2016 IBMA Award Nominees
BY TED LEHMANN
This is the story of two brothers who, after more than 20 years on the road, are still striving to become the best that they can be and have achieved “instant” success.
After writing about genius last week, this week I'm taking on subjects like work ethic, commitment to excellence, maximizing the use of your own and others' talent, continuity, and plain old hard work. Because, for the large number of musicians who are not geniuses, the keys to success lie in these old-fashioned, well-respected American values.
The Gibson Brothers, born 11 months apart in 1970 and 1971, grew up on a 650-acre dairy farm in Ellenburg Depot, New York, just a couple of miles south of the Canadian border. The land there is flat, and making a living at farming it is challenging at best. Looking south from where their farm stood, you can see the Adirondack Mountains, rising to 5,000 feet and covering two and a half million acres. Those mountains separated them from the then-thriving farms and factories of central New York State.
The Gibsons worked on the farm under the loving but stern direction of their late father, Kelley, who taught them hard work and that they were not to become farmers when they grew up. They went to church, listened to country and bluegrass music on the radio, played school sports, hunted, and farmed. In their time, they both went off to school -- Eric enrolled at Ithaca College, where he wanted to play baseball, but he later transfered to the State University of New York at Plattsburgh, where Leigh was already enrolled. Both graduated with dual majors including English. Meanwhile, they were playing music in church and soon at small festivals, and they were writing songs.
The rather lengthy clip above provides real insight into the show Eric and Leigh Gibson have honed and continue to sharpen. It contains three songs that suggest the continuum of their musical heritage:
"The Happy Sunny Side of Life," a song recorded by the Blue Sky Brothers, is a regular component of their performances, but they have not recorded it because it's slated to be included in a biopic of Bill Monroe that's still in production.
"Farm of Yesterday" is a biographical song Eric wrote to capture the strength and enduring character of their father.
"Hold Watcha Got" is classic bluegrass. Written by Jimmy Martin, the song captures his zest for living and the spirit of bluegrass. The Gibson Brothers sing it frequently.
Those three songs are interspersed with the freeform patter and brotherly bickering that always provides insight into their lives, reflects the affection and competition between two brothers, and never brings audiences to the point where they squirm with discomfort. The Gibson Brothers work without a set list or a script. Never think, though, the program is purely ad-libbed. They choose songs by listening to and responding to their audience, while their patter is both spontaneous and carefully polished.
What has helped to create the success of the Gibson Brothers? They first achieved national notice when in 1998 they were named IBMA Emerging Artist of the Year in 1998. Soon they joined Skaggs Family Records, recorded a project there, and languished for two years, unable to find a major country label to release it. When they decided to cast their future with bluegrass, they had to painfully and carefully rebuild their career. Since then, every new record released by the Gibson Brothers has reached the top spot on the album charts of the most important magazine in the field, Bluegrass Unlimited.
About 18 months ago, the Gibsons signed a recording contract with Rounder Records, the most consistently high-performing label in roots and bluegrass music in the country. Their latest recording,Brotherhood -- a change of pace collection containing songs from pioneer brother duos -- also reached the top.
The band has, over the years, achieved a remarkably consistent sound. They've emphasized a strong continuity of band members, but they've also improved their lineup with every change. Mike Barber, on bass, has been with the band since the beginning. He's importent enough to the band to have been given co-producer credit for the last few peojects. Alterations have occurred in only two positions, at the ends of the line. When Junior Barber, a fine Dobro player, left the road, they added Clayton Campbell, a young fiddler from Kentucky, who has been with them for 14 years. Campbell contributes a soaring, melodic fiddle sound that always serves the song. The addition of two-time IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year Jesse Brock brought driving enthusiasm, lightning speed, precision, and a third voice, when needed, to the mix. All of this makes the Gibson Brothers immediately recognizable even before they begin to sing.
We knew the Gibson Brothers had entered the pantheon of popular bluegrass bands when, one afternoon in North Georgia, we heard their 2010 IBMA song of the year "Ring the Bell," written by Chet O'Keefe, being sung in a jam. Since then, Eric's co-write with Joe Newberry, "They Called it Music," has also joined the standard jam repertory.
This song embodies much of what has built and maintained the Gibson Brothers through the last decade and more. It tells a story at once simple and sparely complicated about the appeal of music through the ages. It contains a catchy melody using the hoary, hallowed three-chord structure to near perfection. It appeals to the past and the present, recognizing contributions from tradition while calling for continued development. In other words, it's a Gibson Brothers song.
When Sugar Hill Records joined the Rounder stable recently, four difficult-to-find releases reappeared on the Gibson Brothers' merch table for those who still want to own physical recordings. Older material from as far back as Hay Holler Records can now be found online. Much of their catalog can be heard from the stage. Especially in upstate New York and New England, where fans have followed them for decades, they could easily play only old favorites to the satisfaction of everyone, except themselves. But they don't rely on their past.
Recently, the brothers have begun showcasing a few new songs they're preparing for their next release. They work together on the road, and new material sometimes emerges and gets completed between their sound check and when they take the stage. In the coming year, you'll hear more of the new material in workshops as they test them on their knowledgeable audiences, get feedback, make small adjustments, tinker with the work. They work hard at songwriting, which makes a difference for them as it combines with their oh-so-fine singing and precise instrumental work.
