The Gibson Brothers: Authenticity on Tap
In a couple of weeks, we’ll travel north and west across Vermont and up the Hero Islands in Lake Champlain, crossing the lake inlet north of Plattsburgh. Looking to our right, we’ll be able to see the small border crossing into Canada at Rouses Point, New York. We travel west along US 11, the road to New Orleans planned and begun in the 1920s and now largely supplanted by Interstate 81 through much of its passage toward the South. The road travels along the southern terminus of a huge, desolate rocky outcrop known as the Canadian Shield. Extending far north, it shows the power of the glaciers from ice ages past to scrape the landscape down to bare rock. The soil here is thin and marginal. To the south, you can see the majestic Adirondack Mountains, the largest wilderness area east of the Mississippi, rising as a barrier to the thriving richness of central New York. Driving another 50 miles west through mostly desolate, winter farmlands enriched recently by the development of huge wind farms sporting row upon row of giant wind turbines brings us to Ellenburg Central School. That’s the place where Eric and Leigh Gibson, born within eleven months of each other in 1970 and 1971, grew up on their father’s dairy farm in the 1980s. We’re headed to the annual Christmas concert by the Gibson Brothers at the school they attended, and where their sister Erin still teaches, a couple of miles from where their mother lives.
What led the Gibson Brothers from this far northern dairy farm in a never bustling region of New York to the heights of the bluegrass music world? What nurtured and produced two singer/songwriter/bandleaders into the highest stratum of bluegrass music while they forged their way into a broader consciousness, with appearances in places that would have seemed unlikely 15 years ago when they returned from Nashville after a disastrous turn at country music and started to rebuild their careers?
We first saw the Gibson Brothers in 2004 at The Jenny Brook Family Bluegrass Festival, a small rural festival held in Weston, Vermont’s town park. They have appeared at Jenny Brook every year but one since its inception, while Jenny Brook has grown into one of the major New England festivals and moved to a site fit to accommodate its growth in size and prestige. Since then, we’ve seen them at the Grand Old Opry in its new home in the Nashville suburbs, at George Washington University’s Lisner Hall with the Del McCoury Band, and in the magnificent outdoor Red Hat Amphitheater as a part of Wide Open Bluegrass in Raleigh, North Carolina. They’ve been recognized by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) with numerous awards, including Songwriter of the Year, Song of the Year, Gospel Song of the Year, and twice as Entertainer of the Year. They have recently joined legendary bluegrass and roots music label Rounder Records. This year they will continue to play Jenny Brook, plus Pemi Valley in New Hampshire and Blistered Fingers in Maine, demonstrating their wide appeal as well as their loyalty to their origins. Their Christmas show in Ellenburg Depot will be a standing room only sell-out. They always remember where they came from.
Perhaps the video clip below best captures the basis of the Gibson Brothers’ charm and power to draw an audience into their world. It contains three songs. “The Happy, Sunny Side of Life,” dates back to an early 20th-century Church of God songbook published in 1918. It was recorded by the Blue Sky Boys in 1936, the version found here. The second song on the clip is Eric’s composition, “Farm of Yesterday,” which captures the life the brothers led, their enduring ties to the land and family, and their always-present awareness that the world they grew up in provided them with sound values but no longer exists. The final song, often included in their sets, is Jimmy Martin’s rollicking “Hold Watcha Got,” a song capturing the life of one of bluegrass music’s most controversial and enduring figures as well as the Gibsons’ sense of their music lying within a continuity of tradition and innovation. Interspersed are samples of their stage show patter, exemplifying sibling rivalry, love for each other, and great, good humor, all parts of their popularity. The clip is nearly 15 minutes long, but deserves to be listened to in its entirety.
In song after song, some written by Eric and Leigh alone and others with some of the best songwriters in the country (Joe Newberry, Shawn Camp, Jon Weisberger), the Gibson Brothers have successfully captured a sense of nostalgia for a world being lost to modernity (“The Barn Song,” “Railroad Line”) while never denying the complex world we live in today (“Frozen in Time” and “Ragged Man”). They’ve looked at their own experience (“Iron and Diamonds,” “Farm of Yesterday,” “Safe Passage”) in often unsentimental but evocative language with unsurpassed musicality. Careful listening to the Gibson Brothers’ songwriting and experiencing their live performances only serve to enhance the power of their recorded catalog on the four labels they’ve been with.
While they’ve been awarded Doctor of Fine Arts degrees from the State University of New York, you’ll never see them billed as Doctors Leigh and Eric. Their essential modesty, their insistence upon letting the work speak for itself, is a centerpiece of their music. They always include songs of the some of the pioneers – Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Jim & Jesse, The Stanley Brothers. They never appear on stage with a set list, but develop each show based on their feel for the audience and their own relationship. While sounding traditional on some songs, on examination, they are forward-looking. The Gibson Brothers can be counted on to produce a fresh, new show at every appearance. For the past six months, the Gibson Brothers have been writing songs for their next CD. I’m eager to hear them begin to roll out a few in workshops over the next few months, and then to see the newest recording with the Gibson Brothers doing what they do best, being the Gibson Brothers.