This fall, the Gibson Brothers were named International Bluegrass Music Association’s entertainer of the year, which meant they inherited the biggest award in bluegrass from last year’s extraordinarily visible winners, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers. Even so, it’s entirely possible that someone who doesn’t follow bluegrass might be unfamiliar with Leigh and Eric Gibson and their crack band.
The Gibsons had a relatively sheltered upbringing on the family farm in rural New York state, despite being young enough to be considered part of Generation X. Then there’s the fact that, in their own crisply modern way, they’re carrying on the close harmony-singing brother duo tradition that saw its peak popularity back in their granddad’s day.
Eric Gibson confessed he still hasn’t quite figured out what it means to be the IBMA’s entertainer of the year, but he was perfectly willing to retrace how he and his brother found their niche.
CMT Edge: Congratulations on your entertainer of the year win.
Eric Gibson: Thanks! Who would’ve thunk it, really? That was one of the biggest surprises of my life, and I know my brother feels that way, too. But we’ll take it. (laughs)
It came 14 years after you won IBMA emerging artist award.
Yeah. We’re a strange case, aren’t we? I mean, if you were examining our trek on the bluegrass trail, I guess we’ve just been real stubborn. We stayed with it, and thank God we did.
In popular music, 14 years is a pretty good chunk of time. Careers in a lot of other genres besides bluegrass don’t last nearly that long.
You know, they don’t. We seem to have hit our stride in our 40s. (laughs) When I was 39, “Ring the Bell” won song of the year and gospel recorded performance [at the IBMA Awards]. That song seemed to be a turning point for us. … We’ve done all right through the years. We’ve been survivors. But it seemed we could never break through. And it feels like Ring the Bell took us to a higher level in the bluegrass world. Then the following year we won album of the year and vocal group. … But I still didn’t see it coming. I didn’t see entertainer of the year, especially looking at the competition.
It’s not like you’ve been an obscure act on an obscure label all these years. You did four albums on Sugar Hill and two on Compass, both of which are very well respected in bluegrass.
I think we’ve had six albums in a row that were No. 1 on the Bluegrass Unlimited radio airplay chart. So we were having some success along the way. We played all over the country. But it seems in the last few years, things have come together somehow. Timing has to be right. Like I said, we’re stubborn, and we’ve not had a Plan B.
In analyzing it a little bit, this group of five that we have together right now is really strong. I’m really proud of every guy in the band, and I don’t think it’s any coincidence that things started happening when this group of five started to gel. Joe Walsh, our mandolin player, joined us maybe a month before we recorded Ring the Bell. He just added so much to it. We’ve had three years of hard touring with this group. I hope I can keep this band together for a long time because I’m real excited about the possibilities.
What does the career of an IBMA entertainer of the year look like? What’s different?
We’re still trying to figure that out. (laughs) Our calendar is filling up, and it’s filling up with good gigs. It feels like the hard work has paid off. …We’re not going to come out of nowhere and take the bluegrass world by surprise. We’ve been around for too long. Maybe this isn’t sexy. (laughs) I think it’s just a blue-collar band that’s worked hard, and people have come to respect it, and we’ve kinda taken our place in this industry. Mike Bub told me years ago, “You’ve gotta figure out what it is that you do differently from other people and shine a light on that.” Leigh and I thought, “Well, we need to really focus on this brother duet because it’s been such a tradition throughout country and bluegrass music history, and we know how to do that.” And we write songs. We try to keep getting better as songwriters. Early on, Tom T. Hall gave us a lot of encouragement, telling us he liked our writing. If that doesn’t give you confidence that you’re on the right track, then nothing will.
Have the venues changed or the amount of headlining slots? And are you traveling by bus these days?
Nah, we’ve never been brave enough to dive into a bus, nor have we ever secured a sponsor to be able to do that. We’ve been bumped up on some of these bills. The venues aren’t really changing that much. It just seems we’re getting more of them. We have done more arts centers through the years. We’ve long been a festival band. … I don’t have any desire to leave the festival circuit. It’s been so good to us. And I think the festival circuit is a bluegrass band’s bread and butter, and that’s what we are — a bluegrass band. I don’t want to be anything other than that.
