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.


Merle - 5/15/2013

        When I am home, I really don’t like to leave unless I have to.  I am on the road so much that I just like to ‘stay put’ with my family.  If it's not Mom, baseball, or church, I don't usually leave the yard.  However, I couldn’t resist making a little trip across the border into Quebec on Friday to see my ultimate musical hero, Merle Haggard, perform in Kahnawake.  If I make it to Heaven, God is going to let me open my mouth and sound like the Hag for just a few minutes and I’ll be happy.  Adding to my admiration, he is as good a songwriter who has ever lived, in my opinion.  I cannot adequately express how I feel about him.  There’s only one Merle Haggard.  I had listened to his music my whole life, but I had never seen him live.  A friend of a friend in Merle’s organization lined me up with two VIP tickets, so I picked my seventeen year-old son up from practice and headed north.  In the car, Kelley changed into his black and red Scully cowboy shirt, blue jeans, and black Justin boots.  He was ready.  He'd been listening to Merle since birth as well.  We blasted Willie’s Place for the hour and fifteen minutes.  The kid is as nuts about classic country and bluegrass as I am.  Corina calls him my clone.  
     We arrived early and I snapped a picture of my son in front of a tractor trailer with Hag’s likeness on the side.  We planned to eat at the venue.  I hadn’t brought any cash, but I had my handy-dandy debit card wih me.  No go.  They wouldn’t accept it nor would the Kahnawake Sports Complex ATM machine.  I asked, “Would you miss a meal for Merle?”  He agreed, but we scoured the vehicle for food a few minutes later.  I ate a granola bar and Kel wolfed down some crackers.  We were ready for some music.
       Merle did not disappoint.  I marveled at the tone of his voice, his phrasing, his control.  He delivered his hits but also dug out some deep album cuts and ‘tribute’ songs to Lefty, Jimmy Rodgers, Bob Wills, and Johnny Cash.  At first, I was annoyed that everybody around me was singing along, but then I realized that it was exactly what Merle wanted.  He was feeding off the energy, and soon I was singing, too.  ‘Mama Tried’ knocked me out.  Happy tears flowed down my face as the memories flooded me.  I could not believe how great the show was making me feel.  I hardly ever sit in an audience.  This was powerful stuff.  The man had us all in the palm of his hand, and when someone yelled, “I love you, Merle!” he responded, “We love you, too, and that’s why we’re here.”  He kept going…’Sing Me Back Home’,  ‘Footlights’, ‘Rambling Fever’…I was in heaven and so was Kelley.  We all were.  At one point, Kelley put his arm around me, something my teen hasn’t done in a while.  There was no place in the world I’d have rather been at that moment.  Merle still has the fire.  There were many ovations throughout the show, but none like after his closing number, 'Okie From Muskogee',  an hour and forty minutes after he began with 'Big City.'  I yelled, “I love you, Merle!”  I meant it. 

"They Called It Music" - 3/28/2013

It has become a bit of a tradition for me to write a little blurb giving some background for each song on a new Gibson Brothers album.  It is fun for me whether anyone reads my ramblings or not.  Thanks to those who do.  I have been told by some that this helps them get into the songs even more.  “They Called It Music” was released on Tuesday.  Thanks to all who have picked up a copy already.  If you love it, tell your friends.  If not, well, let’s keep it our little secret.  I am proud of this record, of the band and of the songs.  Here’s a little of how it came to be.

1. BUY A RING, FIND A PREACHER – Joe Walsh and I were rooming together last summer in Staunton, VA, when we started this song spurred on by a conversation.  Later in the summer, Leigh helped us finish it in the van before our first set at the great Red, White, and Bluegrass Festival in North Carolina.  It tells the tale of a rambler getting ready to settle down…almost.

2. THEY CALLED IT MUSIC – Joe Newberry gave me the idea for this song and I ran with it.  Joe was listening to an old-timer play banjo and asked the man, “What did they call this style when you were a young man.”  The gentleman replied, “Son, they called it music.”  A few months after Joe told me of his encounter, I pulled off an Adirondack road and wrote the song.  I had been thinking for a while that music has been a salve down through the years, and how it was important to peoples’ lives before anyone figured out how to make a dime off it.  Think of all the great music that occurred before recording, before anyone thought to put labels on any of it.  It’s more important than any label.  Music is proof of God.