A Gibson Brothers performance includes warm personality, finely crafted songs, humor, and a hard-working, highly skilled band reaching out to everyone. If you haven't discovered them yet, now's the time.
Here's another example of a typical Gibson Brothers performance in concert in Rochester, New Hampshire, a couple of years ago. It includes Eric's song "Callie's Reel," a country song by Shawn Camp and Loretta Lynn, and one of the best contemporary performances available of Bill Monroe's instrumental standard, "Big Mon." Enjoy!
By Stuart Munro JANUARY 08, 2015
Over the course of two decades of playing music professionally, the Gibson Brothers have gained recognition not only as one of the premier groups in bluegrass, but as an exemplar of the brother harmony tradition. Now the Gibsons are about to pay tribute to that legacy; in February, they’ll put out an album of songs from brother acts both famous (Everlys, Louvins, Monroes) and lesser-known (Church Brothers, Blue Sky Boys) titled, simply, “Brotherhood.” Saturday, they’ll preview the album in concert. As he headed back to the Northeast with brother Eric and band member Mike Barber from a tour date in North Carolina, Leigh Gibson talked to the Globe about the new record and the phenomenon of brother harmony.
Q. At the Boston Bluegrass Union’s Joe Val festival last February, you did an impromptu “brother” set as a fill-in for a band that was delayed by weather, and it was a festival highlight. Subsequently, you announced that your next record would be a tribute to brother acts in bluegrass and country music. Was the Joe Val performance the germ of the record?
A. It wasn’t really the germ of the idea. We’d been thinking about doing a tribute to brother harmony for a while, and we’d decided at that point that the next record was going to take that direction. But if anything, the reaction to what we did [at the festival] solidified our intuition about what might be a good idea for something out of the ordinary from what people have come to expect from a Gibson Brothers record. It became clear that there’s definitely a certain part of the bluegrass population that hungers for that style of singing.
Q. Your Joe Val set was pretty heavy on Louvin Brothers material, while the record is much more diverse.
A. We’d floated the idea of the record being artist-specific before, but as the record started to take shape in our minds, it seemed more interesting for us to cover many brother-act influences. We wanted to do things from artists that were important to us, but not necessarily songs that we’d tackled before, or songs that everybody had already heard.
Q. How did you choose the songs for the record?
A. We had to balance many acts, because we wanted the record to shine a light on the fact that there were tons of brother acts. So we had to choose maybe one song from each, and some of the songs represent more than one act. Our records are full of harmony, but we wanted to intensify the amount of harmony on this one, the amount of singing together throughout a song. We tried to choose as many songs that had as many opportunities for harmony throughout as we could. And we wanted to represent the call-and-response style of harmony as well, so there
are some songs on the new record that represent that.
Making the record was a learning experience; if nothing else, we learned a lot about brother harmonies (laughs). We found some acts that we actually had not even listened to before, and have material on the record from them. It was really cool to hear the new stuff.
Q. What is it about brothers singing together that produces that amazing synchronicity of voices?
A. I think there are a few things in play there. The first is the genetic component, which nobody has any control of. So for Eric and I, or Charlie and Ira Louvin, that’s there already. There’s a tone that’s very similar. But — I’ve come to think about this a bit — the other part of it is learned. It’s the fact that you grow up in the same household, and you learn to talk with the same people. You pronounce things the same way, you mispronounce things the same way. That tightens things just a little bit. Eric knows how I’m going to say something, or I know how he’s going to say it, from the first time we sing it, or attempt it. With all of these acts, there’s a lot of work involved where you hone things, but there’s got to be something to those two things, where you share experiences and you learn to talk from the same source, and then have the same genetic makeup that makes your voice sound a certain way.
A lot of these brother acts, growing up in a simple rural setting where there wasn’t a lot of entertainment, had the opportunity to develop those skills. Eric and I grew up on a farm, and it wasn’t like we were the Waltons, but once we started playing instruments, a lot of our entertainment at home came from playing and figuring out songs.
MARCH 28, 2015 11:00 AM - Eric and Leigh Gibson, twice voted bluegrass music’s top entertainer and vocal group, carry the tradition of brother duets forward on ‘Brotherhood,’ their debut CD. JIM MCGUIRE Brother duets have been a staple of country music since the early days of commercial recordings. Genetically sympathetic voices resulting in naturally close harmonies have delighted fans of legendary acts such as the Monroe Brothers, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, and the Everly Brothers, whose Kentucky country roots laid the groundwork for their rock-and-roll crooning.
Eric and Leigh Gibson carry the tradition forward with “Brotherhood,” their debut CD on Rounder Records.
Twice voted bluegrass music’s top entertainer and vocal group, the Gibson Brothers cover 15 classic and less common brother duets.
Backed by their excellent band, the siblings draw from the repertoires of Tar Heel natives Bill and Earl Bolick (the Blue Sky Boys) for “The Sweetest Gift,” and Wilkes County’s Church Brothers for “An Angel with Blue Eyes.”
They turn to bluegrass with the Osborne Brothers’ “Each Season Changes You,” the Stanley Brothers’ “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” and Jim & Jesse’s “Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes.” Tompall and the Glaser Brothers offer a country turn with their early 1980s hit, “It’ll Be Her.”
As they open and close with the Everly Brothers (“Bye Bye Love,” “Crying in the Rain”), the Gibsons remind us that the brother duet style is as vital and enjoyable today as at any time in the history of American popular music.
Correspondent Jack Bernhardt