I made good use of it and played quite a few shows with it.
     I am proud that whatever Leigh and I have accomplished has been together.  We are a team.  We slept in the same room on the farm, slept in the same dorm room at college, and often room together now on the road.  We get along very well for a pair of brothers so close in age.  We rib each other a lot on stage, but I am so proud of Leigh and love working with him.  His lead singing and guitar playing is so soulful, and the power in his tenor still makes me smile after all these years.  The guy can write a song, too.
     I am also proud that the State of New York, not known for being a bastion of bluegrass, is recognizing what we do as a ‘fine art.’  Truth is, New York has a lot to proud of for what it has contributed to the bluegrass tradition.  Tony Trischka, Bela Fleck, Bill Keith, Claire Lynch, Smokey Greene, Junior Barber, and many more have made their mark.  The Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival is one of the best in the world, an event more than a festival.  Bill Knowlton has had a bluegrass radio program in Syracuse for 45 years!  Yeah, he’s a curmudgeon who wears funny clothes and has a strange affinity for cowbells, but we like him.  Yeah, I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder growing up when kids would make fun of the banjo, but the genre in which the instrument flourishes is being shown great respect here.  


Brotherhood - 1/27/2015

Leigh and I have been kicking around the idea of recording a tribute to the brother acts who have paved the way for us to be able to do what we do.  We decided that now is the time.  Brotherhood will be released officially on February 24.  When word got out about our album’s direction, brother duet aficionados started to send us material we had never heard before.  Thanks to Phillip Wells, Ken Irwin, and Walt Saunders, we were able to cull through material from acts like the Webster Brothers, Brewster Brothers, Bailey Brothers, Bailes Brothers, Carlisle Brothers, Church Brothers, Lilly Brothers and York Brothers while on our own we dug deeper into familiar-to-us acts like the Louvin Brothers, Everly Brothers, Blue Sky Boys, Jim and Jesse, Osborne Brothers, Delmore Brothers, Stanley Brothers, and Glaser Brothers.  We learned a lot and feel that our singing has reached a new level thanks to this process of examining what it is that makes a brother act special.  We tried to include songs by as many brother acts as possible, but, in the end, we recorded what we felt best suited our voices and our band.  Speaking of our band, this record would not be what it is without the wonderful musicianship of Mike Barber, Clayton Campbell, and Jesse Brock.  Musicians like this make us want to sing.

1.  Bye Bye Love – We sang this as kids on the farm when Uncle Bob Gibson brought us some Everly Brothers material.  We tried it on stage finally for the first time last January at the Jekyll Island Bluegrass Festival.  The crowd really responded to it.  We were saddened, however, when a man came up to the merch table and told us the news that Phil Everly has passed that very day.  Nobody ever had a smoother blend than Don and Phil.

2.  The Sweetest Gift – We first heard the Seldom Scene’s version of this classic number popularized by the Blue Sky Boys and Bailey Brothers.

3.  Angel With Blue Eyes – We had never heard of the Church Brothers until Ken Irwin sent us some of their songs.  I’d have loved to have heard what the Johnson Mountain Boys could have done with this number, but we’re really happy with how our version came out.

4.  Each Season Changes You – We wanted to pay tribute to the Osborne Brothers, but we had never done a ‘high lead’ song before.  We brought in our buddy Ronnie Reno to kind of coach us and sing a third part with us.  Ronnie spent quite a few years harmonizing with Bob and Sonny (and later with Merle Haggard and Bonnie Owens).  He really helped make this performance special.

5.  I Have Found The Way – We listened to versions by the Monroe Brothers and the Louvin Brothers.  In the end, we decided to strip it down to just mandolin, guitar, and vocals.  Jesse Brock, always stellar, really shines here.

6.  How Mountain Girls Can Love – So many Stanley Brothers songs have been covered so well so many times.  We really struggled with which song to do.  Ken Irwin suggested re-inventing a classic, coming at it from a different angle.  Leigh jokingly said, “Yeah, let’s make “How Mountain Girls Can Love” into a waltz.  Then Leigh and I just looked at each other.  We imagined it in the vein of the Stanleys’ “Stonewalls and Steel Bars.”  We love the attitude and the groove we hooked.  We hope listeners will!