3.  THE DARKER THE NIGHT, THE BETTER I SEE – The multi-talented Joe Newberry showed us this honky-tonk ‘grass song before a show at Janet Kenworthy’s Rooster’s Wife in Aberdeen, NC, last year.  He said he wrote it with Leigh’s voice in mind.  Leigh nails it here.  Leigh nails every song these days.  I am so thankful that Joe shows us his songs first.

4.  DYING FOR SOMEONE TO LIVE FOR – Shawn Camp wrote this song with Loretta Lynn a few years ago.  I heard him sing it at the Musicians Against Childhood Cancer Festival in Ohio.  I could hear it as a brother duet and asked if we could record it.  I bugged him for two years and he relented.  Thanks, Shawn!  I think it is achingly beautiful.

5. I’LL WORK IT OUT – Shortly after I quit teaching, we were at a photo shoot.  For some reason, I decided to pour my guts out to the photographer, relaying to him my worry about the future, of taking this leap of faith into the music business full-time.  He said, “You’re a smart guy.  You’ll work it out.”  That funny little phrase has stuck my head and come back to me time and time again in the last fifteen years.  Leigh helped me finish this one.  I wrote the majority of it years ago but was never happy with the chorus, but thanks to Leigh, now I am.

6. SOMETHING COMIN’ TO ME – Shawn Camp is one of our songwriting heroes.  He’s just golden.  Leigh and I had wanted to write with him for years.  Unfortunately, our writing session came less than a month after Dad passed away.  There was a dark cloud over us, and nothing was coming.  Shawn was kind about it.  “Aw, boys, some days I just don’t have it.”  We were the ones lacking.  He excused himself and Leigh and I looked at each other disgustedly.  We’d blown our shot at writing a song with the great Shawn Camp.  I was absent-mindedly picking a melody on the guitar when Shawn re-entered the room.  “Hey, what’s that?” he asked.  I said, “Nothing.  It’s just something coming to me.”  That was all Shawn needed.  He led the way and we did get our song.  Shawn said, “We need to get your daddy in there.”  Daddy plowed the fields and worked the land/Said the crops don’t always turn out like you plan/Following behind him I learned what a man was supposed to be/Ain’t I got something comin’ to me.  Yeah.

7.  DADDY’S GONE TO KNOXVILLE – Mark Knopfler is a band favorite.  The guy just seems to do everything right.  We had always loved this song form his Ragpicker’s Dream album.  I think it makes a great brother duet vehicle.

8.  DUSTY OLD WORLD – I wrote this on a beautiful spring morning last year on a walk in the French Alps.  I had planned on singing lead on it, but at the last moment I asked Leigh to sing lead.  I think it sounds like Marty Robbins Meets Flatt and Scruggs.  I hope it does, anyway.

9.  HOME ON THE RIVER --  We had never recorded a Delmore Brothers song before and decided it was time.  They were such a wonderful brother duet that people don’t talk enough about these days.  We plan on exploring their music some more.  I love this old Gospel song.

10.  I WILL ALWAYS CROSS YOUR MIND – Our Adirondack friend Roy Hurd wrote this with Elizabeth Hill.  We actually recorded a different version of this song over a decade ago.  That version never came out.  Well, you can’t keep a good song down.  This one never left our minds.  My wife has complained that we don’t do enough love songs.  Well, here’s one, Baby.

11.  SUNDOWN AND SORROW – One of our all-time favorite bluegrass bands is Bob Paisley and the Southern Grass.  Bob and his son Danny just sang so well together and their band always had such a strong rhythm section.  I loved their grit.  We learned a bunch of their songs when we were young bluegrass pups, and this is one of them.  Danny carries on the tradition today and it is always great to cross paths with him on the Bluegrass Trail.

12. SONGBIRD’S SONG – After three sleepless nights in Denmark last spring, I wrote this song.  I was frustrated, just lying there listening to my heart beat and trying to settle my racing thoughts.  Hearing the birds each day around 4 a.m. was my cue that trying to sleep was useless.  I’d give up.  At least I got a song out of it.  I am so proud of how Leigh, Mike, Clayton, and Joe played on the record, but especially on this song.  I gave them no direction on this song arrangement-wise in the studio.  I said, “Let’s just play.”  I wanted to capture a moment.  I didn’t want anyone to overthink it.  They did great.  They helped transport me back to that lonely hotel room in Aalborg.


