On their new album, Brotherhood, the Gibson Brothers dig into their past and pay tribute to the sibling acts who impacted them back when they were just getting started in the bluegrass game.
“For our entire career people have asked who our influences were,” Leigh Gibson says. “With this record we decided to give a sense of where our style of singing and music-making came from.”
To that end, Brotherhood plays out like a loving testimony in which the Gibsons give props to their big-name influences such as the Stanleys, Louvins, and Everlys, as well as some of the more obscure artists who’ve touched them like the York Brothers and the Four Brothers Quartet. “It feels a little bit like a debt was paid,” Leigh confesses with regard to finishing the record.
Although both Gibsons agree that making the album was a career high-point, older brother Eric initially had some reservations about doing an entire record of cover songs. “I love the fact that we write our own material,” he proclaims. “I didn’t want to make a museum piece; I wanted the songs to sound new.” He laughs. “I didn’t just want to sing really slow, dead-baby songs.”
Far from feeling old-fashioned, Brotherhood sounds up-to-date and vibrant because the brothers never simply parrot the acts they’re honoring. With their inspired harmony singing and spry arrangements, the Gibsons strike an ideal balance between the old and new in that they celebrate the music without being owned by its legacy. “It is a bluegrass record,” Eric promises before adding, “but it might be a little more.”
CMT Edge: Some of the songs on this album are bona fide classics. Did either of you feel any apprehension about covering them, like you might not do them justice?
Leigh Gibson: Yeah. Songs like “Bye Bye Love,” there’s such perfection in them. It’s like a moment in time that was just perfect. We hesitated for many years to touch Everly stuff because how do you compare? But how could we do a record like this without including those guys? We couldn’t.
Eric Gibson: We have some standards on the record but we tried to put our own interpretations on them. Like on the Stanley Brothers’ “How Mountain Girls Can Love.” We made it into a fast waltz. Nobody’s ever done that before that I know of.
Your arrangement on that is really audacious. “Mountain Girls” is one of those tunes that’s been covered ten thousand times and everybody plays it the same way — at the speed of light. You guys truly reinvent it. How did you come up with that?
LG: We were at a meeting with Ken Irwin and Marian Leighton-Levy [cofounders of Rounder Records] and said, “Man, we’re having a hard time finding a Stanley Brothers song that hasn’t been overdone.” And Ken said, “You know sometimes slowing a fast song down or speeding a slow song up will work.” And I said jokingly, “Yeah, like putting ‘How Mountain Girls Can Love’ to waltz time.” Eric just sort of looked at me and we were like, “You know, that would work!”
EG: But it still sounds like a Stanley Brothers song. It’s very much like the tempo of “Stone Walls and Steel Bars.”
It is, and your banjo solo is really bold, Eric.
EG: That’s me just channeling my inner-Ralph but also thinking, “What would Pete Anderson do on one of his psychobilly Dwight Yoakam records?” I listen to a lot of Tele. I love the Telecaster and mess around with it. Leigh calls it my mid-life crisis, but sometimes it creeps into my banjo playing. (laughs)
As a whole, the album traces the evolution of the brother tradition. It’s kind of like a history lesson. Was that something you were thinking about when you were deciding which songs or acts to include on the record?
LG: Yeah, it was because brother harmony is a very important story to American music. Take the Monroe Brothers; they influenced the Louvin Brothers heavily. When I listen to that early Louvin stuff, when they were doing radio shows before they were on Capitol, Ira sounds like Bill. He’s affecting Bill when he sings in a big way — and he’s great at it!
And the Louvins went on to influence the Everlys, who went on to influence the Beatles, who went on to influence everybody you listen to today. So we wanted to make sure that we covered the pre-bluegrass stuff like the Monroe Brothers and then the Everly Brothers because they’re a big, big step to everything else that followed.
Why do you think brother acts have been so popular in this music?
LG: It might tug at family. Everybody has a family and I think people see the happiness of making music together and it just resonates.
You guys did endless research for this record, hours and hours of poring over documents and songs to really get inside the music. What was your big takeaway from all that?
LG: I learned how much these acts borrowed from each other. And listening to the maturation of a group like the Louvin Brothers told me that on our path, we’re OK. Going through hundreds and hundreds of songs and hearing mistakes and missteps both song-wise and vocally, hearing those along with the perfection in the successful songs, it makes you understand a career. And you realize that they didn’t always win. They had to learn as well.
Do you think recognizing that and kind of demystifying your heroes might make you better musicians, better writers?
EG: It’s possible.
LG: I think so. It’s given me confidence, making this record. Because when you look specifically at a few acts and really look at their body of work, and you see the stuff that is so successful, it’s so simple and so honest. And I think that’s a good reminder for me as a songwriter: to just be honest and to the point with our writing.