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

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Ernie Evans Moving February Festival

Bluegrass entrepreneur Ernie Evans has announced that he is moving the February bluegrass festival currently held at Dixieland RV Park in Waldo, FL to the Florida Classic Park near Brooksville, FL for the 2016 season. The site is located about one mile east of  I-75 exit 301 off Florida route 50 where it has has served as a prime grounds for several very large dog shows over the years. There are over 350 water/electric campsites, an enclosed building, and other amenities. It is near several fast food and other restaurants as well as motels. The lineup includes Blue Highway, Nothin' Fancy, Sideline, and Carolina Road with others still being added. Early Bird tickets are available through Evans Media Source through June 1, 2015 Here's the flyer:

More information to come.....

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

88 Days to Kandahar by Robert L. Grenier - Book Review

Robert L. Grenier's 88 Days to Kandahar (Simon & Schuster, 2015, 465 pages, $28.00/14.99) reads like two different books. When he's writing about the internal politics of the CIA, its relationships, internal rivalries, and policy debates within the vast U.S. Governmental establishment, the book reads like a political thriller, an exciting and engaging novel. However, he seems to delight in going deep into the mind numbing weeds of unpronounceable and unmemorable names of people and places that just won't stay in place in my mind. While both elements are important, it would appear that Grenier has two audiences in mind. The first is a general reader seeking to understand more fully the intricacies and ongoing importance of our engagement in Afghanistan during the late Clinton, Bush, and early Obama administrations. The second book seems to be more aimed at either a middle-east specialist or the kind of political junky who delights in finding error, or even hidden plots, in the minutia of the cloud of war. As a single volume, while at times terrifically engaging, the book is too long by at least a third for the general reader.

As a career CIA officer in the clandestine service, as Station Chief in Islamabad, Pakistan, and as director of Counter Terrorism Center, Grenier's perspective is one of recognizing the seams and stresses within an essentially tribal society and understanding the culture in such a way as to provide support for moving toward rational and effective self government. I've never read anything else that places Afghanistan and Pakistan in such a clear picture of the forces effecting the decisions and actions they take. This is particularly true in the rugged border territories called the Tribal Areas. The Taliban, particularly, is placed within a rational context of providing a counterweight for the unbridled greed and graft of the war lords in the tribal areas. As such, from their narrow, fundamentalist perspective, the Taliban often emerge as a force for good government and rationality, as men who operate out of a religiously motivated self-interest. They can be dealt with, but only within the context of subtle pressure to move in a more useful direction. Thus the cultural sensitivity and low profile are posited as moving in positively for the area. And then came September 11, 2001 turning the United States into a country driven my panicked populace and government seeking rapid, blunt hammer responses.

Much of the remainder of the book describes the internecine struggles between the political, military, and intelligence branches to achieve a victory which would include the elimination of Osama bin Laden and the destruction of Al Qaeda within a context of efforts to place politician/warlord Hamid Karzai in power, despite his all-to-obvious problems, because he appeared to be a pro-western alternative. During an 88 day period, Karzai moves towards Kandahar, Afghanistan's capital, with strong U.S. military, intelligence, and diplomatic support where he becomes the president of a still badly fractured Afghanistan, whose fortunes have vastly improved as American resources are focused on rooting out bin Laden hiding in the tribal areas. Grenier's posture is that if the US government would only leave matters to the pros, ire. the CIA, matters could be worked out. However, the bureaucratic infighting between branches of government and elements within the CIA itself make this impossible, creating chaos and the ultimate destruction of Afghan society as well as the radicalization of Pakistan's government, caught between American aggression to their west and Indian opposition to their east. When Grenier is writing about ther power struggles and clandestine operations, he is at his best, writing taught, driving prose that reads like a novel. Sadly, he sometimes gets lost in the weeds of too many names and places. I found that an occasional look at Google maps was helpful in getting a clearer picture of the geography involved.