Goodbye, 2012 (Stuff That Works) - 12/27/2012

   Wow. What a year it has been.  It is a terrible cliche, but 'rollercoaster ride' comes close to describing 2012.  January started cold in every sense of the word.  I have tried not to dwell on the loss of our father or to hammer people over the head with it.  I know this it part of the deal, that losing those closest to us comes with the territory.  I am not special nor immune to reality.  I am dealing with it the best that I can, and that is all I can do.  I know I was lucky to have him as long as I did and now live in the hope that I will see him again some day.  You always hope you have just a little more time and wish you could have done some things better.
     In February, we attended SPBGMA in Nashville for the first time, and to our surpise we came away with three awards.  We were happy, met and played for a bunch of nice people, but I said to Leigh in the hotel room after the awards, "Where is the joy?"  Leigh wisely answered, "We lost the guy we always wanted to impress."  Numb.  Thankful, but numb.  During that time, less than a month after losing Dad, we finally got the chance to write with the great Shawn Camp.  We don't co-write with people a lot, but this is one guy we hunted down.  Wouldn't you know it, we kind of laid an egg at first.  Nothing was coming.  Shawn kindly said, "Well, boys, some days I just don't have it."  We were the ones who didn't have it, emotionally drained.  He excused himself and we looked at each other and shook our heads, disappointed that we'd blown our chance to write a song with one of our songwriting heroes.  I was fumbling around with a melody when he re-entered the room.  "Hey, what's that?" Shawn asked.  "Ah, nothing. It's just something coming to me."  He grabbed his guitar and started fooling with the melody.  Before you knew it, we were all pitching in and getting a song together.  I loved the hook, and told Shawn so.  "Well, you wrote it," he replied.  I had forgotten saying it.  My almost throwaway comment worked its way into a song called "Something Comin' To Me."  There is even a verse about Dad.  Shawn insisted, saying, "We need to get your daddy in there."  Later on, after I told Leigh how much I liked the guy, Leigh said, "Shawn's a feeler."  He felt empathy for us and helped write what I think is one heck of a song.
     A European tour in the spring was a career highlight as we played shows in Denmark, Germany, France, and Italy.  The beginning of the tour was about as low as I have ever felt.  When I left, my wife was suffering with back pain.  Even though I was off doing my job, I felt guilty for leaving her with all the home responsibilities.  I went sleepless for the first three nights in Denmark, really licking my wounds, I think.  I wrote several songs, one of which might be among my best.  I kept trying to fall asleep each night but gave up each day as the birds started singing. One morning in Denmark, I wrote "Songbird's Song." Tim O'Brien had sent Leigh a note the year before saying how much he enjoyed "Help My Brother" and encouraged us to keep 'digging deeper. ' For my own health, I don't want to dig much deeper than I did on that one.  I finally slept when we hit Germany, and I know I was much easier to put up with after that.  We ate some of the best food we'd ever had, saw amazing sights, and played in front of some wonderful people.  I will never forget trying to speak French to an audience in the Alps or Leigh mesmerizing an audience in Torino, Italy, with "Safe Passage."  That song seemed to be our 'hit' over there.  As enjoyable as it was, it was nice to get home for a little while before heading to the Yukon Territory for the second time.
     The people in the Yukon have opened their hearts to us and our music. We teach at a camp outside of Whitehorse and have played an indoor festival following the camp the past two years. I really respect the folks up there. So many of them are the epitome of rugged individualism, 'can-do' people who know how to survive and thrive in that rough and beautiful land.  This year we were even taken on a float plane ride over mountains and glaciers.  The cockpit computer kept saying "Danger. Danger."  The confident judge piloting the plane said, "Ah, don't worry about that."  We tried to act tough, but it was a little unnerving looking UP at mountain peaks from inside a little plane.  I would do it again if given the chance though.  Mike Barber was in Heaven fishing up there.  I am half-worried he'll refuse to come home after  one of these trips.
     We had our busiest summer ever, playing all over the United States and a good deal of Canada as well. When you are that busy, the time flies, but the work was a salve for Leigh and me.  The boys in the band just kept hitting it out of the park gig after gig.  I told Leigh that it felt like I was driving a Cadillac.  Mike, Joe, and Clayton are all at the top of their games, pushing Leigh and me to be better and better.  Sometimes I feel like I am playing catch-up with them.  The busy schedule was a result of years of hard work, and I really think the IBMA Awards have made us more legitimate in the eyes of a lot of folks.  We kept trying to raise the bar all summer the best we could.  Even so, it was a complete shock to win Entertainer of the Year at the IBMA Awards in Nashville in September.  We couldn't believe it. My first thought was of Dad, of how happy he would have been.  He listened to the awards with my parents' friends Chub and Shirley Moore, Mom, and Kelley the year before. It was with mixed emotions that we accepted the award, happy and sad at the same time. Kyle Cantrell and Chris Jones from Sirius XM tried to interview me immediately following the awards, but I had to ask if I could come back.  I had to call Mom and Corina and to give a prayer of thanks.  I had to gather myself.  I felt validated for giving up a teaching job fourteen years prior.  I had questioned my decision during hard times, and I am not fool enough to think the music business will ever be easy.  But for one night, at least, I felt that I was exactly where I was supposed to be.  After a few minutes, Leigh appeared and, appropriately, we did the interview together.   When we got back to the hotel room, Leigh said, "Well, Ralph, we did it."  (I don't know why he calls me that.  Dad always did, too.  I think there was a wrestler named Ralph Rotten).   I exhaled, smiled, and said, "Yes, we did."
     We ended the year by recording a new album for Compass Records.  I think we 'dug deeper' and that we have made a recording we can be proud of.  We look forward to playing these songs on stage in 2013, thankful to all who have been on this ride with us and hoping they will continue for years to come.

