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Gibson Brothers join the "Brotherhood"

By John Lupton, March 2015

Eric Gibson, the elder (by less than a year) of the award winning, New York-born Gibson Brothers says that the new Rounder release by he and brother Leigh, "Brotherhood," was more than a decade in the making.

"It seemed like every time we'd get ready to do a new record, we'd have a batch of new songs that we felt we needed to get out there…but (Leigh) really pushed me on this, he said, ‘If we don't do it now, maybe we'll never do it – now is the time.' I think he was right. Just judging by the early reception of the album, people are ready for it. I think it was a challenge for us too, because we've been doing this for so long, been at it for 20-some years – maybe 25 years – and we thought we knew a thing or two about harmonizing, about brother duets."

He laughs and remarks that they've gotten plenty of encouragement – and coaching – along the way.

"We found that when word got out about this, the ‘brother duet aficionados' kind of came out of the woodwork – ‘Have you heard these brothers, have you heard those brothers?' They started sending us material from brothers that, honestly, we hadn't even heard of."

Gibson Brothers sing

"So, we learned a lot…turns out, there's a lot more ‘brother duets' throughout country and bluegrass history than we were aware of. It was a really fun process and learning experience, and I think we're going to be a better duet as a result of having done this…we ended up doing songs by brothers we weren't even aware of when we started this…I'm really pleased with some of the obscure gems that we dug up."

Some songs may be obscure, but most of the names paid tribute are not – Louvin, Monroe, McReynolds, Osborne. The disc opens and closes with Phil and Don Everly tunes, "Bye Bye Love" and "Crying In The Rain." The Gibsons had not yet entered the studio when Phil Everly passed away.

"All these years," Eric says, "we've had people say to us, ‘You need to record some Everly Brothers, you need to do some Everly Brothers songs, your voices would really fit their stuff.' For whatever reason, we hadn't. But we got to fooling around backstage (with) ‘Bye Bye Love'…and said, ‘Let's do it, let's do this song, I bet these people here would like this.' We did it, and as soon as they recognized the song they started clapping and singing along. We just kind of looked at each other, like, ‘Wow, this is a good thing.' We were really happy about it."

"When we got off the stage…a guy comes up to me, real sad, with his iPhone, and on it is the news that Phil had passed earlier in the day or the evening before. We had no idea, and that was the first time that we had done an Everly Brothers song – it just was a spooky feeling, you know? But we kept doing the song for the next two months, and people were liking it, and we said, ‘We have to (record) this song.'"

"We ended up, in the course of looking throughout all these different artists' catalogs, Leigh just said, ‘I really want to do ‘Crying In The Rain.' He just loved it…he didn't say this to me, but I think he knew his voice would sound really good on that song. We loved the way it turned out, and it just seemed like a good way to close the album. To me it shows…the Everlys are the most recognizable brother duet of all time…and then to immediately follow (‘Bye Bye Love') with a Blue Sky Boys song (‘The Sweetest Gift'), it's just taking it right back to beginning of it – this is where it came from.

"Throughout the record, we have three or four really ‘sparse' songs to take you back to the beginning. It's just kind of the way we constructed the album. I don't know if it's the right way to do it, but it just felt like the right way to do it."

"The Sweetest Gift," as the lyrics reveal, is a mother's smile. A generation first encountered the song in the 1970s on a Linda Ronstadt record, with Emmylou Harris harmonizing, but the ‘30s era record by the Blue Sky Boys (Bill and Earl Bolick) remains the "gold standard" among many country fans, including the Gibsons.

"Leigh and I were backstage before a gig down in Chattanooga, and we tried it, and – ‘Yeah, we better do this one, it's working.' It's got that feeling, and I'm a sucker for ‘Mother' songs, you know, I really am. Some people with more of a cynical view would maybe think, ‘Ah, they're pulling at the heartstrings, what is this?' – you've only got one mom, you know? And that song does it for me."

Eric laughs and admits he's not enough of a music theorist to give a technical description of how he and Leigh arrange a song.

"We try songs different ways until it seems to have that good buzz going. We'll try a part of the song with (Leigh) singing lead and me singing harmony, or vice versa – just see which one is more pleasing to the ear. We didn't do any ‘unison' singing – like listening to some of the early Louvin Brothers stuff, here and there throughout a song they would even sing the same note. We didn't do any of that…I ended up singing a seventh above Leigh a couple of times on ‘Seven Year Blues,' just for a real haunting sound."

Pausing a moment to phrase a thought in his head, he continues, "Our egos don't get in the way of this…I guess over time we've realized that to have that real strong close harmony sound you have to give of yourself, you have to sacrifice self a little bit and meet each other in the middle. We end up recording all of our harmonies on one mic, so you kind of end up bending to each other…the lead singer has to sing good and hard and straight and can't be doing all kinds of embellishment, because otherwise, it's guesswork for the tenor singer. So, we really try to hone in on that direct, simple style of singing that can be so powerful."

The Gibsons are as aware that 15 songs barely scratches the surface of the brother tradition.

"I hope this one does well enough that we get to do another one, because…we recorded more than we used, but we really had to narrow it down. We had taken a shot at a Delmore Brothers song, but it just didn't have the ‘sparkle', and if you're going to do a tribute to somebody, whatever you cut, it better shine, and I didn't want to have something on there that didn't. But they're such an important group, and if we get another crack at this I want to make sure we get a Delmore Brothers song, and the Bailes Brothers…and there's so many Louvin Brothers songs that I'd love to do."

He laughs one final time and finishes, "You know, the Louvins are so dang good, part of me says, ‘Why bother? How are you gonna touch that?'"