7.  It’ll Be Her – Our dad loved Tompall and the Glaser Brothers.  I remember him telling my mother, “Shannon, go to Plattsburgh and buy some Tompall and the Glaser Brothers.”  We just about wore out the record she picked up with songs like “Loving Her Was Easier’” “Mansion on the Hill,” “Busted,” and this one.  I don’t think we realized how much we were influenced by them until we started to record this.

8.  What A Wonderful Savior Is He – Ronnie and Rob McCoury told us late last winter that they had heard Eddie Stubbs play a Brewster Brothers song on the radio that just floored them.  Unfortunately, they couldn’t remember the title.  Not long after that conversation, our friend Phillip Wells sent us a song recorded by the Brewster Brothers and Webster Brothers together as the Four Brothers Quartet.  Leigh played the song for the McCourys on a van ride from Cumberland Caverns to Nashville a few weeks later, and Ronnie said, “That’s it!  That’s the song we heard.”  We just had to record our version of the Four Brothers Quartet with Ronnie and Rob.

9.  Long Gone – Phillip Wells strikes again.  This catchy tune was recorded by the York Brothers.  I was telling Ricky Skaggs about them and he said, “I’m related to them.”  

10.  The Eastbound Train – We learned this sad story song from a Doc Watson record many years ago.  The Blue Sky Boys popularized it originally.

11.  Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes – Jim and Jesse were the first brother act that we really paid attention to.  They always sang so well together, had great bands, and chose wonderful songs.  This is one of them.

12.  Seven Year Blues – The Louvin Brothers are our favorite brother duet, so we had to include something by them.  The Webster Brothers version of this song at least rivals Ira and Charlie’s version.  I love Clayton’s mournful fiddle on this one.  He sounds almost like a bagpipe on the choruses.

13.  Long Time Gone – The Everly Brothers popularized this song, but the York wrote and recorded it originally.  We first heard it by bluegrass heroes the Nashville Bluegrass Band.

14.  I’m Troubled I’m Troubled – We learned this from a Blue Sky Boys recording but recently heard a version by the Lilly Brothers that we really love.

15.  Crying in the Rain – We have had fans tell us many times over the years that we should try some Everly brothers songs.  I don’t know why we waited so long.  Our voices seem to fit their songs.  Leigh pushed for this beauty, and I’m glad I listened.

     We are really proud of this album.  We hope that it does well enough that we can do Brotherhood 2 someday and include even more brother acts.