Last weekend at the Stone Mountain Arts Center in Brownfield, Maine, Leigh, Mike, Kelley, and Robert Barber and I jammed with Duke Levine in the green room a few hours before the show.  My favorite moment was singing Guy Clark's and Rodney Crowell's "Stuff that Works."

Stuff that works, stuff that holds up
The kind of stuff you don't hang on a wall
Stuff that's real, stuff you feel
The kind of stuff you reach for when you fall

Killer chorus, huh? My favorite verse in the song really speaks to me.  It could have been written about Leigh and me:

I got a pretty good friend who's seen me at my worst
He don't know if I'm a blessing or a curse
But he always shows up when the chips are down
That's the kind of stuff I like to hang around

Leigh is good stuff.


The Big Fight - 10/5/2012

I was tired of being picked on. I was a seventh grader, unhappy about being a fat kid, and reminded daily of it on the bus by a senior who wasn't so skinny himself. Every day was the same. He'd greet me with a name that still makes me feel thirteen and sad when I hear it and that I won't repeat now. My father was tired, too. Tired of me coming home every day crying about it. He said, "Do you want to do something about it?" I told him I did.  He said, "Tomorrow, if he calls you a name, I want you to pound him until they have to pull you off.  That will make him stop." Outwardly, I put on the bravado. Sure, Dad. I'll do it. My uncles, Jack and Dolan, were notorious fighting men, and I wanted to follow in their footsteps. Inside, I was scared to death.  I knew I would need Leigh's help. I needed some practice before the Big Fight.

We had some boxing equipment that had belonged to my Grandfather Gibson in an old trunk.  I found the musty-smelling gloves and ragged headgear and talked Leigh into sparring with me.  We'd had plenty of fights without any gear before and would have a few later on, but for this Leigh would have a disadvantage.  I made him wear the lefthanded glove, but I did let him use the headgear.  For further protection, Leigh stuffed pillows under his shirt. I pounded on my poor brother until we were both tired out in the bedroom we shared upstairs in that old farmhouse. Leigh was entirely game.  My little brother was 'training' me.  Dad had no idea that this was going on and I wonder now if he thought I'd actually go through with it.

