Mixing country, bluegrass, and ‘70s singer-songwriters to make The Gibson Brother’s sound.
The Gibson Brothers have been playing bluegrass for more than thirty years, and have won numerous bluegrass awards and shared the stage and studio with many bluegrass legends and artists. They unashamedly echo the country and bluegrass brother acts of years gone by, but they are more than a simple traditional bluegrass act. The first thing you notice is that they live in New York State and grew up two miles from the Canadian border and that their music shows influences from country and ‘70s singer-songwriters, with a sprinkling of classic rock, which is not necessarily what you expect. Americana UK’s Martin Johnson caught up with Eric Gibson over Zoom, just after he returned home from Nashville, to discuss their fifteenth official release, ‘Darkest Hour’, which some reviewers are saying is a career-high. Eric Gibson explains that ‘Darkest Hour’ is more of a singer-songwriter album with sparser accompaniment, even though the guests are stellar including Alison Krauss, Justin Moses, and Guthrie Trapp. The success of the album according to Eric Gibson is due in no small part to the involvement of producer Jerry Douglas, who along with Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, J D Crowe, and New Grass Revival are the Mount Rushmore of Bluegrass from his personal perspective. Eric explains that part of the success of ‘Darkest Hour’ is due to Jerry Douglas’s insistence that the songs were varied so that song six didn’t remind listeners of song one. Finally. Eric confirms his dream of touring England, and how this is actively being looked at for the near future.
How are you and are you in New York State?
I’m at home in New York State, and feeling great. We did a show at the Grand Ole Opry recently and the next night we played a show with Jerry Douglas and Del McCoury and we are still pinching ourselves.
Why did two Upstate New Yorkers become so proficient at bluegrass, and why not move to Nashville, why do it in the first place?
That is a good question. The bluegrass bug bit us when we were young guys, I started playing banjo when I was twelve because my father had a banjo in the house and he had a guitar, and my brother Leigh started playing guitar and we started taking lessons. We then started hearing people like Flatt and Scruggs, Tony Rice, and The Seldom Scene, people like that, and Ricky Skaggs and we got hooked. All the while we were looking at the country music stuff like Merle Haggard and Don Williams, and Canadian folk singers like Gordon Lightfoot. So we heard a lot of different stuff which I think informs what we do today, But why, all I can say is it was more powerful than we were.
When you were starting out, how did you get gigs and was there a local scene?
Leigh and I grew up in a very rural part of New York State on a dairy farm that is just two miles from Canada, and six hours from New York City. It was very rural in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains, and there was more of a folk scene than a bluegrass scene when we started. Some of the one-day festivals were called bluegrass festivals, but they didn’t feature full bluegrass bands, it was more like a trio and a duo, but as we got practising and got better on our instruments we started going further afield and started meeting other bluegrass players in Canada, throughout New England, and New York State, and it just kind of grew from there.
You have just released your fifteenth album, ‘Darkest Hour’, which some critics are saying is probably your best album which is impressive after a long career.
I think that might be a lie, it is more like seventeen because there were a few we don’t talk about. You know that John Hartford song, ‘I’m Still Here’, I think about that every day. We are in our early fifties so we’ve been at it awhile, but we still feel we have a lot to offer. When you see fifteen, sixteen, seventeen albums you think we’ve been at it a long time, our bass player has been with us for thirty years, and there’s no quitting him and no quitting us, I hope.
Our main goal has always been to get better, as simple as that sounds. Sometimes it is like banging your head against the wall, I’m getting better but is anybody noticing? We know we are but people can be funny, I know we have been guilty as well, you fall in love with an act where you find them. People will come up to us and say they like that album we did twenty years ago the best, and we are like are you listening we are better than that, but that is where they found us and you can’t blame them for that. We just kept honing our craft as singers, musicians, and writers and this album was produced by Jerry Douglas and he wanted to present us as singer-songwriters with the vocals out front, and the stories out front. There is sparse musicianship as well, there’s not a lot going on behind the vocals on some of those songs. The songs have been going over really well live, and as you said, the reviews have been really nice, so far so good.