It's a Wonderful Life - 12/16/2014

     I was telling my friend Tommy Venne that musicians get spoiled.  You know the scene at the end of “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where Jimmy Stewart is surrounded by people with smiling faces, hugging him and patting him on the back?  He knows that he is appreciated and feels bad for ever having complained about his lot in life.  All is right with the world for that moment.  We get to experience that feeling on a semi-regular basis.  Of course, human frailty creeps in and overcomes that spirit eventually, but the charge of it kept me up until 2:30 in the morning after our hometown Gibson Family North Country Christmas on Saturday night.  I still haven’t come down from the high.
      I am so proud of how the folks in Ellenburg Depot behaved that night.  They came in from the cold and from a week of heavy snow ready for a good time.  Northern Adirondack Central School’s auditorium was packed, and people were having trouble finding seats.  Katy Daley, award-winning radio personality from Washington, D.C., was on hand.  We were lucky to have her emcee the event, and she later remarked to me, “No one was sour.  There were no raised voices.”  I looked out and saw people standing and had the idea of asking people if they wanted to sit on stage with the band like I’d seen on the Grand Ole Opry and Prairie Home Companion.  A dozen people cheerfully volunteered and things got a little less crowded out front.
     Corina had decorated the stage area beautifully.  She just has an eye for that sort of thing.  When I mentioned it to her, she jumped at the chance.  My mom, dressed in Christmas red, sat beaming beside her in the crowd.  I marvel at what a wonderful person she is.  Most people feel that way about their mother, but I know it to be true.  She has never let me down even once.  Her track record is perfect.  In this season of Peace, she is the greatest peace-maker I know.  Someone said to me just yesterday, “She makes me feel calm.”  Me, too.  She and Katy Daley had made a basket of amazing cookies and raffled them off, raising almost $500 for Ellenburg Senior Housing.  I could see Mom’s pride in the feat.  I was happy to see Delbert Hart, one of my best friends growing up and a good-hearted man, take home the cookies.
     Many Christmas songs are difficult, and the fact that we dust them off once a year can make such a show challenging.  We had a few little bumps along the way, but the audience didn’t seem to mind.  You could hear a pin drop on the slower songs and feel electricity during the more raucous numbers. Mike Barber pulled double duty on bass and as soundman.  His son Robert ran the front of house sound and did an admirable job.  Our old friend Sam Zucchini played drums beautifully.  With Leigh and me, those guys represented our core band through the night.  Leigh played guitar and I played banjo, acoustic guitar, and a little electric guitar.  Leigh calls my Fender Telecaster my “midlife crisis.”  I’m just having fun and it’s less expensive than a Corvette.   Brother and sister team Tom and Julie Venne, who usually play in a bluegrass group called Beartracks, joined us as guests.  They sing and play beautifully together and have a great energy that really added to the show.  Our sister, Erin Gibson LaClair, joined us as well (more about her later).  Finally, my son Kelley played mandolin on a few songs and sang a verse of “Silent Night” with us.  I was more than a little proud.  
     Erin is such a good singer with a pure, angelic voice.  People around home just love her.  She has had some vocal issues the past few years and had not been singing in public, but I coaxed her to do a few songs with us.  She performed like I knew she would.  We couldn’t resist a prank though.  I asked her to sing one song at the piano all by herself as a change of pace.  She chose “The First Noel.”  She texted a few hours before the show that she was having second thoughts.  “I haven’t played piano in public since 1995.”  I reassured her that she was a ham like her brothers and that she would deliver when push came to shove.  She was doing just that, playing and singing soulfully, mesmerizing the audience.  The mood was changed though when Mike, Leigh, and I walked out on stage to listen.  Mike and Leigh were wearing bizarre winter hats and I had the ugliest green Christmas sweater ever.  Erin’s performance halted as she crumbled in laughter.  The audience did as well.  Just before she resumed her performance, she said, “They are beasts!”  A lot of people would have been angry at us for disrupting a performance, but she just laughed it off.  It made me love her even more.
     We are hoping to make this a holiday tradition in the North Country.  People went home smiling and I think more in the Christmas Spirit than they did before the show started.  I know I did.  It’s a wonderful life.