We just did a multigenre festival. We did Wheatland up in Michigan. I loved it. And we went over really well. I’d like to do more of that kind of thing, like folk festivals and multigenre festivals and arts centers. But we have no desire to leave the bluegrass circuit.
You had a teaching career. When did you stop keeping that backup plan in your back pocket?
Back in 1998, I walked away from it. Well, I was given a year’s leave of absence to try music. … I had told some of my colleagues what I was going to do, and they said, “[The superintendent’s] not going to give you a year off to try music!” In our contract, it was like [we could get approval for things that qualified as] bettering ourselves. Going overseas and studying. And my colleagues didn’t see running around the country playing bluegrass as bettering myself or enhancing my career. I think they thought it was a lark. But my superintendent said, “I can tell this is not a lark. You’re really serious about this. You need to try this. You’re never going to be happy with yourself unless you try this.”
Then I had to face my father-in-law. I went for a ride in his pickup truck, and he’s a hard-working guy. I said, “Richard, I’ve got to tell you something. I’m afraid to tell you, but I’ve got to tell you. I’m taking a year off from teaching, and I don’t know if I’m ever gonna go back.” It was quiet. It felt like 10 minutes, but it was probably 10 seconds. He turned to me and said, “I think you should’ve done it four years ago.” And that’s how long I’d been teaching was four years. That was ’98, and we won emerging artist, and we signed with Ricky Skaggs’ label and started working with Ricky. I never went back.
In 22 years of IBMA Awards, no other bona fide brother duet has won entertainer of the year. Brother duets were a lot more common half a century or more ago — the Stanley Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, the Louvins, Jim & Jesse McReynolds — but they’re rare now. So how have you made it work for you?
It took us a while to hone our sound and to develop what we’re doing now. We’ve always had that in the back of our minds. And I’ve listened to all those early acts. From the time I was a teenager, I’ve listened to all those acts that you mentioned. That influence has made its way into what we do, as well as Buck Owens and Don Rich, who were not brothers. That duet was something that Leigh and I leaned heavily upon, and actually those Buck Owens songs were some of the first duets we ever sang when we were on the farm. So we’re as influenced by him as we are by Jim & Jesse. We try to show people on our records where we’re comin’ from. We’ll typically record a Louvin Brothers song or a Jim & Jesse song. Our next record, we’re gonna record Delmore Brothers songs, plus we’re doing a bunch of songs that we’ve written. I think it’s important to show your audience who you respect and what influences you.
The other really distinctive thing about what you do is your singer-songwriter sensibilities, how song-focused your music is. You place a lot of emphasis on narrative-driven lyrics.
I’m so glad you said that. Thank you for that. Leigh and I take pride in the writing. We really do. And we listen to a lot of songwriters. We had a guy one time tell us, “You’re not listening to enough bluegrass.” We love bluegrass, but what we really like to listen to are singer-songwriters. (laughs) Everybody from Merle Haggard to Guy Clark and John Prine. These days we’re listening a lot to Verlon Thompson and Shawn Camp and Darrell Scott — and Tim O’Brien always. Leigh and I really love writing songs. In the past year, I’ve written quite a few of them. Our new record will have a lot of them. We’re getting ready to go in the studio, actually.
So where do the Gibson Brothers go from here?
Well, we’re going to try to top our last album. Our last album really did a lot for us, and there’s a little bit of pressure to improve upon it. We don’t want to just go out and record that record again. You’ll hear some bands that will eventually record the same record over and over again, and we don’t want to do that. … I like recording at least as much as I like playing onstage, and I love playing onstage. I don’t know where it goes from here. We just want to keep improving in every aspect, becoming better singers and writers and players — and entertainers, I guess. (laughs) They tell us we’re entertainer of the year.