You say the album has sparse accompaniment, but you have some impressive guests on it, who arranged for the guest musicians you have on the album?
Jerry Douglas. When Jerry asks, people say yes, I mean, he got Alison Krauss to sing on one of the songs, and Eamon McLoughlin who is the staff fiddle player on The Grand Ole Opry and oh my goodness, what a soulful sound he has, and everybody on the record, Guthrie Trapp on guitar and our old buddy Mike Barber on bass. Jerry also brought in Justin Moses and we had a core little band a really tight unit, and Jerry wanted a cohesive band sound. We did it in two different settings, we started in 2020 and the sessions were totally acoustic, and then the pandemic shut us down in March 2020, and we said we belong with our families and we got out of Nashville. We didn’t come back for a year, and we did a more roots country, americana type thing on that session. Jerry tried to get twelve songs that were unique unto themselves, so track one wouldn’t sound like track six for example, and I really like the variety on this album.
What was it like working with Jerry Douglas, did you tell him when he was wrong or was he never wrong?
He was the boss, and in my estimation, I never found him to be wrong. He played with us on stage a couple of days ago in Nashville at a place called The Analog, and as you say we’ve been at this a little while, and I’ve been on stage with some really good players, but I’ve never felt that kind of power coming out of anybody, it was just next level. He kicked the rest of us right in the butt, we picked it up a few notches, and he was like here it is boys, get up to me, we didn’t quite get there but we got closer than we would have otherwise. I feel he was like that in the studio too. Sometimes when you meet a hero you are disappointed, but Jerry is better than I thought he would be and he put us at ease right away, and he is an icon in roots music. He is the first dobro player I ever heard, I heard him on the radio and I didn’t know who it was, but I heard that sound. My father would hear him on the radio, and he didn’t know what it was either but he was like, turn it up. When you got back and listened, it was Jerry.
We wrote all the songs, and he just wanted guitar vocal demos, the songs were in their most naked form and he turned them into different beasts. He would put an instrumental bridge in a song, and it would take your ear to a different place, away from the melody you are just getting used to for a little while and then bring you right back. His instrumental bridges were just beautiful, and I would never have come up with what he came up with, so it was really a great experience.
The new record ‘Darkest Hour’ doesn’t sound dark so why the title?
I argued with my brother about that, I said the very same thing, and he said, “You come up with a better title”, we are brothers and we fight you know and we don’t fist fight, not in a long while anyway. I guess we love the title track so much, and it is a pandemic album, it was recorded during the pandemic and some of the songs were recorded during it. But like you, I will say there is hope and happiness on this record too.
What are the songwriting dynamics in the band?
We are different writers. My brother is a tortured soul as a writer, he is never satisfied and he will work, work, work and polish until it is a diamond, whereas I’m like, that’s good I like that, I don’t overthink it. ‘I Go Driving’ I wrote in maybe twenty minutes, I don’t know if my brother has written a song in twenty minutes, but he has written some really great songs. We are working on the whole co-writing thing, in the past a co-write with The Gibson Brothers is when one of us would have a song three-quarters done and we would come to the other to see if they could finish it, can you write me a chorus or whatever, we’ve done it that way. We’ve been writing with other people also, we’ve just done that in Nashville where we wrote four more songs with different people, so we are learning how to do that. I write a lot with my son who is a songwriter, he has a different perspective he is in his twenties and he loves it, he pushes me and he doesn’t let me get lazy. If he asks me to write a song and I’m like, not now, he comes back with have you lost your fire, and nobody likes that so I get my guitar and we try and write a song, and he gets his way. They are not all home runs but he keeps swinging, and once in a while he gets one.
You worked with Dan Auerbach and David Ferguson on 2018’s ‘Mockingbird’, what was that like compared to working with Jerry Douglas?