Look Good/Play Good (I know that's bad English) - 11/26/2014

     People often comment about how we dress up for stage.  In 2008 or so, we started wearing dark suits with ties onstage.  I had seen a picture of Bob Dylan and his band in Rolling Stone at the time wearing dark suits, and it looked so crisp that it really caught my eye.  Johnny Cash’s stark look always appealed to me as well.   Dressing up is nothing new for bluegrass bands; so many of our heroes like Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, and Del McCoury had always done so.  However, we had gone through a stage of everybody in the band wearing whatever felt comfortable.  I see pictures of us from those days and cringe now. We all had different ideas about what looked ‘right.’   I don’t think the guys in the band were too crazy about the change at first.  However, every man enjoys it now.  Clayton will say cheerfully after he sets down whatever book he is reading in the green room, “Well, it’s time to suit up.”  Mike Barber is almost always the last one to dress.  He was probably the least happy about the change, but now has embraced it.  That man knows how to tie a tie, in several different styles.
     We have talked about it as a band and all agree that dressing up makes us feel like we’re ready to go to work.  I just feel more confident in a sharp black suit and blue tie (at my wife’s urging, I always wear blue.  I wore a gray tie for a television taping.  Her response was, “Gray brings out the gray in your hair.  You should wear blue”).  Left to my own devices, I am a mess.  Leigh has joked about how many Dallas Cowboys shirts I have.  I got picked on by the other teachers when I was in the profession for one day wearing a striped shirt with a spotted tie.  Even I can’t mess up a dark suit and simple tie.  
     I felt we were on the right track with this idea at Thomas Point Beach in Brunswick, Maine.  I had been vacationing with my family and had arrived at the festival ahead of them.  I turned around to see the guys walking towards me all dressed up.  I was taken aback by it.  I thought, “Wow.  I’m a part of that.”  The word TEAM entered my mind.  I’m a baseball guy and always took pride in looking sharp on the field.  Coach Shutts was old school (“look good/play good”) and I like to think we are as well.  I like our team a whole lot.  I feel confident stepping on any stage with these guys and I think our ‘uniform’ helps enhance that feeling.
     We get comments sometimes like “Oh, the Men in Black are here” or “Where’s the funeral?”  I’ve heard “This is bluegrass, not Wall Street.”  Some guy saw our new album cover and said we looked like we were more of a law firm than a bluegrass band.  That’s fine.  Not everybody is going to love you no matter what you do.  And I have to say that some of my all-time favorite bands went in the opposite direction dress-wise and it totally worked for them.  Sam Bush just looks RIGHT in a baseball jersey killing it up there.  If it’s really hot, we’ll take the suit coats off.  We’re not martyrs, and I don’t think anyone in the crowd enjoys seeing the performer uncomfortable on stage.
     Award-winning radio personality Katy Daley likes our dress.  She said, “I always dress up to go to a show.  It’s nice to see the band make an effort.”  I think this works for us.  Like I said, it’s hard to mess this up.  This isn’t trendy.  I want our look to be timeless.  I want our dress to reflect the way I hope we sound.


Grand Ole Opry, 1/31/14

I had two dreams as a young boy: pitching at Yankee Stadium and playing on the Grand Ole Opry.  One out of two ain’t bad.  We hadn’t played the Opry in several years, so we looked forward to Friday night with great anticipation.  As Opry guests, our dressing room was ‘The Bluegrass Room.’  The room was adorned with pictures of so many heroes like Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Jim and Jesse, the Osborne Brothers, Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, and Alison Krauss.  No pressure, huh?  The whole band was light-hearted and grateful as we waited for our turn.  John Conlee, whose voice I have always loved on songs like ‘Rose-colored Glasses’ and ‘I Don’t Remember Loving You’, came by and shot the breeze in a very friendly manner.  Joe Bonsall, the Oak Ridge Boys’ tenor singer, stopped by and talked banjo with me.  As he picked my Deering, I couldn’t help but think, “An Oak Ridge Boy is picking my banjo!”  I told him that I looked forward to their set, and he said, “Oh, we’re feeling it tonight.”  I have always loved their wall-of-sound harmonies and couldn’t wait to hear them live.

We tuned up, made sure our ties were straight and the like, and headed for the backstage area.  Hall-of-Famer Connie Smith belted out one of her many hits onstage while we waited.  When she finished we were ushered to the stage and set up behind the microphones as John Conlee announced us.  Leigh noticed that I was situated in ‘The Circle,’ the piece of hallowed stage from the Ryman.  I looked at Leigh and grinned.  He stuck his foot inside like he was dipping his toe in the water in mock jealousy.  As the crowd applauded, we broke into the Everly’s “Bye, Bye Love.”  So many thoughts went through my mind that it is hard to explain.  It was almost like I was watching another band perform.  You try not to get too caught up in the moment, because bottom line, you have a job to do.  That being said, it’s the Opry!  If you can’t get up for that, you don’t have a pulse or any sense of Country history.  I doubt the awe will ever leave my system.  I don’t want it to.  The number went over well.  We followed it with ‘Ring the Bell’, the song that really made a difference in our career.  Chet O’Keefe’s song came along just when we needed it.  Not that it was a million-seller or anything, but the song grabbed the bluegrass world’s attention and kind of turned the tide for us.  I was thinking about this when I suggested we play it on the Opry.  