The next morning, Leigh and I waited silently for the bus at the south end of the driveway.  I could see the red lights flashing as it picked up the Ryan girls a half-mile away at their grandparents' home.  Adrenaline rushed through me as the bus approached, my heart pounding in my head.  Leigh got on first and I was about two steps past the busdriver, our neighbor Patty Cole, when my tormentor gave his usual greeting.  He was sitting next to the window with his cousin, also a senior, beside him.  Luckily for me, no one was sitting in the seat directly in front of him.  I tossed my Dallas Cowboys bookbag and went to town.  I had an unfair advantage and I knew it.  There was no way he could win. If a senior beats up a seventh grader, there is no living it down.  If he loses to a seventh grader...well, like I said, it wasn't fair.  He was like a turtle on his back.  He couldn't move, and his cousin was too in shock to help.  I don't know how many times I hit him, but his nose was bleeding, his lip was bleeding, and his glasses were on the floor.  Nobody had to tear me off; I knew I'd done enough.  I made my way back to my seat two-thirds of the way back before he gathered himself and followed me.  "What the $%##@ is wrong with you?" he yelled.  I don't know how Patty had missed all the commotion up to this point, but she asked, "What is going on back there?"  She only saw the back of his head and not his bloody front.  I yelled back, "Tell him to leave me alone!" Comically, she told him to get back in his seat and pick on somebody his own size.  He told me, "It's not over.  You'll pay for this." I remember that bus being so quiet.  I think everyone was shell-shocked at the violence that had just occurred. 

Thank God for Kent Brooks.  He was a big farmboy a few grades ahead of me in school who lived about a half-mile south of our farm.  He got on the bus and sat across from me and could tell something was wrong.  "I need your help, Kent. They're going to kill me when I get off this bus."  Kent took a breath and agreed he'd look out for me.  When I got off the bus, the senior was waiting . He was a varsity wrestler and put his skills to good use.  He called me that name.  I took a big swing, he blocked it, and then took me down and started rolling me around in the snow.  He had the advantage this time.  All of a sudden, he flew off me.  Big Kent had tossed him aside and then put himself in front of me and warned the cousins to leave me alone.  Kent was so strong. Dad called him Bull Brooks.  The cousins swore at him but went on their way.

I found out that coming down from an adrenaline rush is an emotional thing.  I sat in my homeroom looking at my bloody knuckles not feeling like a big man at all. Amie Dominic, a pretty girl I definitely did NOT want to see me crying, asked, "What is wrong?"  I had felt like a lion less than an hour earlier and now felt like a helpless kitten.  I bolted from my seat and ran to the restroom where I washed my hands and let the tears go.  I'd done what Dad had told me to do, but now what?  How long would I have to look over my shoulder?  Luckily for me, I was never bothered by him again.  In fact, he shook my hand the next day and called me 'buddy.'   I think he was actually a nice guy who had no idea of the pain he put me through. I see him from time to time and he is as nice as can be. Those junior high years are just so tough that I ache for any kid going through them.  At the time, i wondered if there was ever going to be a light at the end of the tunnel.

Kent Brooks later became a wonderful preacher and is now the head of Hospice of the North Country.  He assisted my dad in both capacities, making sure Dad's physical suffering was minimal, ministering to him in his final days, and delivering a beautiful eulogy.  I am eternally grateful to him as my father left this world with Peace in his heart.

Thirty years have passed, and I wonder, was my father right to send me into the fire like that? I don't know. Would I give my sons similar advice in this age of zero tolerance and school suspensions for such behavior?  I don't know.  I do know that life got better for me after that point and that Dad read the situation perfectly.  He told me it would end and it did.  Quickly.


Elation - 10/2/2012

We never saw this coming.  I have been basically numb since Kitsy Kuykendall and Sam Bush called out our name as Entertainer of the Year Thursday night at the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards from the Ryman stage in Nashville, TN.  I hugged Leigh and floated to the stage.  As Leigh was speaking to the audience, all I could think of was Dad.  He is never far away.  It choked me up and I don't know exactly what I said when it was my turn to speak, but I hope it came out okay.  So thankful, so overwhelmed with various emotions, but mostly joy.  I have never had a year with such extreme lows and highs.  The competition was so tough in that category that winning the award might rank as the biggest surprise in my life.  People say, "You worked hard. You earned it."  You know, everybody in that room works hard.  I see them out on the trail, loving what they do, but missing home.  I see them suspending reality to chase a dream that doesn't always make sense.  I saw it as Junior Sisk melted upon winning Album of the Year.  You hear "no" many more times in this business than 'yes,' so it is unbelievably sweet when things go your way.  As elated as I was, I tried not to smile too wide after the show walking around the Renaissance because I know there are people on the other end of the spectrum who have worked hard with little to show.  I have been there.  I have been in the business long enough to know that one song can change things and get things rolling in a better direction.  For us, "Ring the Bell" was the song that grabbed the industry's attention a few years ago,  and I think we have made the most of that attention ever since.  It gave us that shot in the arm just when we needed it.