‘Mocking Bird’ was different from anything we’ve ever done, and we had a ball doing it and it kind of just fell out of the sky. We reached out to our old buddy Dave Ferguson who we met in 1998, and for years he was like why not make a record but we were in the bluegrass world, and he was in a different world, he was working with Johnny Cash and a lot of different people including Dan Auerbach. We then thought let’s do it, this might be the time, and he said yes. A couple of days later we got a call from our manager telling us Dan Auerbach wanted to be involved as well, asking if that was OK and I was like, yes, that’s OK let’s try this. What an experience, I mean that opened up a whole new world to us and kind of took us out of our comfort zone. It is a totally different record and I’m proud of it, and we might have confused a few people with it because it is so different from the bluegrass we’ve always done.
We got to work with Gene Chrisman and Bobby Wood, the Memphis boys who worked on Elvis’s records, and Billy Sanford from Roy Orbison’s band and he played on ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ and ‘Coat of Many Colors’ and thousands of other ones. We would get there early to ask them questions about the old days, and they liked it. One time Gene said “When I was working with Hank Snow, do you know who that is?” and I said, “I know everybody you’re talking about because I’ve studied it.”. I’ve always loved country and roots music, I’m the kind of guy who reads liner notes to find out who wrote and played on what, so I was intrigued to be around those guys for a while and breath the same air. To the end of my days, I will be really thankful we got to be around those guys because they’ve done everything. When Gene Chrisman went on tour with Dan Auerbach, that was the first time he’d been on tour since ’59 when he toured with Jerry Lee Lewis, those guys just became studio guys, they quit hitting the road because they liked being home at night, but they can go back and tell you about Jerry Lee Lewis or Roy Orbison and stuff like that. I would have paid a lot of money to be able to do that.
Having people like that willing to work with The Gibson Brothers says something about your music, don’t you think?
When I think bad about myself and things aren’t how I want them to be, I’ll think about that because it props you up a little bit because I mustn’t be terrible because Rick Skaggs liked what we did, Jerry Douglas likes what we do. So, there’s something in that. I think those guys see a brother team who know how to sing and write songs, and it harkens back a bit because they all came up when brother acts were a big part of things. I question sometimes what did they see in us, they must have seen something otherwise they wouldn’t reach out to you.
Which artists have had the biggest influence on the Gibson Brothers’ sound?
If I had to pick one it would be Ricky Skaggs. My brother was picking on me the other day, and he said when I was a young guy I had four superheroes, three of them were in sports, Roger Staubach of the Dallas Cowboys, Reggie Jackson of the Yankees, Larry Bird of the Celtics, and Ricky Skaggs. When we started playing our instruments Ricky was all over the radio. With great songs like ‘Highway 40 Blues’ that he took to number one and they had bluegrass instruments on them. So I would hear banjo, which I was just starting to play, and that guy was at the top of the heap, and he was on TV all the time and then we got to meet and work with him some. If I had to pick one he would probably be my biggest influence in music. I never met Merle Haggard but he was a big influence, and Emmylou Harris, when I think of the records I listened to most it would be Ricky, Merle and Emmylou.
That time around the late ‘70s and early ‘80s was pretty special for roots music.
My son is twenty-six now, and we will be listening to something that was on the radio when I was a kid, and he is like, you got to turn on the radio and that is what you heard like on terrestrial radio, and I’m like, yeah. Mind you, I probably never had it as good as my dad had when he could turn on the radio and hear Ray Price. Sometimes we don’t know how lucky we are, and that was a very good time.
I interviewed Jerry Douglas when he did that album with John Hiatt, and I asked him about that time and working with Tony Rice and Ricky Skaggs, and he said they were just kids and didn’t really know what they were doing but they had a lot of fun in the early days.
That group there is bluegrass Rushmore to me, Jerry, Ricky, and Tony and then J D and New Grass Revival. Jerry was kind of an unofficial member of the New Grass Revival, those guys were crazy good. So you can see why it was a big deal for us working with Jerry, and I hope we get to work with him again, I really do.
