Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Gibson Brothers at Essex County Fairgrounds

Essex County, nestled in the northwest corner of New York State, is a little less than twice the size of Rhode Island and has a permanent population of around 38,000 people.  It  reaches the highest altitude in New York on Mt. Marcy and also borders Lake Champlain, a lake of surpassing beauty and historical importance.  The entire county is located within the 6,000,000 acre Adirondack Park and is one of the wildest and most rural areas east of the Mississippi.  Eric and Leigh Gibson grew up just north of the Park in Clinton County near the Canadian border.  People who stereotype New York often wonder how these two brothers could have grown up in The Empire State and become the blockbuster, dynamic bluegrass band they have. Suffice it to say that northern New York is as Country as it gets and there's plenty of bluegrass along the border.  When a band achieves the level of national recognition the Gibsons have, it becomes the goto musical group for benefit fund raisers.  The Essex County Mental Health Association needs such support as much as any group does, so on Saturday the 28th, an enthusiastic crowd assembled to cheer their home town favorites and support this cause. 

The Essex County Fairgrounds

 Carol and John Came from Wisconsin

Justin Voss Travels to See the Brothers, Too

Speedy Arnold Opens

Speedy Arnold owns and operates a grocery store and a liquor store in Keeseville, NY and is well known throughout the region as a singer/songwriter.  He's also a talented artist who has published several books of his drawings.  His style, mostly contemporary folk, is pleasant and his songs are topical and funny.  Somehow, the rumor had surfaced that The Gibson Brothers were closing for Speedy Arnold, so he wrote a song to debunk that myth.  He also offered a witty piece about why he's not a golfer and a tribute song to these brothers who've succeeded beyond local expectations.  Alice Knight, widow of well loved banjo player Doug Knight, who sadly died of ALS some months ago joined Speedy for a couple of songs, too. 

Speedy and Alice Knight Sing

Alice Knight

Eric and His Family

This summer, Eric's son Kelley has traveled with him to several festivals and enjoyed himself immensely.  He even got to play Ricky Skaggs' priceless Loar mandolin.  This was the first time this summer, though, that we'd had the pleasure of seeing Eric's lovely wife Corina.  The Gibson Brothers' song "She Paints a Picture" was written for her.

Kelley Gibson


The Gibson Brothers

This year the Gibson Brothers have been nominated for four major International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) awards.  They've been nominated for Vocal Group of the Year, Album of the Year (Ring the Bell), Song of the Year (Ring the Bell), and Gospel Song of the Year (Ring the Bell).  Still, some people are prone to ask, "Where did these guys come from?"   They've worked long and hard during their nearly twenty years on the road to perfect their song writing skills, their vocal harmonies, and to bring together a fine group of musicians to support their work.  They were recognized in 1998 as "Emerging Artist of the Year" but then made a move to Nashville that put them on the back burner for several years.  Over the past six or so years, all five of their CD releases have reached #1 on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts, and "Ring the Bell" stands as the culmination of their art, recorded with their current touring band and containing a majority of songs written by them.  As of this writing, the song "Farm of Yesterday" has reached the number one position on the BU chart while the Album Ring the Bell remains listed, after leading the chart for months. At several festivals during the year (We saw this at Strawberry Park, and Podunk, while we heard about it at Grey Fox) their song writing workshops have been the biggest draws of the festival.  They are currently at a festival in Ireland, and performed in Germany last spring, extending their reach to the international level.  This has been a great year for The Gibson Brothers. 

While much attention has been paid to the singing and song writing of the Gibson Brothers, it's worth noting that both are superb on their instruments as well.  In the years we've watched them, Leigh, who has always been an extremely strong rhythm guitar player has made continued advances as a flat-picker, too.  His flat picking is strong and distinctive.  Eric is one of the few banjo players who picks while he sings. Watch how few other banjo players sing, and of those who do, how many either chop or just hold their instruments while they sing.  Eric keeps on rolling through his singing and finds time and energy for licks and fills between phrases of his vocals.  Their instrumental virtuosity has been under-recognized as one of their major strengths. 



