"Truthfully, I'd be recording records every month if we could, because it's such a fun part of what we do," says Leigh Gibson, the slightly younger half of the Gibson Brothers. Sibling Eric shares the enthusiasm: "I like being in the studio just as much as I like being on stage, and I love being on stage."
This passion for getting music to their fans lies behind the Gibson Brothers' most recent accomplishment: three exceptional albums in three years. Bona Fide and Long Way Back Home both earned widespread acclaim and topped the Bluegrass Unlimited album chart. Now they offer Red Letter Day, perhaps their most eclectic and energetic session to date. Working with some of bluegrass music's best sidemen during a period of personnel shifts in their own band, the Gibsons did more in-studio arrangement than usual, lending extra spirit and spontaneity to their widely acclaimed and widely known harmony singing.
Once again, Eric and Leigh have matched their typically fine songwriting with astute song collecting. The brothers cast a wide net and found surprising material among some of today's best Americana artists, including Kieran Kane, Bruce Robison, and Chris Knight. And they've interpreted those worthy works next to traditional standards like "Twenty One Years" and "The Prisoner's Song," as well as some leaps of imagination like setting Ray Charles' "I Got A Woman" and the Rolling Stones' "It's All Over Now" to a bluegrass backbeat.
For their own part, Leigh brought in "The Barn Song," a vividly wrought picture of a barn in which the guys played as kids on their grandmother's farm. It's both a perceptive memoir and a comment on how places change. Meanwhile Eric contributed the elegy-like "We Won't Dance Again," also a true story, and a sad one, in the old time bluegrass way.
The past year saw more change than usual in the Gibson Brothers' universe. Chiefly, they supplemented their band, adding two new members in the wake of mandolinist Marc MacGlashan's departure. Fiddle player Clayton Campbell came from Adrienne Young's band Little Sadie, while new mandolinist Rick Hayes is a multi-instrumentalist and producer from Cincinnati. Beyond that, the Gibsons' long-time bass player and friend Mike Barber was elevated to co-producer, where Eric and Leigh, long-time self-producers, could take even greater advantage of his astute musicality.
Red Letter Day was cut during the transition to the new band, so the Gibsons planned on tapping Nashville for a variety of guest sidemen. Some of the first calls went to friends Ronnie McCoury and Jason Carter, multi-award winning mandolinist and fiddler of the Del McCoury Band. "Well, the second day we recorded we had Ronnie and Jason come in, and everything just clicked," recalled Eric. "So we said, 'What are you doing tomorrow?' They came back and back until they'd worked on nearly the whole album." Also lending their talents were MacGlashan, percussionist Sam Zucchini, steel guitarist Russ Pahl, mandolinist Josh Williams, and vocalist Andrea Zonn.
The resulting opus will be a valued addition for the Gibsons' many enthusiastic fans and a revelation for newcomers to the band's distinctive sound. Certainly by releasing this large amount of high quality work, they're delivering on the promise of their 1998 International Bluegrass Music Association Award, when they were named Emerging Artist of the Year. They've done more than emerge. They've arrived, but only after much hard work and development.
Eric and Leigh were born less than a year apart and grew up on a dairy farm in Ellenburg Depot, near the Canadian border in New York. They tended cows, braved incredible cold, went to school and listened to classic country music. When they were in their early teens, they began playing guitar and banjo and were prodded into performing together by an overly enthusiastic minister.
"He’d announce sometimes on Sunday morning, 'The Gibson boys will be coming tonight for evening service.’ And he hadn’t even asked us yet!" recalls Eric with a laugh. "But he’d said it, so we’d have to! And I remember him saying, ‘Boys, the music is great, but you really need to learn words to these songs. That’s what touches people.' We were so shy to do that. But we started."
Eric got serious about the banjo after hearing Flatt & Scruggs’ famous live album from Carnegie Hall. Leigh focused on guitar. Under the tutelage of renowned resophonic guitarist Junior Barber, the Gibsons formed a bluegrass band in the early nineties, with Junior's son, Mike Barber, on upright bass. Their debut album came out in 1994, and they began the long and patient process of earning a reputation in the slow-changing world of bluegrass.
Musically, the Gibsons latched onto the blue elegance of Emmylou Harris, the West Coast country harmonies of Buck Owens and Don Rich, as well as the founding fathers of bluegrass: Bill Monroe, the Stanley Brothers, Reno & Smiley, Jim & Jesse and others. To hear the Gibsons now, one imagines the Louvin Brothers were a seminal influence, but Leigh says they discovered them later, in their 20s.
"When people started telling us, 'Boy, you sound like the Louvin Brothers,’ we said, ‘Well, thank you.’ And then we said to ourselves, ‘We’d better find out who those guys are!'" In the Louvins, the Gibsons found a level of artistry and an approach to vocal collaboration that drew them in. Early in their career, Eric and Leigh recorded Louvin standards "You’re Running Wild" and "Are You Teasing Me?" and they've continued to tap that distinguished body of work, even as they've ranged far from standard bluegrass repertoire.
Ten years of touring and recording was rewarded in 2003 when the Gibson Brothers were invited to debut on the Grand Ole Opry. It remains one of their most precious experiences. "[Announcer] Eddie Stubbs and [host] Jim Ed Brown really played up that it was our first time, so they got the crowd on our side right away," Eric remembers. "I have a recording of it. The response was just like I had dreamed it would be. We were scared and the crowd could sense that. But we also didn't fall apart. It was one of the highlights of my life, not just musically. I got emotional about it."
There will be more milestones and more grand stages for the Gibsons. They've proven their capacity to mature and evolve from album to album while developing the core of their artistry. They've made fans who buy a brand new album and ask at the merch booth when the next one's coming. It's the kind of career momentum only folks in bluegrass might understand. "It's not a rocket ride to the top," Eric says. "It's a slow and steady hot air balloon ride. That's what we're on, I hope."