Gibson Brothers – Standing in the shadows
“Around home they call us the Gibson Boys,” elder brother Eric explains; on the other end of the line, he sounds like he’s smiling. He’s on the road again with his brother Leigh and their band. After a three-year break from touring, they’re crossing southeastern Canada, heading into Ontario — not quite home turf, but close to their rural, upstate New York roots.
“We didn’t intend to make a living at it,” he says of the Gibson Brothers’ unexpected career. “Leigh and I both went to college, got our degrees; I taught English for four years. But to be a good teacher, that has to be your passion; our passion was playing music.”
Eric and Leigh Gibson were born in 1970 and ’71, just eleven months apart, and grew up in Ellenburg Depot, New York, on a dairy farm that had been in the Gibson family for generations. Small towns dot the valleys of their homeland, the names telling their own story: Clinton Mills, Canaan Hill, Gibson Corners.
“In the last ten or fifteen years, it’s changed,” Leigh says. “But for a long time it was pretty isolated. The Adirondack mountains block out a lot of industry from coming up there, so you don’t get a lot of people coming in from other places to work. There are only a couple TV stations you can get. It’s quite a haul from the centers of commerce, Albany and New York City.
“I’m not saying people up there aren’t as smart as people elsewhere; but they tend to be a little more naive perhaps — they may never leave the county. That’s changing now, but growing up, and during my father’s generation, it was a little like growing up in the Kentucky mountains, where the world may not be more than 15 or 20 miles in diameter.”
“You know, there wasn’t a lot to do,” Eric says of Ellenburg Depot, “but we always found something to do. Baseball was our other passion; we were more serious about that for a time. We grew up listening to country, bluegrass, gospel, and Celtic music; I was 12 and Leigh was 11 when we started playing guitar and banjo. We fell in love with Flatt & Scruggs, the Seldom Scene, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs. We played at church, fiddle contests, a few festivals. In our late teens we got more serious. At the first festival we played at, we met Bill Monroe. I was 17 and Leigh was 16. That was in Waddington, New York; we were just a couple of guys wanting to meet him.”
The Gibson Brothers have been playing and singing together for most of their lives. Curse the cliche, but their music is stamped with those blood ties — two decades of practice, the unalterable biology of brotherly harmonies. As they push through Canada, they’re carrying copies of their new album, Bona Fide, their first on a label with an international reach (Sugar Hill). “There’s nothin’ in the world like bluegrass music/Oh, no, nothin’ can touch that harmony,” they sing together on “That Bluegrass Music”, one of the record’s slighter, if jauntier, numbers. The chorus may be an obvious stroke to the die-hard fans who have followed them since they began appearing as the Gibson Boys, but the depth and dexterity of their writing and arrangements rings with a broader range of styles.
“My dad loved the Clancy Brothers, the Irish Rovers, and we had a few Chieftains albums around,” Eric says. “I can’t say I’ve listened to a lot of Irish music, but we certainly heard it. Our family roots are in Ireland and Scotland, the British Isles. Celtic, country, bluegrass — it was all mixed up for us.
“At the time, you don’t know that what you’re listening to is going to form who you are going to be. You know, I didn’t hear much rock ‘n’ roll until I was out of high school. Dad didn’t want it in the house. The guys in the band laugh at me, because now I’m getting into bands they’ve been into forever.
“When we set out to make this album for Sugar Hill, we had three years’ worth of songs. We went off the road in 1999. We never said, we can’t do this because it’s too Irish or too country. Bluegrass remains the common thread, but all those other influences shine through.”
The Gibsons’ recording career began in 1994 with the now out-of-print Underneath A Harvest Moon. By 1996 they had signed with Hay Holler, a small bluegrass label in Virginia, for a three-album run that included Long Forgotten Dream, Spread Your Wings (produced by Lonesome River Band founder Tim Austin), and Another Night Of Waiting (produced by Alan O’Bryant of the Nashville Bluegrass Band). All of those records featured the Gibsons finding their voices in classic bluegrass formations, sometimes aided by aces such as Aubrey Haynie on fiddle or Roland White on mandolin.
“I like those records still,” Leigh says. “Spread Your Wings was actually destroyed in a fire. We think of that one as the one we almost got killed at. Eric and Mike Barber and Junior Barber, who were in the band, were inside playing when it went up in flames. It was gone in 15 minutes. We had to re-cut the whole album.”
The years leading up to Bona Fide — away from the road, with time to raise their own families, to reflect, write, and focus — found the brothers working on their family farm, in guitar shops, considering a return to school. In 1998, however, their careers had hit a fast track: they won an Emerging Artist award from the International Bluegrass Music Association and played at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville for the first time. That same night, the brothers met Ricky Skaggs, who signed the duo to his Skaggs Family label, hoping to take their careers to a national level — but not just as a bluegrass band.
“They had mainstream ambitions,” Eric says. “They hoped for a co-venture with a major. We went into the studio in Nashville and it was going to be more of a traditional country record. It never came out. Atlantic was gonna sign us, then they got shut down. We were in limbo, a holding pattern, playing that Nashville game.
“Finally we just said to Ricky, ‘Thank you for what you’ve tried to do for us, but we want to move on.’ He put his heart into the project, he produced it. But the climate wasn’t right; interest waned. In the end Ricky was David fighting Goliath. At some point, you realize you have to look at the big picture. You hate to give up on it; you’ve given over years of your life to something. The fighter in you wants to keep trying.”
“Things in the music industry go up and down,” Leigh adds. “But even when the darkest cloud hung over our career, I never thought, ‘I’m going to apply to law school now, or take this civil service test, to make money.’ It’s not that I was lazy — I believe in the work ethic, we’re both farm boys — but there just wasn’t anything else I wanted to do. I was taking all those tests to get into law school or graduate school, and I just realized that I didn’t want to do that. The only frustration that ever came careerwise was when we felt we weren’t focusing in the right direction, when we didn’t have total control. We’re not much for waiting around.”