Noted for their evocative song writing and their close harmonies, Eric and Leigh Gibson grew up on a dairy farm near the Canadian border west of Plattsburgh, NY.  Country music pervaded their home and they attended festivals on both sides of the border.  They graduated from SUNY Plattsburgh with degrees in English.  Many of their songs capture the sense of loss at the passing of rural life in America.  In song after song, "The Barn Song," "Farm of Yesterday," "Bottomland" "Iron and Diamonds" nominated for Song of the Year in 2009, "Railroad Line," and many more, they have captured the essence of American life and made it real in song.  Meanwhile, their music, while clearly rooted in bluegrass and fully in the mainstream, reflects the country and rock music they grew up with.  These strands draw together to make these two brothers the most compelling weavers of song to be found.  Even covering The Band, The Louvin Brothers, Jimmy Martin, Tom Petty and others, they bring their own unique sensibilities to music from bluegrass history as well as turning songs from other genre's into genuine bluegrass classics.  

The Gibson Brothers Band
Mike Barber

Mike has played bass for The Gibson Brothers for eighteen years.  While appearing to be still nearly a teenager, he brings maturity and years of experience to the band.  His bass playing, while never having received the recognition it undoubtedly deserves, features both rock solid sense of the beat and inventive figures that help create the full Gibson Brothers sound.  Posted just to beside Leigh's left shoulder, Mike combines with Leigh to help create the powerful rhythm section in this band.  His occasional bass solos are lively and inventive.  Mike has received production credit on at least one Gibson Brothers release and is acknowledged by both brothers as a crucial cog in the decision making apparatus of the band.  He manages to accomplish all this while remaining quietly in the background.

Leigh and Mike

Clayton Campbell

Clayton comes from near Benton, KY where his Dad, Clay, owns and operates the Kentucky Opry, a venue for country and bluegrass music near the Kentucky resort area known as "The Land Between the Lakes."  He grew up playing fiddle in the house band of the Opry, and has been the Gibson Brothers' fiddler for six years.  He has relocated to Nashville and has recently been married.  Clayton plays the fiddle with an unusual and affecting level of concentration.  If you can draw your eyes away from the Brothers for a few moments, watch his eyes, as he closes them to focus inwards on the music and then rises to the tips of his toes as the music intensifies. Meanwhile, his fiddle reaches screaming heights of expression, capturing precisely the emotions the song calls for.  His fiddle solos are always textbook examples of precise invention while his licks and fills keep the music driving forward.  On fiddle tunes like "Ragtime Annie" and "Old Joe Clark," his work rises to heights few achieve on this most difficult of instruments to play.

Joe Walsh

Joe Walsh was the first mandolin performance student at the esteemed Berklee College of Music in Boston.  He's been with the Gibson Brothers for two years after playing with several regional New England and New York groups including Joy Kills Sorrow.  While still quite young he brings his own inventiveness as well as the modernist sensibilities developed at one of America's premier music schools, a school that doesn't try to pigeon hole students into preconceived ideas of genre identity.  Joe's supple right hand draws tone and power from his mandolin.  His solos are masterpieces of invention, and his powerful chop contributes to the rhythm section that characterizes the Gibson Brothers' sound.  Joe's first solo project is a vibrant piece of work, and his new project is due out soon. 


The Gibson Brothers are never fully satisfied with their achievements and will be returning to the studio this fall to record their second album with Compass Records.  They've already begun playing one song called "Frozen in Time" that they expect to record, a song reflecting one of their enduring themes of the difficulty in keeping up with the times while seeking to retain one's values.  While the past year has been one of accomplishment and recognition for the Gibson Brothers, no one should think they've reached the top of their creativity or are willing to rest on their laurels.  They have much more yet to say and further impact to have on bluegrass music.