Friday, February 27, 2015

Brotherhood by the Gibson Brothers - Review

These days there's a heavy emphasis on combining the role of singer and songwriter. Performers are urged to write original material and record it themselves. This has the advantage for them in that they can maintain two revenue streams as both the singer and the song writer. But it hasn't always been so. During the twenties and long into the heyday of many of the brother duos who recorded these wonderful songs, there were plenty of men and women making a living as song writers, plugging their material to publishers and record producers on Tin Pan Alley, in the Brill Building, in Nashville, and in Hollywood. The downside of the current practice is that many fewer songs are covered by several artists. Fewer opportunities exist for performers to interpret and reinterpret the work of others, because of the nature of the industry. In Brotherhood, the Gibson Brothers, known for both their great writing and beautiful singing, have turned current practice on its head, selecting the work of well known brother duos from the twenties to near contemporary days, giving each song their own spin and the touch and sound that those who know them will immediately recognize as The Gibson Brothers, no matter who has previously recorded the song, familiar or not.

The Everly Brothers

Since this album features singers rather than song writers, it's quite interesting that Eric and Leigh have chosen three strongly contrasting songs by the Everly Brothers, perhaps the seminal brother duo of the fifties and sixties in the move through country and folk music into rockabilly and rock 'n' roll. They are members of both the Country Music Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. It's interesting, though, that Crying in the Rain, was written expressly for the Everly Brothers by Carole King, a hugely important writer in the move towards dominance by singer/songwriters,. The Gibson Brothers have had much success, too, in bridging the gap between country, rock, and bluegrass, finding seams between the genres where their sound and sensibility fit and prove pleasing. The Gibson's don't encounter chair clappers saying “that's not bluegrass!” They add a quality to Long Time Gone which is absent in the saccharine quality of the Everlys, making it at once more contemporary and a little edgier, while maintaining the original intent of the song. Their Bye Bye Love almost channels the Everlys while still being their own. In it you can hear Sam Zuchini's light touch on drums with Clayton Campbell's bell clear yet understated fiddle right there. Jesse Brock, on mandolin contributes clean, restrained work, while the brothers play their now famous Henderson twin guitars. Their fully acoustic sound here stands them in good stead.

The Blue Sky Boys

While the liner notes for Eastbound Train say the Gibsons learned the song from Doc Watson, it's actually much older than that, first copyrighted in 1896 by James Thornton and Clara Hauenschild and later recorded by several people, including the Blue Sky Boys in 1940. The Blue Sky Boys were Bill and Earl Bollick, most active during the depression era and retired in 1951 only to record a couple of albums for Starday in the sixties and a Rounder recording in 1974. When I hear this song, I can't help seeing Mary Pickford looking winsomely up from her seat at the kindly conductor, a portly man with a watch fob stretched across his belly listening to her sad tale in a black and white silent melodrama with elaborate scrolled titles. The Gibsons capture the pathos of the moment perfectly. In The Sweetest Gift, A Mother's Smile, Jesse Brock's mellow, sweet mandolin kickoff sets the tone for the entire song. Previously recorded by The Blue Sky Boys and (according to Eric's Journal on the origins of these songs, the Bailey Brothers & the Happy Valley Boys, too) the song risks falling into pathos, but is rescued by its pure beauty and rendition.

The Church Brothers & their Blue Ridge Ramblers
with song writer Drusilla Adams

An Angel with Blue Eyes is a straight bluegrass song with an upbeat tempo first recorded by the Church Brothers, active in the area around Wilkesboro, NC during the 1950's who would have been lost to posterity had not Ken Irwin of Rounder Records taken an active interest in them, suggesting the Gibson Brothers take a look at their work. The original can be found on You Tube in an album called “Authentic Rare Bluegrass Vol. 1” released in 2013. The song was written by Bill Church & Drusilla Adams Smith. It provides Eric with the opportunity to play one of longest banjo solos in the album. As often happens in bluegrass songs, the angel has departed for another world, and the sound and feel of the song is reminiscent of a Bill Monroe “true story” song.

The Gibson Brothers at Gettysburg
Photo by Frank Baker

The Osborne Brothers

For two men who come from the furthest reaches of northern New York, within only a couple of miles of the Canadian border, the changes in seasons carry real resonance, as does Each Season Changes You, a song sung by the Osborne Brothers during the height of their prominence from the fifties to near the end of the twentieth century. According to Wikipedia, they were known “for their virtuosic instrumentation and tight, melodic vocal harmonies.” Sound familiar? As a recording band, they were most prominent from the sixties to the early 80's. The Osborne's recorded the song in the fall of 1960 The Gibson Brothers asked Ronnie Reno (who once played in the Osborne Brothers band) to give them a hand with the Osborne high harmonies on this cut.

The Louvin Brothers

After listening to versions of I Have Found the Way by both the Monroe Brothers and the Louvin Brothers, Eric and Leigh decided to pick up the tempo and cut out most of instrumentation found in the other versions, limiting it to Jesse Brock's wonderful work on the mandolin and their own guitars. As in many other gospel songs, they continue the tradition of singing the lyrics in a call and response style that weaves around the song, coming together at the end of each chorus. When Bill Monroe recorded this song in 1936 (?) he was very much in search of a signature sound. The Louvin Brothers' version is much nearer what the Gibsons sound like, but the clarity and vision of the Gibsons recreates the song.

