Sunday, March 16, 2008

The Gibson Brothers: Iron and Diamonds - Review

The Gibson Brothers have hit a home run with their new CD Iron and Diamonds. Containing twelve songs, seven of which were written by this celebrated brother duo, Iron and Diamonds demonstrates a more reflective view of the world as viewed from their homes in northern New York State and helps expand the world of bluegrass music without ever being untrue to their roots or the music from which they have sprung. In this, their fourth Sugar Hill release, Leigh and Eric have crafted seven new songs, covered songs from sources not always tapped by bluegrass artists, and recorded with as little recording studio technology intervening between them and the product as is possible in this hi-tech world. They recorded much of their singing facing each other using a single microphone, a practice almost unheard of these days. The result is clear and clean with the emphasis on singing and the words themselves. That isn’t to say that musicianship is downplayed in this album. Rather, the focus stays with Eric and Leigh’s singing. Personnel on this CD are the current touring band, aided on a couple of songs by old bandmate Jr. Barber on Dobro and Erin Gibson LaClair, the boys’ sister. By focusing their effort this way, the Gibsons approximate the immediacy found in their stage work while offering the sound quality only found in the studio.

Eric and Leigh Gibson

The disk opens with classic rock and roller Tom Petty’s “Cabin Down Below.” The instrumental kick-off features Eric’s banjo back by Clayton Campbell’s droning fiddle. The bass and mandolin create a sound much like a piano backing the song. The song opens:

Come go with me, babe
Come go with me, girl
Baby, let's go
To the cabin down below

The slow and languid tone belies the singer’s urgency to be alone with the girl. The cabin down below theme echoes the country cabin in a hollow appearing in many bluegrass songs with a bit of a twist. Choosing this particular song signals the Gibsons’ intention to present bluegrass with something of a difference reflecting the large range of their experience and musical interests.


Iron and Diamonds, the second song and disk title, reflects still another element of the boys’ life experience. Lyon Mountain stands tall against the flats surrounding Lake Champlain north of the Adirondack Mountains. Eric and Leigh grew up on a dairy farm near the Canadian border in northern New York State. Lyon Mountain, lying south of their home, contained an iron mine which began to produce in the 1870’s, producing iron ore until 1967. The miners, like many working people who came to the Adirondacks were a tough breed of immigrants who risked their lives daily underground for too little money and respect. The song captures the risk, the dirt, the desperation and the outlet they enjoyed:

Up on Lyon Mountain

The houses look the same

Weathered wood hid wives and kids

And lives that never changed…

The miners go down into the mine which spreads its ugliness about. Leigh sings that “six days went to the company and one to the man above…” The only opportunity for the men of Lyon Mountain to express their inner selves came at the weekly Sunday afternoon baseball games. Eric’s banjo takes on an old-timey droning sound in a minor key with Clayton’s fiddle behind, somehow capturing the loneliness of their lives and the danger the miners faced. Mike Barber’s insistent bass beat keeps the song moving forward. Immigrant Americans seldom appear in bluegrass songs, but the Polish, Lithuanian, Italian, and Irish miners populate this song with their spirit and energy as they “dug into America, down a hole deep, dark, and cruel.” The miners discover freedom “between the foul lines” as they play the peculiarly American game of baseball. This song, largely written by Leigh, captures the dignity and spirit of these men as they become a part of their adopted country. It captures the imagination of listeners who can feel the life quivering through the song.

Mike Barber

I wouldn’t call “One Step Closer to the Grave” a gospel song, although it treats deeply spiritual questions. The singer, attending a funeral (perhaps his wife’s), realizes the emptiness of his life and his own mortality as he moves “one step closer to the grave.” He finds his Bible, hits his knees, and reads the red lines, finding a lost faith. Rick Hayes’ mandolin solo and Leigh’s guitar punctuate the passion expressed through Eric’s singing and the insistent lyric. Again, Clayton’s fiddle sets up the singer’s sense of aging as he confronts his own sinful life.

Rick Hayes

Eric describes Steve Earle’s 1997 song “The Other Side of Town” as a “honky tonkin’ grass tune.” They take Earle’s pedal steel backed solo and turn it into a lively search through the self to discover the brighter possibilities of life in a true bluegrass song.

When I’m sad and blue

And I’m feelin’ all alone

There’s a place that I go to,

That no one knows.

That’s the place where loneliness, death, and emptiness live. The way to escape this world is to seek out the one you love and keep close to that person to escape going to the dark places “on the other side of town.” The dark places within us are dangerous and self-destructive. Love provides the solution to this risk. Again, grassing this piece gives it life and hope for the future. Jr. Barber, long a member of this band, does a guest stint on Dobro providing the sound Earle used in his pedal steel backed version. This song has moved from country to bluegrass without skipping a beat.

Clayton Campbell

When first The Country Gentlemen and then The Seldom Scene took folk-rock and rock songs by Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, and the Beatles and turned them into what are now bluegrass standards, they pointed the way for bluegrass. A few years ago, The Grascals took Elvis Presley’s rockabilly song Viva Las Vegas and did the same. The Gibson Brothers continue in this tradition with Julie Miller’s rock blues “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go,” as well as in the earlier reviewed Tom Petty song. In covering Judy Miller’s “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go,” Eric and Leigh have taken Miller’s bluesy rock piece and turned it into an upbeat bluegrass song filled with enthusiasm for avoiding trouble:

Take me, take me somewhere trouble don’t go,

Make me, make me someone trouble don’t know.