Corina was the first person I called, and I got out "Thank you" before emotion took over again.  She has let me chase this dream by giving me the green light to leave a secure teaching job in order to give my all to a lifestyle with no safety net down below.  She was so happy and I wished I had brought her to Nashville.  If I had known we were going to win, I would have!  I will never forget getting home at 6 a.m. Saturday after driving all day Friday and most of the night to see a cake with "Congratulations Eric" on the kitchen table and balloons everywhere.  What a woman I have.   I would never have been able to do this without her.  That may sound like a cliche, but I know it to be true. 

I am so thankful for Mike, Clayton, and Joe.  They are ultimate team players.  I never feel nervous going on stage with those guys.  It is going to be right and they are never going to let us down.  I can honestly say that they have never mailed it in for even a minute on stage.  I am so proud of them all and they are a giant reason we came away with the awards.  We have seen a lot of the world together as a band, and I hope to see a lot more.

Leigh.  That sonofagun makes it all work. He is the problem-solver, the peacemaker in this group.  He works so hard on a day-to-day basis, calm and measured.  I am fiery and he deals with me well.  He lets me be who I am and I love  him.  We never dreamed we'd be standing on the Ryman stage in the presence of heroes accepting awards when we first brought our voices together in a barn on the Canadian border.  I think it was an old Buck Owens song or maybe a Jim and Jesse song when we hit a harmony together as we worked in the calf barn some time in the mid-80s. I remember being taken by surprise by how good we sounded together. We weren't so sure of our voices alone, but together there was a buzz. Neither one of us bothered with Chorus in school or had done any singing outside of joining along with the church congregation. We had been playing our instruments for a few years, but this harmony thing felt like a flash going off. It worked. It still does, thank God.


July 2012 Reflections - 7/23/2012

Man, we've been busy. I am not complaining. Any time that I find myself even THINKING about complaining or I catch a whiff that maybe one of the other guys in the band is thinking about it, I remind myself and them that there have been times when we were on the other end of the spectrum. This is what we have been working toward all these years. Maybe I am in the glow of the past few months, of touring Europe, of spending a week playing and teaching in the Yukon, of headlining the Ryman and soaking up every minute of it,  of doing shows all over our wonderful -- and it is wonderful -- country, but I am thankful for the work. The work has kept me sane in these past six months since Dad's passing. And though we've never discussed it, I am sure Leigh feels the same way.

I have always considered myself a team player. Maybe it goes back to my baseball days. So when one of our all-time heroes complimented us backstage at Grey Fox by saying, "Your band sounds SO good. It sounds like a BAND. You don't hear that enough anymore," I was dancing on air. That is what we strive for. We don't want to sound like anyone else, and we probably couldn't if we tried. I think the long hours spent together in vans has contributed to the band's tightness on stage. I have heard all-star bands thrown together on-stage at various events. It is fun and cool and historic and all that, but that BAND sound is never there. Mike has been with us for nineteen years, Clayton for eight, and Joe for four (and Leigh and I for 40!). There is something to be said about longevity. We are probably past the point of sneaking up on folks. We have been around so long. But we can keep getting better. I hope this five can stick together for many more years. We have accomplished things as a group I never dreamed of, but, call me greedy, I want to do much more.

At Mayor's Cup in Plattsburgh, NY, last week, I saw my former superintendent at AuSable Valley Central School, John Gratto. I hadn't seen him since 1998, when he granted me my wish for a year's leave of absence from teaching to see if I could make any headway in the music business. He said, "Eric, it looks like you made the right choice." I thanked him for letting me try, but I admitted to him that there were times along the way when I questioned my decision. When that year was up, I kept ploughing ahead. Some of the years between '98 and now were rocky and I told him so. Even so, I had to agree that overall I made the right choice. Music is such a powerful force in my life and I know how blessed I am to be making a living at it. I wished I had had time to tell Mr. Gratto about my father-in-law's response when I told him I was taking a year's leave and might not ever return to teaching. I braced myself as we rode in his pickup in his sugarbush. The silence was probably just a few seconds, but it seemed like much longer. He turned to me and said, "I think you should have done it four years ago." I loved him so much at that moment and still do. I had been teaching for four years, thinking that is what I should do and that that is what everyone wanted me to do, and he gave me his blessing. I'll never forget it. 

