Thursday, June 20, 2013

Gibson Brothers – They Called It Music – CD Review

The Gibson Brothers have released their eleventh album in a twenty year career to rave reviews. After six straight number one's on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts, it's little surprise that this one is climbing up the bluegrass charts too, including the Billboard Bluegrass Chart.  There's no reason they won't get there with this masterpiece of new work, also. Their body of work, for that it has certainly become, carries with it the burden of continuing to create new material within the unique band sound and sensibility characterizing Gibson Brothers songs. When they release an album, it always presents music that represents the best they can offer. There's a level of thoughtfulness and sincerity in their material that many other artists can only hope for. In this album, TheyCalled It Music, (Compass Records and all recording outlets) they've once again achieved their goal and may even have surpassed it. In a year in which they lost their father, their work shows added depth and maturity, combining a sense of loss with the inevitable triumph that follows. Even more than in previous releases, They Called It Music grows in depth and nuance with repeated hearings. While it's good on first hearing, repeated playing of the songs in this collection leave no doubt about the continued growth of this group. The songs meld together into a whole that's even greater than its parts.The Gibson Brothers also record with their real road band, a rare treat these days.

Containing twelve songs, six written solely or in collaboration with others by Eric and Leigh, with the six others carefully chosen from new and historical sources. They reach back as far as 1913 to rearrange a song by Austin Taylor as well as including new songs by or in collaboration with Joe Newberry and Shawn Camp. Other songs look as far away as Loretta Lynn and Mark Knopfler. Each one brings a particular sensibility of its writer while never straying from the quality of compassion, loss, joy, hope, and encouragement the Gibson Brothers exude. The CD is appropriately dedicated to the late Kelley John Gibson (1941 – 2012) whose life has inspired so much of their work. Let's take a look at each one:

Leigh & Eric Gibson

Buy a Ring, Find a Preacher by Eric and Joe Walsh, with an assist from Leigh opens the album with a lilting ditty that at the same time speaks to the dilemma faced by every worker on the road.

I've had one foot in and one foot out
You've stood firm without a doubt
Words that always worked before
Tonight can't make you stay.

The refrain of a guy who just has difficulty committing, but it may not be today. The problem is one faced especially by musicians on the road, confronted with temptations and opportunities not regularly available to all travelers. Nevertheless, the singer is closer to making the choice to commit to his loved one while still wishing to remain on the road. He suggests a music man shouldn't have to make the choice between two kinds of lives and loves. Regardless, there's a happiness in the song and not a hint of doubt, finally....

The title song of this CD “They Called It Music” is destined to be one of the Gibson Brothers masterpieces, quickly moving from workshop form, where we first heard it, to the concert stage, to recording, to shooting up the charts. The song was suggested by a question Joe Newberry, Gibson friend and frequent writer of excellent songs for the duo, had asked an old musician in the mountains. When asked about what they called his style of music, the old man responded, “Son, they called it musc.” Eric couldn't resist the response, which grew into this great song. The Gibson Brothers tend not to be “in your face” about their music, but with this song, the Gibson Brothers' gentle way challenges the concept of musical genre as inferior to matters of melody, lyric, meaning, and intent. Music transcends daily concerns like money and reaches to the core of human experience. The music comes from within, not requiring those who make it to read or learn it, but rather to respond to it and make it.

They called it music
in the church house, in the fields
It was honest, it was simple
And it helped the hard times heal.

The song has reached the #1 spot three times on the Bluegrass Today chart and is #1 on a recent XM/Sirius chart. It peaked at #4 on the Billboard Bluegrass (sales) chart. 

They Called It Music - Video

The Darker the Night, the Better I See is a Joe Newberry song tailored for Leigh's voice. Written from the point of view of a perpetual honky-tonker, the song suggests that the singer's vision becomes better the darker the night becomes. It also carries within it, the thought that the difficulties and dark times which enfold us at the hardest periods in our lives carry with them the light that can lift depression and sadness. The final line, beginning, “You heard me right” suggests the singer is aware of the ambiguity of finding light in the midst of darkness, and is grateful for it. For some, this song carries the message of a good gospel song within the life of one confronting hardships. 