Leigh’s guitar solo in the center of this song supported by Rick Hayes’ strong chop morphs into Hayes’ solo with Leigh behind him in a most interesting fashion. The longest song on the album, it captures the joy of the Gibson’s singing harmonies as well as the dynamic range of the band with its driving and insistent beat.


In another lifetime, not so long ago,” Leigh and Eric begin without any instrumental lead. Barber walks up with a bass run, and then Leigh continues, “I could make you happy, Now that isn’t so.” The song is all melody and harmony with the bass, guitar, and mandolin providing a rhythmic background while no fiddle or banjo plays. Eric plays lead guitar on this one with Leigh backing on rhythm while he also sings lead. “Lonely Me, Lonely You,” has a lost love sadness to it, simplicity emphasizing the power of lost love. Eric’s minimalist high harmony sounds almost like a ghost behind the lead. The song ends on a note of hopeful longing, while the tune suggests that no amount of trying will make enough difference. “Let’s pretend we never knew, Lonely me, Lonely you.”


Writing about the frustration of the road must be an irresistible draw for musicians. Recently The Infamous Stringdusters, Blue Highway, and now the Gibson Brothers have written and sung about finding one’s way on the lonely and demanding musical road. In “Picker’s Blues” Eric laments the demands of the road and of working to create constantly and simultaneously maintain a relationship. “Is it ego, is it pride, That makes me roam this country wide? I got the picker’s blues.” The agony of the artist is highlighted in this song. No matter what the costs are, making the music and meeting its demands are the muse the singer must follow. This difficult choice has challenged all artists in one way or another. Perhaps the challenge of genius has its cost in lost relationships.

In “A World So Full of Love” the Gibsons tap still another unusual source. Roger Miller, a sixties country-pop singer best known for “King of the Road,” but also winner of eleven Grammy awards and a Tony award for his work on a Broadway musical, seems an unlikely source for a bluegrass song. Their slight change in the lyric actually improves on Miller’s original country song.

I know how it feels to be alive with no desire to live,

I know how it feels to never take and always have to give.

To be let down by your lover in a world filled with love, when there still isn’t enough to go around might lead to despair without the hope of the song. The fiddle kicks this one off with a bouncy banjo and mandolin behind it. As in many bluegrass songs, the message of loneliness and desertion is denied by the essentially hopeful voice of the singing. Eric’s banjo is again played in a somewhat darker and plunkier sound than his usually brilliant sound.


“Angry Man” is perhaps the darkest song in this collection.

It seems mankind’s

got out of whack,

Have we gone so far,

That we can’t get back?”

The singer laments the mess the world’s in, but he’s grown older without seeing much chance that people or nations will change for the better. This short and to the point song is perhaps the most contemporary in subject matter and expresses the greatest despair of any song in the set. Despite the singer’s willingness to work together with others to implement some sort of plan, he doesn’t see much change in the world. He begs both left and right to get it right, but just doesn’t see anything happening. He asks whether he’s the only angry man. This is one of the most socially aware songs ever written by the Gibson Brothers while remaining non-partisan and uncontroversial. It has an uncharacteristic bitter tinge to it, but it’s a truly great topical song.

“Bloom off the Rose” is a more standard bluegrass song about how living life kills the enthusiasm and zest in a relationship, forcing us to grow up and face reality. It’s a catchy tune about lost love that’ll be sung around campfires. It’s set in the context of a marriage growing apart as each partner goes separate ways until she finds a new man, seeing the singer as a dreamer. “Long Way Down” shows how easy it is to lose our dreams and head for the bottom. The singer sees his love as living in a high and mighty world removed from real people and not seeing how far she has to fall. He admonishes her to “hold on tight to your dreams, if you got ‘em. Don’t you know it’s a long way down? This very melodic song has a lyrical tone, perhaps the best tune of the lot. It’s a song that could become a bluegrass standard.

The liner notes say the boys got this Bill Carlisle song “Gone Home” from hearing it sung by the HewHaw gospel quartet. It’s a terrific gospel tune to end an album with. Bringing together much of what has contributed to the Gibson Brothers sound over the years, the song features Jr. Barber on Dobro and Erin Gibson LaClair, their sweet-singing younger sister, contributing harmony. As the Gibson Brothers’ band has become a more cohesive ensemble unit, their need to feature guest artists has decreased. By adding Jr. Barber and Erin LaClair, they have truly kept it in the family while adding a degree of diversity. This is their first release made with the current touring band including their original bass player Mike Barber, as well as Clayton Campbell on fiddle and Rick Hayes on mandolin. The Sugar Hill release works as a whole, being thoughtfully constructed and hanging together. The individual songs may lose some of their effectiveness when not listened to as part of an album, so purchasing the entire CD makes a lot of sense. The songs will be available for download on March 15th and in stores and available on-line as of April 15th. On March 20th at 9:00 AM Kyle Cantrell will be doing a cut-by-cut analysis on XM radio channel 14 with Leigh and Eric. This program will certainly be repeated. They will be appearing at the Blue Plate Special on WDVX in Knoxville on April 9th followed by a live interview on XM on the tenth. That evening the Gibsons will have a release party at the Station Inn in Nashville. All this will culminate with an appearance on the Grand Ol’ Opry on Friday, April 11th. For Gibson Brothers fans this will be another great addition to your collection of their material. If this fine band is new to you, this one offers a good introduction to them. They’ll be touring in support of this CD at festivals and other events for the next several months. Keep an eye on their web site for news of where they’ll be appearing near you.

The Gibson Brothers