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The Gibson Brothers seek help

By John Lupton, March 2011

With their 10th album, "Help My Brother," now out on the street, Eric Gibson notes the irony that while many fans of the bluegrass music he and brother Leigh have made for the last two decades continually ask when they're going to take a stab at fame and fortune in Nashville, many others think they've already made that move and ask when they're coming back. The truth, he tells them, is somewhere in between.

"We didn't actually move (to Nashville). We spent a lot of time there. We were working on a country record that never came out, but a lot of people think we moved, but we didn't. We weren't on the (bluegrass) scene for a couple of years. I think we missed 2 festival seasons where we didn't tour, but that was in the late 1990s, early 2000s, and we got back at it again in 2002."

Like most experiences in life, Gibson says, there were ups and downs, but on the whole it was a valuable time they both treasure.

The Gibson Brothers sing

"At the time, it was frustrating because it kind of felt like a lot of things were out of our control. But looking back, I think we really grew as a result of that experience. I mean, I would have paid a lot of money to get to work with Ricky Skaggs, and I cherish that I got to do that, to work on a record with him, and I learned a lot…whenever I'm in a new situation, I pay attention. We just worked with T-Bone Burnett on a sound track, and I just stayed in the corner. When we were done, he told us we could just hang out, and we did, and I just kept my mouth shut and watched and listened – and I did a lot of that with Ricky."

The time in Nashville also led to their growth as musicians, he continues, "We were working on a country record back then, and we learned a lot about different types of rhythm…and I think our rhythm on our guitars improved as a result of that, because during that time we kind of got used to playing with drummers. It affected our writing, because we dared to go more out on a limb. When we came back (to bluegrass) and played, we were more likely to try different types of songs than maybe we would have before."

On the whole, "It was way more a positive than a negative. The negative was that we lost some momentum at that time. We had just won (IBMA) Emerging Artist in '98, and we just kind of disappeared. But we had to take a chance."

He pauses a moment and laughs. "We were kind of naïve and thought maybe we could do what Ricky did back in the early '80s. Maybe we could help spearhead a new traditional movement, and looking back, that was very naïve of us to think that. But I love country music. I love traditional country music, and that was the kind of music we were recording."

Born just less than a year apart (Eric, the elder, turned 40 last fall), the brothers were raised on a dairy farm in the Champlain Valley of upstate New York just south of the Canadian border. The farm had been in the family since Civil War days, and Eric sounds wistful as he notes that, while he and Leigh still own a portion of the land, it's passed into other hands, though he's grateful it's still a farming operation.

Although for obvious reasons they're continually compared to the legendary ‘brother' acts of country and bluegrass such as Bill and Charlie Monroe, Charlie and Ira Louvin, and Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Eric quickly agrees that their sound is more closely related to the harmonies produced by a non-brother act.

"When we were kids, and watching ‘Hee Haw', and when Buck Owens came on, I didn't think much of him, he wasn't my favorite. I was just a kid, but there was a guy wearing his overalls backwards – he just didn't grab my attention. And then I started hearing the stuff he did in the '60s, and the live stuff with Don Rich, and it blew us away. It was like a revelation. It was the same kind of feeling I got when I got knocked out by Flatt and Scruggs at Carnegie Hall – ‘Oh my God, I've got to get into this'. We learned so many of those songs, and Leigh says that's when harmony really started making sense to him, is when he started listening to Buck Owens records."

Stopping again to laugh, he continues, "Early on, I was Buck, and he was Don. When we were kids on the farm, we just got into them so much…anytime Buck Owens comes on to my iPod when I have it on ‘shuffle', I crank it. I think it's the happiest sound that was ever produced in country music."

Both brothers, in Eric's view, are maturing as songwriters as well, and songs on the new album like Frozen In Time (Eric) and Safe Passage (Leigh) are testament to that.

"We're improving as writers…we know what to keep. When you're young, gosh – I mean, some of the songs I wrote early on I just cringe about now, and maybe some day I'll cringe at these songs, but right now I'm really proud of them…I'm also proud that we were able to pay tribute (on this album) to (the Louvins and McReynolds). Someday I'd like to do a whole album of…different ‘brother' songs. I keep saying that, and we never do it."

Proud of their past, enjoying the present, and optimistic about the future, Eric notes that in addition to a busy festival schedule, they're also finding new audiences in the municipal arts centers that have become more agreeable to booking bluegrass acts for their season series along with the more regular fare of symphonies and dance troupes. It's rewarding, he says, to play for hundreds, even thousands of people who have never seen them before, and recognize some of them in the crowd at a festival a few months later.

Ultimately, he says, it's just a continuing thrill to live the life of a professional musician and entertainer.

"I never know what to say as far as anyone asking about goals. I just want to be able to make a living doing this, keep making a living and staying in the game. I just know that we've outlasted a lot of folks. I don't know if we've been too dumb to quit or stubborn, or we just refuse to give up - but we're still here."