The Darker the Night, The Better I See - Video;

Some years ago, Shawn Camp, one of the most creative young song writers around, and Loretta Lynn wrote Dying for Someone to Live For, another song taking two opposites and fitting them together. This CD is filled with remarkable contrasts: dying and living, darkness and light, sundown and sorrow. This song, written in ¾ time, seeks to find the antidote for loneliness, and. as usually happens, it's another person, in this case, unknown. The singer questions why he can't find another person to fit into his life.

And the weeping willow cries
Every time a good love says goodbye
I hear the tide coming in on the shore
I'm dying for someone to live for.

The melody lies firmly on Clayton Campbell's able bow as it cries out loneliness and loss. Leigh and Eric's voices blend and caress the song in its unvarnished sense of loss and longing. 

Dying for Someone to Live For - Video

Eric's banjo introduces I'll Work it Out, a song of hope and confidence in the face of the kind of serious problems that face us as we encounter the big questions in life. The banjo is essentially a cheerful instrument that drives this song through difficulties to unknown but inevitable strong solutions.

When my last bridge is burning
and I cannot find a friend
With whispers all around me
Sayin' no way he can win
I'll work it out, I'll work it Out
I'll find a way to work it out.

An example of a Gibson Brothers song many years in the making, Eric took an incident from the period when he was anticipating the risk of turning to making music full time and allowed the weight of time and the complementary skills of his brother to come together into a song of optimism and hope relying on familiar themes and responses without ever resorting to cliches or hackneyed language, showing the art and skills of a thoughtful poetic craftsman. Such simplicity is not easily achieved.

Mike Barber

Written with Shawn Camp, Something Coming to Me has been an enigma to me since I first heard it months ago. As I listened and wrote at 4:45 AM I looked to Eric's superb Journal on the Gibson Brothers web site. Turns out “something coming to me” has multiple meaning, most of which appear in this wonderful and nuanced song. As Eric says, it refers to a new idea or event just over the horizon; what's coming in the future, no matter how unknown. It can also refer to what a person has earned through effort and sweat. It asks “where are the rewards I've worked so hard for?” The song looks backward and forward simultaneously. Leigh sings:

My Momma told me son,
there ain't no guarantees
But ain't I got
Something comin' to me?

The plaintive loneliness in his voice accompanied by his elegantly simple figures on the guitar communicate both loss and hope, the possibility that through work, love, and prayer the future will open up is always there. “The road of love just winds on by me, I don't know where it leads.” Finally, the “something” in the song is help and understanding, gifts we can all ask and pray for, whether, like the singer, we know how to pray or not.

Something Coming to Me - Video;  

Mark Knopfler's “Daddy's Gone to Knoxville” is a bouncy song featuring Joe Walsh's complex mandolin figures and elegant timing as well as fiddler Clayton Campbell's oh-so-excellent backup and solo work. The lightness and freedom of the road provides a carefree view of the world which is well-interpreted by the almost always happy sound of the banjo. Who can keep from smiling when the banjo is there?

Left in this dusty old world without joy
Lost in the weeds like a forgotten toy
Makes me wonder what I'm hangin' round here for.

The loss of loved ones inevitably leads to questions about the value of life. Eric wrote this very bluegrassy song that, typical of some of the best bluegrass, asks difficult questions in a sunny, forward looking way. It suggests that the hope for the future is difficult to grasp, while always just out of reach somewhere down the road. Not the least bit bleak, the song still lingers on the edge of loss as Dusty Old World asks, “What's a man to do?” The instrumental work of the Gibson Brothers always services the song. All five members of the band, each a master of his own instrument, seek to complement the lyric and tune, never intruding, but always contributing. Listening to Gibson Brothers music means developing an increased appreciation for the backup instrumental work of each man, without its ever intruding on meaning or effect. Creating such wholeness may be what makes the Gibson Brothers band great. 

Home on the River is a Delmore Brothers song. As the Gibson Brothers become more interested in their own image as a “brother duo” they appear to be seeking out earlier works by brother duos to include in their CDs. This is a gospel song featuring most prominently the voices of the two brothers which blend and twine so effectively.