Robert L. Grenier

Robert L. Grenier had a much decorated, twenty-seven-year career in the CIA’s clandestine service. A renowned Middle East expert, he has been deputy national intelligence officer for the Near East and South Asia. He organized the CIA’s Counter-Proliferation Division and headed the CIA’s basic training facility, “The Farm.” From 1999 to 2002, he was CIA station chief in Islamabad. Subsequently, he was director of the CIA’s Counter terrorism Center, responsible for all CIA counter terrorism operations around the globe. Currently, Grenier is chairman of ERG Partners, a consulting firm to businesses in the intelligence and security sector. (Publisher's Author Profile)

In 88 Days to Kandahar (Simon & Schuster, 2015, 465 pages, $28.00/14.99) has contributed a very useful addition to the literature of the middle east, serving to increase the understanding of the reader to the complexities of social, religious, and political nuances and forces in the region. He engages in a good deal of score settling with members of the George W. Bush administration, with particular ire aimed at Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, Vice President Dick Cheney, and CIA Director Porter Goss, viewing military intervention as most useful when it is limited and focused. Grenier neglects to write about his eventual firing by CIA Director Porter Goss after his testimony in the CIA leak case and the Scooter Libby leaking trial. This flaw compromises some of the excellent observations he makes throughout the book. Whether it fully compromises the book I leave to the reader to decide. On balance, I found the book both interesting and informative, but needing to be read in context to obtain a fuller understanding. I read 88 Days to Kandahar in an electronic galley provided to me by the publisher through Edelweiss on my Kindle app.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Roscoe Canaday Bluegrass Festival (Waldo) - Monday: Review

The Roscoe Canaday Bluegrass (Excursion) Festival got underway on Monday with additional rigs coming into the campground and a general air of settling in for the week. By mid-afternoon we had found a jam and sat in for a couple of hours of good fun, which had to be moved indoors when it started to sprinkle. Plenty of space for the jam.

At five we gathered for bluegrass fans' second most favorite activity...a meal. Tasty barbecued chicken beans a cole slaw were provided by Ernie & Deb Evans, while a few people added some extra.

If Harold Asher is here, there must be a festival....

Ernie Evans Introduced the Evening Entertaiment

Bob Patterson: The Florida Story Teller

Bob Patterson, the Florida Story Teller has been in and around the Florida folk scene for nearly forty years, living now in St. Augustine. He is well known both nationally and locally. He's the co-founder of the annual Gamble Rogers Music Fest in St. Augustine, held annually in May, which boasts a stellar national lineup. His songs provide a vocal and musical excursion into Florida's waterways and byways, filled with a nostalgia for a Florida that hardly exists any longer today.

Accompanist Charley Simmons

Bob Patterson - A Water Moccasin Named Frog - Video

Bob Patterson

Charley Simmons & Bob Patterson

A nice kick-off for what promises to be a good week. 

Monday, February 23, 2015

Palatka Bluegrass Festival 2015 - Saturday: Review

After two days of cold, crisp wind blowing in from northern climes suffering much worse than we were, the crowd attending the Palatka Bluegrass Festival greeted a warm, sunny Saturday with eager anticipation and then massive appreciation as a day of wonderful music and generous support for host venue The Rodeheaver Boys Ranch.
Festival Promoters - Norman & Judy Adams

Each morning during the festival the ranch serves a sumptuous buffet breakfast to ranch employees and festival attendees. Boys living on the ranch help serve coffee and are a welcome presence for their cheerfulness and helpfulness. Because the attend the local public school, boys at the ranch are not much seen during the first day, but their presence around the grounds working and sometimes stopping to enjoy the music adds the the total Palatka festival experience.

Ranch Executive Director Ken Johnson (R)
at Breakfast with Staffers

The Kitchen Staff Always Produces

Breaking Grass

A year ago I highlighted Breaking Grass in a blog entry pointing to bands to watch in 2014. This weekend Breaking Grass made their debut at a Norman Adams festival to an enthusiastic crowd, earning one of the few encores for an opening band I've ever seen at this festival. Led by Cody Farrar, whose infectious smile seems to have been built into his face, the band presents a diverse bluegrass mix with material from Bill Monroe, the New Grass Revival, and on through western swing and into grassed versions of rock 'n' roll songs and including lots of original material, mostly written by Farrar himself. With all members coming from Mississippi, the band is instrumentally strong and personally attractive, young, and enthusiastic. I continue to look for much more from them.