Well, he is a workaholic.
I know, he was over in Europe and came back and then did a cruise, got off the boat on Friday night and played with us on the Saturday. He was tired, but he play great. I thanked him half a dozen times because he didn’t have to do it, but I’m sure glad he did.
Do you have any plans to come to the UK and Europe?
We were talking about that on the way home, there is nothing concrete but we have been doing some trio shows, stripping everything down trying to be a more singer-songwriter thing. I love bluegrass, we’ve been doing it a long time and we will keep doing it, but for some of these clubs we are not going in with a five-piece band, we are just going in with three or four. Jerry said we could do a lot of shows like this in Europe, and it may take us two or three tours or more to get a following, but he said those people over there listen, they listen to the lyrics, they listen to what you are doing. So we are just talking about it, and we haven’t been to Europe for twelve years. I’ve never been to England and I would love that, my brother has and I made it to Northern Ireland. We are seriously talking about it, and it was a big part of our conversation on our fourteen-hour drive home.
I know it’s early days, but have you given any thought to the next album, is it going to be more singer-songwriter stuff?
We don’t know what we’re going to do, we are writing all the time. I wrote so many songs when everything was shut down. I was non-essential, there is nothing more non-essential than a banjo player in a bluegrass band, so I was blue and mopey and my wife doesn’t allow that. She said you need to write, this is your job for now, and I did write nearly every day. I wrote with my son and with other people on Zoom, I must have written nearly sixty or eighty songs during that stretch, and my brother has started writing again. So we will have songs, we will have stuff to choose from but I don’t know what it will be yet, if we are still here.
At AUK, we like to share music with our readers, so can you share which artists, albums or tracks are currently top three on your personal playlist?
I’ve been listening to Guy Clark a lot, and last night I was listening to a live John Prine album, to keep awake on the way home. I’m always listening, I tend to put my phone on shuffle and it is funny, everything that comes on is something I like.
I’m always listening, and trying not to get stuck in the past but I love what I love, and I always try to keep my ear open for other things too. Tyler Childers has recorded some good stuff and Sturgill Simpson. I went to see Sturgill once, and I tell you, that man has a presence, he has charisma, and he can write a song. I like Sturgill a lot.
You haven’t mentioned any banjo heroes.
Earl Scruggs and J D Crowe are the first two that come to mind, and I love Bela Fleck. I’m like an ant looking up at an aeroplane when he is playing because I can’t touch it. Jens Kruger, what a great banjo player he is, Tony Trischka, Allen Shelton, Scott Vestal, Jim Mills. There are so many great pickers. I’ve been listening to John Hartford lately, and he is somebody who when I was a kid I didn’t get, he was quirky and different to Flatt and Scruggs and J D Crowe and The New South, it was his own thing. Now that I am older it is like holy moly, that guy was a genius, he had his own sound, his own approach, and he was a really cool banjo player and artist and writer. He wrote a lot of great songs, not just ‘Gentle On My Mind’. There is a song ‘Today’, it is about living for today, and not worrying too much about tomorrow or the past, it is a beautiful song. ‘Tall Buildings’ is another, ‘Old Time River Man’ as well, he had such a lot of great songs. I don’t want people to think I don’t love the banjo, I love the banjo a lot more than my brother does.
Finally, do you want to say anything to our readers?
I hope we get over there sooner rather than later. I’m glad you brought that up because that’s definitely on our minds, and we are talking about it with our manager, get us over there let’s give it a try. My ancestors came from England and I want to see more of it. My brother loves it, his wife’s best friend doesn’t live too far from London, so I want to see England. We’ve been to Europe twice I think, but we never got to England, so here’s hoping.
Always a great time when we see the Gibson Brothers in concert!!
And hopefully, listeners in the UK and Europe will get a chance to see them like as well Anne.