 I hung out with Jesse Brock in the wings as the Oak Ridge Boys took the stage.  He is so positive, a joy to be with on the road.  We just laughed and grinned as the Oak Ridge Boys proceeded to blow the roof off the Opry.  I didn’t realize that Leigh and Mike were standing behind us.  Afterwards, I asked Leigh, “Did you notice how they walked on that stage?”  He said, “Yes, with confidence, not cockiness.”  Think of all the shows those guys have played.  They took the stage like they belonged there, as if to say, “We’re glad we’re here and this is going to be FUN.”  Pros, man.   I can’t wait to play there again on March 8th.  Who needs Yankee Stadium?


Knuckler - 11/6/2013

     It was the last practice before the Ithaca College Varsity Baseball team’s spring trip to Florida.  I was a freshman, pumped about being part of the squad.  I felt like one of the guys.  I even had a nickname.  Gibby.  I had done a lot less traveling than most of my teammates.  I found myself thinking about the bus ride to New York City and the flight to Florida.  I’d never been on a plane before and was nervous and excited.  As I waited for my turn to throw off the mound in that gym, the thought of playing baseball in the Florida sunshine warmed me.  I had sold raffle tickets back home during winter break to offset the costs of the trip, letting everyone know I was a varsity player.  I had pitched a few innings with the varsity during the fall season and couldn’t wait for the spring campaign.  I’ll admit I was proud of myself.  My baseball dreams were coming true.
     Coach Valesente walked over to me and said, “We’re not taking you to Florida.  It came down to you and Malone, the lefty.  We need that lefty arm out of the pen.  We’re going to start you on the JV and I want you to work on that knuckleball.  I’d like to see you use it 75% of the time.”
      I nodded and tried not to show my disappointment.  No airplane.  No Florida.  No Varsity.  I wanted to cry and did later on in a telephone conversation with Dad.  I had to be tough, especially around Coach Val, a tall imposing figure who could stare wholes right through you.  “Work on that knuckleball during your session,” he said.  A catcher named Ryan who had also been informed that he was not making the trip was told to catch me.  Practice was winding down, and a crowd was gathering.  My knuckleball was dancing all over the place and was hitting everything but young Ryan’s glove.  A properly thrown knuckleball has a mind of its own as the ball does not spin.  It is pushed off the fingertips and is subject to wind, temperature, humidity, and who knows what else.  When it rotates it is easily hit, a meatball.  When it is thrown properly, it isn’t even catchable.  On this particular day, I had it going.  I don’t know if I had a little extra to prove or if I had nothing to lose.  I had already lost my trip and my spot on the team.  I didn’t even know why Coach Val bothered having me throw that day.  I wasn’t part of his plans and never would be.  I didn’t trust the knuckleball.  There is no controlling it, and I had given up the longest homerun of my life with it the previous spring against previously-undefeated Whitehall in the state tournament, the only run given up in a victory for Northern Adirondack Central.  I naively considered myself a power pitcher, plus I liked my curve better.  My foolish nail-biting habit was something I could control even less than the knuckler, and nails are needed to properly execute the pitch.  But for now, the pitch was dipping, dancing, and diving, frustrating poor Ryan.
     “Get out of there and let me catch him,” said Jeff Legase, one of the varsity catchers.  I liked Jeff, but he was kind of cocky, a good-looking guy and very sure of himself.   “I caught a better knuckler than that in summer ball.”  By now, this was the only show in the gym.  Usually practices were meticulously crafted, timed to the minute, but this one was just kind of winding down, the JV pitcher throwing to the Varsity catcher.  Coach Val was now standing on my right.  Legase crouched and I proved him right with the first pitch, a little wobbler that floated subserviently to his glove.  But the next one…I decided to aim right at his facemask.  I pushed off the pitching rubber a little harder with my right leg and let loose the best knuckler of my life somehow.  Legase’s glove moved to where he thought the ball would go, but the ball dropped from his facemask to his crotch at the last second.  WHOP!  The sound echoed in the gym, Legase froze, and then fell forward as agony crept in.  The gym erupted in howls of laughter.  No mercy from this crowd.  Thank God he was wearing a cup.  I heard “Yeah, Gibby!” and felt pats on my back.  “Not much of a knuckler, huh, Gaser?” someone asked.  The knuckler didn’t save the day or change Coach Val’s mind.  It did, however, lift a heavy heart for a little while.


