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.