Eric & Leigh Gibson
Photo by Irene Lehmann

The Louvin Brothers are the brother duo with whom the Gibson Brothers are most often compared. From the stage they often credit the Louvins as major influences on their singing. I'm Troubled, I'm Troubled, like so many storied bluegrass songs takes on topics which, in fact, out to be troubling and presents them in a bouncy, happy way. “If trouble don't kill me, I'll live a long time.” Seven Year Blues, on the other hand, carries the loss of a lover to considerable, almost laughable extremes as the singer continues to carry a torch.

The Stanley Brothers

The Stanley Brothers well-known version of How Mountain Girls Can Love is a staple around the jam circle, always played the way Ralph and Carter played it, at breakneck speed. The Gibson Brothers have recreated it into waltz time and slowed it down, allowing listeners to savor it. What a wonderful reinterpretation of this song that every jammer knows!

Tompall & the Glaser Brothers

Tompall (Glaser) & the Glaser Brothers were an extremely popular and innovative country trio who were at the height of their popularity in the fifties after they were discovered on Arthur Godfrey's talent scouts and sixties when they were inducted into the Grand Old Opry. They were among the first artists to publish their own material, including John Hartford's Gentle on My Mind. Russ Purl plays pedal steel guitar on this cut with Sam Zuchini on drums. A love song, It'll Be Her, has a light, romantic tone to it with a sense that the girl can provide the answer, “she's every woman I have ever known rolled up in one.... Who wouldn't sing about her? Listening to Tompall singing a lead slightly reminiscent of Waylon Jennings with an insistent driving beat behind the song provides a sharp contrast to the Gibson Brothers close and almost worshipful adoration of her. The song retains a strong country spirit through the use of tasteful drums and pedal steel.

The Brewster Brothers

In addition to being sung by The Brewster Brothers, What a Wonderful Savior He Is has been recorded by Larry Sparks and Carl Story, among others. The Brewster Brothers were active in the Knoxville music scene during the fifties, and also recorded with other brother duos like the Webster Brothers and the Bailey Brothers to form gospel quartets. They also recorded with Carl Story. One of the joys of Leigh's lead singing here is the simplicity and clarity of his voice. There's no ornamentation or fanciness to be found, just straight, respectful lyric. Ron McCoury plays mandolin with Rob on Banjo on this cut. Rob and Ron McCoury join vocally to help recreate the Brewster/Webster combine as a quartet.

The York Brothers

The York Brothers came from Louisa, Kentucky and were popular from the fifties through the early seventies. They recorded Long Gone in 1942 on a 78 rpm record. This song, written by Leslie York, can be confused with Leslie York's song Long Time Gone, discussed earlier as recorded by the Everly brothers, merely because of the title. Phil Wells suggests that the time between the two songs might simply have been long enough that he forgot the title of the earlier work when naming the new one. The York Brothers sound was pure country with lots of pedal steel and electric guitar. While singing two of their songs on this CD, the Gibsons keep it pure acoustic, using plenty of expressive syncopation and lots of mandolin, not found in the York Brothers recordings I listened to.

Jim & Jesse McReynolds

Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes almost sounds like it should be the prelude to An Angel with Blue Eyes and I must say makes me miss her even more. It's a lively song sung by Eric with a twinkle in his voice on a full-out bluegrass representation. Written by Helms and Taube, the song was widely performed by among others Bill Monroe, but the Gibson's fittingly chose Jim & Jesse McReynolds version, out of many, as a representative brother duo to use as a model. The song is a driving bluegrass love ditty with strong fiddle from Clayton Campbell, whose marvelous work is seen in many shades and nuances throughout the CD.

The Gibson Brothers
Clayton Cambell, Eric, Leigh, Mike Barber, Jesse Brock

The enormous difference between “influenced by” and “copying” or “imitating” became increasingly apparent to me as I combed through You Tube to listen to the originals, when they were available. Although almost all of these songs were written before the Gibson Brothers were even born, and many before anything that could be called bluegrass existed, they form a part of the matrix on which bluegrass music is built and continues to evolve. Covers of great songs are often designed to sound just like the originals. Bluegrass connoisseurs will seek to evaluate a cover by its adherence to the original. The current Earls of Leicester tribute to Flat & Scruggs is a surpassingly good example of this. And its what the Gibson Brothers assiduously avoid. Instead, they take the road of honoring and interpreting the song while striving to be true to these, mostly, pre-bluegrass originators or early performers of the songs. In so doing, they rise above the songs, adding to the luster of the music and the performers, while burnishing their own crystal clear performances so they shimmer in the air.

Lee Gibson

Eric Gibson

Phil Wells has commented, “Eric & Leigh have paid a great tribute to brother groups with a style that is both their own and very respectful of the tradition. Brotherhood places the Gibson Brothers in regions where it should catch the ears and imaginations of people who vote in the Grammy selections. Although it may defy genre definition because of its crossover nature, it still deserves consideration for an award. With Brotherhood, the Gibson Brothers have removed any question mark that might still have existed about their belonging in the great line of brother duos and replaced it with an exclamation point!

Signing with Rounder

We were given a copy of Brotherhood by the Gibson Brothers. The CD was engineered by Ben Surratt and mastered Paul Blakemore. The Gibson Brothers touring band of Mike Barber (who also co-produced the album with Eric and Leigh) was augmented by Ronnie Reno, Russ Pahl on pedal steel, Ronnie McCoury, Rob McCoury, and Sam Zuchini on drums. Brotherhood marks the Gibson Brothers first effort with Rounder Records.

The Sweetest Gift, A Mothers Smile from Brotherhood
The Gibson Brothers - Video