2013 IBMA Awards - 10/1/2013

The first thought that crossed my mind as I heard “Entertainers of the Year, The Gibson Brothers” at IBMA in Raleigh on Thursday night were the words that Leigh spoke into the microphone upon reaching the podium.  “I thought last year might have been a fluke, but I guess it wasn’t.”  We hadn’t said those words to each other, but it shouldn’t surprise me; many times we’re thinking the same thing as we make this journey.  Leigh will turn to me on stage and suggest a song that we haven’t done in ages, and it is the same song that I had in mind.  We agree on most things: song selection, business decisions, the New York Yankees.  None of this would have been possible without brotherhood, and I don’t believe it would be as satisfying.  What do I know?  I have nothing else to compare it to.  I think I’m right though.

We couldn’t have kicked if any other name was called out the other night.  All of those acts are wonderful.  They all work hard and put on wonderful shows.  If someone would have told me ten years ago that we would be awarded Entertainer of the Year for two years in a row, I would have laughed.  For some reason, I have always had a nagging feeling that those kinds of things happen to other people, that somehow we’re not worthy.  My wife said to me a few years ago, “You need to start seeing yourself a certain way if you want other people to see you that way.”  That doesn’t mean that you get a big head and start being a prima donna.  However, I think she is right.  I think that Leigh and I have surrounded ourselves with such good players (and guys) that we can’t help but feel good about ourselves when we hit the stage.  We made a conscious effort a few years back to start wearing suits unless the heat was unbearable.  That doesn’t work for everyone, but it works for us.  It feels to me like a baseball team that has its uniform just right – when I suit up, I’m ready to do my job.  I know how I felt in the audience years ago seeing Del and the Boys.  When they hit the stage, you know you were in for a show.  Part of it was reputation, but part of it was they looked like they owned the stage with their appearance, that they felt good about being there.  Of course, their virtuosity and soul didn’t hurt either!

Leigh said something the other day that I have been thinking for a time but had never voiced.  I heard him say to someone who had remarked that we look comfortable on stage, “It’s the place I feel most safe.”  Hit me hard.  It is exactly what I feel.  It is something that can be controlled to a degree.  The outside world can be blocked out and problems can be left behind for the ninety minutes or so that we are there.  It is my hope that it is how our audience feels as well.  I have had people tell me that our music makes them feel, helps them heal.  That is heady stuff, but as we get older, I am drawn to songs that are uplifting.  We do our share of sad songs as well, but I want people to head home with a smile.  I remember playing in my grandparents’ kitchen and not just picking and singing, but having fun and making everyone laugh.  I used to think, “It is too bad we can’t take this to the stage.  People might like it.”  Well, foolishness has crept into our show, and people DO like it.  We don’t ever want to get carried away and act like a bunch of clowns, but I want things to be light-hearted.  We don’t script things, and I think people like the natural banter between us.  I never know what Leigh is going to say, and neither does the audience.  Whether he is making fun of my ‘out-of-work weatherman hair’ or I am making fun of his lack thereof, it’s all in good fun, and folks with a sense of humor get that we are real live brothers just having fun.

I should say that IBMA was rocking in Raleigh, that the city opened its heart to our organization, wide open.  There were so many smiling faces gathered in one city last week.  No grins were wider than mine as I met two of my biggest heroes for the first time, Tony Rice and Bela Fleck.  They were just as nice as I hoped they’d be.  And by the way, Tony Rice’s induction into the Hall of Fame was one of the most moving moments I have witnessed.  People will be talking about it for years to come.  A personal highlight for me was harmonizing with Del McCoury downtown after the show, a real ‘pinch me’ moment for yours truly.

We are so thankful to everyone who played a part what has happened in our career: band mates, fans, record labels, radio, our agent, new management, but most of all God and family.  We are excited to keep this going and to see where it all leads.  Thank you for giving us the confidence to be who we are and for making us feel that we are no fluke, that we are where we belong, in the right place and time.  We will take nothing for granted and try to make better music than we’ve ever made.  This is going to be fun.