The Gibson Brothers and the Search for Excellence
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!