This has all been pretty deep, so I will leave you with something a little lighter. I probably need to keep Kelley away from Leigh, because the humor is rubbing off. I broke my nose a few weeks ago playing baseball with my sons. I am fine, and I no longer resemble a raccoon. My voice feels good, too. However, Kelley heard me sing and said, "Dad, you sound about half-nostril right now." I laughed, but Son, hillbillies are supposed to sing straight from the soul and through the nose.


GBs in Europe 2012 - 5/13/2012

I dreaded leaving like I always do when I get used to the routine of being home. I love being a husband and father and I get in the mindset where I am perfectly content to never stray from my yard. As the date to leave for our European tour approached, I complained about having to go, and in retrospect I can see that being perceived as ungrateful behavior, knowing how lucky we are to see the world through our music. We had played just a few European dates in the past, one in Germany and a couple more in Northern Ireland. Truthfully, I was leary of the unknown. We would return to Germany, but also scheduled shows in Denmark, France, and Italy. Would we be able to connect with our audiences? Would they like our music? Would we be able to navigate a tricky train schedule having never tried that mode of travel before? Thankfully, Leigh put in a lot of legwork in preparation for this tour. He always does, but our European tour required a lot of thought and troubleshooting.

We flew overnight from Boston to Iceland to Copenhagen, Denmark. I made the mistake of crashing in my motel room in the middle of the afternoon. I would pay for it. My schedule was thrown off to the degree that I would get one hour of sleep for the next three nights. Oh, I would nod off on the train for a little bit here and there in the next few days, but overall, I was sleepless for the first third of our trip. Sleep-deprived and all, I was able to take in the physical beauty of Copenhagen and to enjoy the friendliness of the people we met. I was so impressed with the Danes' ability to speak so many languages so well. A girl at a coffee shop told me that she started taking English at eleven and German at fourteen. I met others who could speak French and Swedish. We had absolutely no problems being understood in Denmark. Our show in Copenhagen went very well. The highlight for me was performing "Arleigh," a request for a gentleman who said he had driven a long way to hear it. My grandfather would never have believed that someone in Denmark would want to hear a song about him. I lay awake until 3 a.m. and then gave up trying to sleep. I dug my notebook out and finished a song I had tried to write for a decade. I went downstairs to the lobby to try to find other signs of life when Joe Walsh came bounding down the stairs. "Wanna go for a walk?" he asked. Joe is all about experiencing life. He has a very curious mind and is not going to waste time in this world. He wants to see it all. We walked to downtown Copenhagen on a glorious morning witnessing architecture that we just don't get to see, the only blot on the morning being that we got chased down the street by a couple of working girls at 5:30 a.m. No thank you. They aren't lazy, I'll give them that.

We got off to a rocky start on our first train ride at 8:30 a.m. We got on the wrong section of the train and had to make our way with all of our luggage and instruments through several cars and past many disgruntled people. Once we got our bearings, we were fine and made it to Aalborgh, Denmark, relatively unscathed. Our show that evening went off without a hitch, another full house of grateful people. I returned to my hotel room happy, but again could not find sleep. Leigh had no problem, and Clayton, Joe, and Mike crashed a blues club downtown where they sat in with the band. I tossed and turned and then found my notebook and finished another song that I'd been working on for two years. We caught our next train and stayed on the tracks all day until we reached Buehl, Germany in the evening. Our driver drove us to the hotel at speeds passing 150 kilometers per hour. It was exhilerating. I could not wait to find a bed. I ended up watching BBC until I heard the birds singing at 4 a.m. They inspired me to write a brand new song at that lonely hour.