Cody Farrar

Britt Sheffield

Tyler White

Thelton Vanderford

Zach Wooten

Cody Farrar

At the Merch Tables

The Little Roy & Lizzie Show

The Little Roy & Lizzie show continues to troop, entertain, and provide a platform for one of the great clowns of bluegrass history. It also is adding a fourth generation of accomplished Lewis Family entertainers with Little Roy's grandson Bennett Boswell confidently holding his own on mandolin and one bravura banjo piece featuring Little Roy and Lizzie too on Foggy Mountain Breakdown. Meanwhile, Tyler Biddix on guitar and Dave Hevner on bass provide the strong background that Lizzy's multi-instrumental show pieces and Roy's great guitar and banjo performances require. As Ron Thomason later commented in a moment of sincere accolade, Little Roy deserves recognition as "one of the best banjo players ever to pick up the instrument."

Lizzy Long

Little Roy Lewis

Tyler Biddix

Bennett Boswell

Dave Hevner

Ron Thomason Hamboning

...and a Guest Appears

Saturday is also Family Day

Marty Raybon & Full Circle

Marty Raybon lives his music and his faith. I was approaching him on the grounds on Saturday morning before quickly backing off as I noticed he was providing both personal and spiritual support for a man dealing with a medical issue. He's available as a person-to-person presence as well as continuing to be a bang-up entertainer. Raybon has had a legendary career in both country and bluegrass, bringing a rock and blues sensibility to both while remaining both a country boy, as the song says, and a purveyor of entertaining and enlightening music. His rendition of Beulahland sets the standard for all other performers of the song, and won him an IBMA award two years ago for Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year. His brother Tim stands at his shoulder singing tenor and playing bass, while Zach Rambo on mandolin and harmony and Isaac Smith on fiddle are strong. 

Marty Raybon

Tim Raybon

Zach Rambo

Isaac Smith

Luke Munday

Marty Raybon

Bill Huckeby & Roy Lewis

 The Gibson Brothers

I can think of only a few  other bands whose catalogs are so deep and varied that they risk becoming captive to their own historic production,  The Gibson Brothers, in twenty years of active touring have created so much original and well-loved material that it's difficult for them to introduce new songs, yet they continue to grow, widen their repertoire and enrich an already nearly historic musical world. Their latest offering, Brotherhood, contains no Gibson Brothers original songs. Rather, it is a tribute to the historic brother duos in bluegrass, country, and rock whose unique harmonies have enriched music through the past half century, or more. They put their own spin on songs by groups you know well, like the Everly Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, and the Osborne Brothers as well as other lesser known brother duos. Their first release on Rounder Records, Brotherhood is sure to reach the top of the bluegrass charts, as have their last seven albums.

Eric Gibson

Leigh Gibson

Mike Barber

Clayton Campbell

Jesse Brock

The Most Important Support Vehicle

Jeff King Presents the Raffle Guitar

The Grascals

The Grascals closed Saturday night with a fine performance, responding to shouted requests that could have continued for another half hour after their appointed time. Featuring covers of the Osborne Brothers, who several members toured with, and other early bluegrass as well as fine songs they have selected through the years and popularized (Me and John and Paul, The Famous Lefty Flynn) as well as material written by lead singer Jamie Johnson, the band is always a strong entry. The addition of Adam Haynes has helped reinvigorate the band. The interactions between him and Danny Roberts on the left side of the stage are a delight to watch. Kristin Scott Benson's precise banjo and guitar play is always excellent, and it's a joy to hear her sing, too. Always relaxed and entertaining, the Grascals were well worth staying up for.

Jamie Johnson

Terry Smith

Terry Eldredge

Danny Roberts

Kristin Scott Benson

Adam Haynes

Emcee Sherry Boyd - Simply the Best in the Business

We've attended nine of the eleven Palatka Bluegrass Festivals, and this is the best one I think we've been to. The lineup was strong, and despite the weather, the audience was enthusiastic. For some reason there were fewer vendors this year than others, and I missed a couple of them. The support for campers provided by Development Director Jeff King was, as usual, superb. Campers were well taken care of, trash removed regularly, porta-potties pumped almost before they were used, and problems dealt with smoothly and pleasantly. The boys on the ranch are a delight. Sound by Blue Ridge Sound was almost flawless. As is usual at bluegrass festivals, lighting could have been improved. All told, though, the semi-annual Rodheaver welcome home for bluegrass represented a highlight in our year, and we look forward to coming back next year.