Joe Walsh

Roy Hurd and Elizabeth Hill wrote “I Will Always Cross Your Mind,” a touching love song redolent with references clear to anyone who spends much time in the Adirondacks – the ridge line, morning sun warming the skin, lonesome wind whispering in the pines.

Run if you must from my memory
Let the night tell you that it's gone.
When you stop to catch your breath
There I'll be right beside you
gently holding on.

Bob Paisley, of Southern Grass and Danny Paisley's late father, covered Sundown and Sorrow the Hank Williams version of the Pee Wee King/J.L.King song of lost love. It's a lilting bluegrass love song. The kind of song that belongs on every good bluegrass album. The distinctive Gibson blend keeps this otherwise pretty prosaic song working. Mike Barber's bass, as always in Gibson Brothers work keeps his beat always in the right place at the right time, driving the song forward with the best bass players in the music. There's also a solid guitar break from Leigh. Throughout the CD, Leigh's guitar is always present and contributing without gratuitously calling attention to itself with unnecessary virtuosity. The song makes a worthwhile nod to an earlier era of bluegrass that influenced the current music of the Gibsons. 

Clayton Campbell

The Songbird's Song” written by Eric after hours of tossing without sleep in Denmark, is a most fitting end to this fine album which speaks so much to the brothers' sense of loss after their Dad's death.

Now the birds have beat the sun up
I don't know what they're singing for
But they ease my mind from racing
I'm not as lonesome as before
And I know it may sound funny
And I know it could be wrong
But it seems like life is out there
In a little songbird's song.

While the song seems elegiac, expressing loss and loneliness, it nevertheless sees the daybreak, the dawning of a new reality just ahead and looks forward with hope. Joe Walsh's bird song on the mandolin captures the bird itself in all its fullness. The longest song on the CD, it brings a fitting end to a great piece of work. Words don't always suffice, so the fiddle, the ooh, ooh, ooh of the singing duo along with Clayton's drawn out final note fade out as the sun rises.

It's impossible to escape the fact that much of They Called It Music was written and all of it recorded in the period after the loss of Eric and Leigh Gibson's father, who appears in so many of their songs, and who's spirit is redolent in so many more, from their reminiscences of life on the farm in rural upstate New York to their gratitude for the musical heritage and work ethic he passed on to them. Many of the songs reference loss and grief. Nevertheless, the essential optimism of the best of the Gibson Brothers' work flows clearly and naturally through the fabric of this magnificently structured and rendered CD. Those who merely download cuts will inevitably miss out on the massed effect of this project, which continues to haunt and inspire, growing in richness and detail with listening to each song and hearing the work through and through in its entirety. By refusing to be stampeded into releasing annual albums; by refining and developing each song through multiple performances, workshops, and work sessions; by carefully selecting appropriate songs from a treasured world of contemporary and historical writers, the Gibson Brothers continue to forge the future of their own music, while never losing contact with what brought them to where they are. They Called It Music, as both an album and a song is worthy of recognition in the world of awards, but, perhaps better still,  as a significant contribution to how we, as listeners, live our lives.

Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson

Many thanks to John Saroyan, Katy Daley and, always, Irene for ideas that helped me approach this CD with new eyes. 


  1. Ted, I love your approach to this review. It is one of the best I've seen of this album.

  2. Ted, Your approach to this CD was really masterful. So often song by song reviews get bogged down in repetition and overkill. (I know because I've done it) Not this one. You take each song, identify its individuality and value, then tie it to the whole. Someone listening to the CD and following along with this review would find an enrichment in the experience. It truly is a landmark album for the Gibson Brothers and your review contributes to showing just why that is the case. Well done, sir.
    jim bourey
    dover, de and dickinson center, ny

  3. Ted, Your approach to this CD was really masterful. So often song by song reviews get bogged down in repetition and overkill. (I know because I've done it) Not this one. You take each song, identify its individuality and value, then tie it to the whole. Someone listening to the CD and following along with this review would find an enrichment in the experience. It truly is a landmark album for the Gibson Brothers and your review contributes to showing just why that is the case. Well done, sir.
    jim bourey
    dover, de and dickinson center, ny