We were excited to play at the Buehl Bluegrass Festival. Top bands from all over Europe were there along with Nashville's Alecia Nugent and her band. We had a wonderful meal together downtown before taking the stage for two evening sets. I have never experienced that many cameras going off for that long during a show. The room was full and the people were as enthusiastic as could be. We received four encores. Heady stuff. I don't know if it was jetlag or being high on adrenaline, but I never slept. Unfortunately, I couldn't keep my eyes open through a magnificent ride through the Swiss Alps the next day.   Every time I opened my eyes, another brilliant vista would appear. Soon my eyelids would close. I just couldn't help it. I hope I get a chance to see that area again when I am well-rested. We reached La Roche sur Foron, France, and after an eleven-hour sleep, I woke up to one of the prettiest days of my life in probably the most beautiful area I have ever seen. I vowed to bring Corina back with me. I went for a long walk in the French Alps and wrote another song. Later in the day, I walked through the town with Joe and Clayton. We entered a church built in the 1500's. I felt such peace there and didn't want to leave the space. Our show that evening gave me one of my highest highs as a musician. We connected with the crowd in a way I didn't think possible when I left our country. Many could not understand our language, but they could understand our music. We made attempts to speak to them in French and they appeared to get a real kick out of us, especially when Clayton ran up to the mic with his arms in the air and exclaimed, "Zut alors!" Afterwards, we celebrated with audience members with delicious food and drink and just really took the time as a band to verbalize how blessed we were to experience such a place.

We finished our tour in Torino, Italy playing to yet another wildly enthusiastic crowd. We met several musicians during the intermission and after the show. I was struck by the fact that these players love bluegrass and revere the founding fathers and mothers of the music as much as we do and how it must be even more difficult to find an audience as a bluegrass musician in Europe than it is in the USA. I respect the European bluegrass musicians so much for following the music in their hearts despite this difficulty. We took a train to Milan and spent one more beautiful day there, culminating in a night of great food and conversation with our new friends Massimo, Icaro, and Collim from Italy's Bluegrass Stuff. Oh yeah, I wrote another song that day. I had only written two in 2012 and I have five to show for my week and a half in Europe. I don't know if it was sleep-deprivation, sensory overload, lack of phone and computer access, or a combination of all these things. I do know that I returned home more proud of this band than ever and inspired to push myself even harder.


My Favorite Baseball Memory - 4/10/2012

I originally posted this is 2010, but with baseball swirling all around me at the season's start, this memory came back and I thought it was worth sharing again.

June 01, 2010, 22:45

I told Leigh when baseball season started that I was through caring about the sport. I said, "Why should I care about those multi-millionaires. They don't care about me." Well, two months into the season, I'm hooked all over again. I'd still rather watch my sons play, but I find myself watching inning after inning on television at home and in hotel rooms. I guess I just love the game. I throw with my sons almost every day I'm home. I love the smell of the grass and of my old leather glove. I love hearing the ball as it whacks my glove harder every year as the boys grow. I love that summer sun on my face after a North Country winter. It has come full circle. My dad used to catch me many an evening after working so hard all day. As I got older and faster, he'd misjudge a curve's break or knuckleball's dance and take one on the shin. He kept trying though. I'm seeing it now as my reflexes have slowed a bit. I'm getting my shins bruised here and there. 

One of my best moments involves baseball and my dad. I was a sophomore pitching on varsity for Northern Adirondack against Mount Assumption Institute (now called Seton Catholic) in a home game in Ellenburg Depot in a battle for first place. Around here, Plattsburgh was the 'big city' to us. MAI was from Plattsburgh. We'd gotten used to the teams from Plattsburgh making fun of the smell of cow manure from the farms around our baseball field. It made us want to beat them that much more. We'd been reading about their tough pitching and stout lineup in the local paper. I was nervous because our other pitcher, a senior, had hurt his ankle in the previous game. I was it. My dad didn't go to a lot of games. He was tied to the farm. The cows needed to be milked at six in the morning and four in the afternoon. The game started at 4:15. I looked over in the stands while I was warming up, and there he was. Looking back, I think he knew the pressure I was feeling and that I needed him there. The cows, for once, would have to wait. I started shaky, giving up three runs in the first inning. However, as the game went on, I settled down, shutting them out for the rest of the game. We won by a run. The guys I'd been hearing about all season went quietly, and I felt euphoria after the final out. After celebrating with my teammates on the field, I found Dad in the crowd. I didn't care who saw it. I hugged him and kissed him on the cheek and thanked him for being there. He may have been embarrassed a little and worried that I'd be teased for my show of affection. He said, "They're going to think you're a daddy's boy." I answered, "I am."