Three Bands and the Truth: Lonely Heartstring Band, the Gibson Brothers, and Del McCoury
It had been raining off and on, sometimes quite hard on Saturday at the Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival in Thornton, New Hampshire. August in New England is usually the beginning of a dry, crisp, slightly cooling period, simply perfect for a bluegrass festival. The hard rain had suppressed the Saturday attendance, always crucial for making any music festival a financial success. The lineup for Saturday evening, however, assured that no matter the size of the crowd or the inclination of the weather the evening would be an artistic success, even a triumph!
Three bands were featured, each from a different bluegrass generation. The Lonely Heartstring Band has been nominated for the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Emerging Artist of the Year award, to be presented next month in at the association’s annual World of Bluegrass convention and festival in Raleigh, North Carolina. The Gibson Brothers are up for a third recognition as Entertainer of the Year, along with six other nominations. And the Del McCoury Band is led by a Bluegrass Hall of Fame singer who started his career over 50 years ago as a Blue Grass Boy singing with Bill Monroe. To add a little spice the mixture, each band features a pair of brothers. Identical twin brothers George and Charles Clement’s voices are so well-blended that one reviewer accused them of being double dubbed with a single voice. The Gibson Brothers are noted for their tight brother harmonies reminiscent of great brother duos like the Louvin Brothers. While Rob and Ron McCoury don’t sing together, each has received recognition as Instrumental Player of the Year on his instrument. The evening’s lineup offered a feast of coincidence and quality almost unheard of anywhere, let alone at a small festival in New Hampshire.
The Lonely Heartstring Band, winner of the 2012 Thomas Point Beach band contest, consists of five members who came together from a variety of backgrounds at Berklee College Music in Boston. Formed as a Beatles cover band for a wedding, they soon discovered a winning combination based on sparkling vocals from lead singer George Clements and his twin brother, Charles, along with enormous instrumental versatility. Gabe Hirshfeld’s work on banjo is disciplined and driving without ever becoming too showy or at all obtrusive. They have become known for their eerily similar yet without a doubt bluegrass renderings of music from other genres and eras and for the moving, exciting originals flowing from their collaborative efforts. They’re at the beginning of what, one hopes, is a long and productive musical career. Here’s their cover of John Hartford’s signature “Steam Powered Aereo Plane.”
The Gibson Brothers were first recognized as IBMA Emerging Artist in 1998. They have released 13 CDs as well as two earlier cassette tapes. Nine of their CDs have reached No. 1 on the bluegrass chart from Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. Their latest CD, In the Ground, debuted at No. 2 on the much broader Billboard bluegrass chart, behind Alison Krauss. Hailing from the far northern New York state village of Ellenburg Depot (a mere four miles from the Canadian border), the Gibson Brothers were raised on a dairy farm that had been in their family for a hundred years. They grew up in country and church music, where they began singing together. Both men majored in English at SUNY at Plattsburgh, on nearby Lake Champlain. Hardly the stuff that leads to bluegrass. The Gibson Brothers are noted for their evocative, semi-biographical songwriting. The farm, family, the road, and their traditional values form the core of their content. Heard on recordings or streamed, the Gibson Brothers’ harmonies, singing, and superb band shine. But it’s in their stage shows where their terrific audience appeal comes out. The brotherly byplay, filled with “Mom loved you more,” is funny and always loving. In the song “Friend of Mine,” Leigh captures his love for bandmate Mike Barber, who has been with the band for 24 years.
The Del McCoury Band, with 78-year-old Del McCoury still singing with the piercing high tenor voice for which he’s famous, takes the stage with a history going back over 50 years to the night Bill Monroe picked Del out at a bar in Baltimore and brought him to Nashville to play banjo and sing lead as a Blue Grass Boy. While viewed as a traditionalist, Del remains one the most forward-looking and risk-taking of artists. He’s recorded and toured with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, steel gospel group The Lee Boys, and Phish, and recently set a series of unrecorded Woody Guthrie lyrics to music in his latest CD, Del and Woody. The list of his IBMA awards is too long to repeat here, and he has won two Grammy awards. Del was inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2011. He is joined on stage these days by his two sons, Ron and Rob, each IBMA recipients on their own, as well as Jason Carter, five-time fiddler of the year. This band is in no way a legacy band living on its reputation and nostalgia. Rather they continue to be the hard driving, entertaining band they have been for five decades. Their performance of Ola Belle Reed’s “I’ve Endured” is just an example of the richness of McCoury’s life and work.
Three superb bands representing three generations of bluegrass music with three sets of brothers playing in them were brought together on a rain-soaked Saturday night to deliver a sublime evening of bluegrass music at a the Pemi Valley Bluegrass Festival, surrounded by the beautiful foothills of New Hampshire’s White Mountains. Who could ask for anything more?