The Gibson Brothers have been making bluegrass records for a decade now, and practically every review has been studded with references to “brother duets” and “sibling harmonies”. There’s sense to that, of course: Eric (banjo) and Leigh (guitar) are brothers, their harmonies have been (and remain) central to their music, and while their instrumental work has never been less than serviceable, neither has ever pursued a reputation as a hot picker.
Yet what their latest release makes clear is that observations about the Gibsons’ brotherhood and its vocal consequences are (or should be) just the starting point in an assessment of their music. They’re useful enough, to be sure, but when overemphasized, the result can be an underestimation of their creativity and talent, as if genetics alone could account for the Brothers’ art. That would be especially unfortunate in the case of Red Letter Day, for ironically enough, while its recording sessions seem to have caught them in one of those chronic periods of personnel change that afflict many groups in economically marginal genres, the finished product is their most distinctive and fully realized album to date.
Red Letter Day was produced by the Brothers and longtime bassist Mike Barber, the only regular band member present throughout the project. Its greatest strength is the material. Songwriters from the start, Eric and Leigh have, over the years, become interesting and often surprising craftsmen who can tackle a variety of themes. This time out, Leigh’s entries include some beauties inspired by youthful memories from their upstate New York home, while Eric contributes, among others, the haunting “We Won’t Dance Again” (with Andrea Zonn adding a gorgeous harmony vocal) and “Walking With Joanna”, which hangs a deliciously wry story of love and religion on an instantly memorable, barely contemporary musical frame to produce what’s probably the best song on the album.
Less compelling, though still enjoyable, is a set of country covers, including the opening Don Gibson 40-year-old hit, “Lonesome Number One”, and two from even further back in time (“The Prisoner’s Song” and “Twenty-One Years”). Similarly, a couple of R&B staples — Ray Charles’ “I Got A Woman” and Bobby & Shirley Jean Womack’s “It’s All Over Now” — get grassed-up, energetic readings that highlight the breadth of the Brothers’ sense of adventure and high spirits.
What’s most exciting, next to the originals, is a trio of songs from writers best-known in the Americana world: Kieran Kane (with John Hadley), Bruce Robison, and Chris Knight. Here, as in the past, the group has an unerring sense of how to translate and recontextualize songs with which they have a strong affinity, but the selections are their best yet. The Knight song, “If I Were You”, is particularly dramatic, with an emotionally nuanced solo vocal from Eric and sympathetic treatment from the entire ensemble; but all three songs are performed with enough insight and conviction to remind one of the way the Country Gentlemen enriched bluegrass in the ’60s by their appropriation of material from the singer-songwriter side of the folk movement.
Former or current band members Marc MacGlashan (mandolin) and Clayton Campbell (fiddle) make occasional appearances here, as do a couple of other guests, but the lion’s share of the supporting work is done by Del McCoury Band members Ron McCoury (mandolin) and Jason Carter (fiddle). It’s no surprise, given their own experience with reworking outside material, that they acquit themselves well, and their extensive participation gives the album a cohesion that belies their “helper” status. Still, it’s the Gibson Brothers — and yes, that includes those brother harmonies — together with Barber who carry the most weight, and they’ve done an excellent job.