By Chris Stuart
In February of this year, the Gibson Brothers’ album “Ring The Bell” (Compass Records) went to #1 on this magazine’s radio airplay album chart, extending to five a streak of consecutive Gibson Brothers albums that reached the position. It’s richly deserved, but still an astonishing achievement for a band that keeps such an even-keeled—and humble—attitude toward the music business.
The brothers and the band are what’s called in baseball “five-tool” players. They have it all: lead vocals, brother-duet harmony, instrumental virtuosity, ensemble sensibilities, and great original material.
With their four-record deal with Sugar Hill Records running out in 2008 after their “Iron & Diamonds” album, Eric and Leigh decided to look around and soon found an interest at Compass Records, a label founded and operated by Alison Brown and Garry West. Alison recalls, “We did a show with the Gibson Brothers for Roger Moss at the East Hartford Cultural Center a few years ago, and I became an instant fan. I think they are important standard-bearers for the “Yankee” tradition in bluegrass, following in the footsteps of Joe Val, Don Stover, and others who have brought a unique New Englander’s perspective to the music. On top of that, they are two of the nicest people I know, and it’s a great pleasure to watch their success.” Garry West adds, “At Compass, our taste in bluegrass leans toward the pure, original, and unique voices. The Gibson Brothers, with their classic songwriting style and brother harmonies, have all this in spades. We’re very proud to be working with them.”
Eric Gibson, on banjo, is slightly less than a year older than Leigh, on guitar, which makes them seem almost like twins, not so much because of family similarity, but because they have similar senses of humor, they enjoy the same kinds of music, and they end up hanging out together on the road and jamming with each other, the band, and other musicians. It’s hard to think of another brother act that gets along so well. Perhaps, as Leigh jokes, “It’s because we haven’t made enough money to fight over.”
While a lot of folks think they live (or lived) in Nashville, they’ve been able to stay in the region where they grew up—on a dairy farm in upstate New York. They are both strong family people and have stayed close to their roots and relatives. Eric lives in Brainardsville, N.Y., with his wife Corina and two sons, Kelley (13) and Kieran (10). Since 1998, Leigh has lived in Scotia, N.Y., near Albany, with his wife Alison and their three kids, Jack (5), Annie (3), and Joe (2). According to Leigh, “It’s the most important job I have, to make them happy.”
Looking back on their first album (of nine), “Underneath A Harvest Moon” (recorded in 1994 on their own label, now out-of-print) and their three albums for Hay Holler Records, you can see two fresh-faced kids in their twenties, excited about music and following their dream. But, while the album covers on their four subsequent chart-topping albums on Sugar Hill are more professional and hint at artists becoming more complex and eclectic, Eric and Leigh are still excited by music and are still following their dream. Leigh says, “I’ve never really considered getting out of music. Thank God we’re able to raise and maintain families and still do this.”
Their upbringing took place in the rolling hills and glacier-dug bottomland of upstate New York. They grew up waking early to farm chores, but I can imagine they played a few pranks on each other back then. Their work ethic still shows in their approach to the music business. They get it done, but they have fun doing it. And, they’ve established themselves as a top-tier act that appeals to hard-core bluegrass fans as well as to a broad audience who like their brother-duo sound and original songs.
Songwriting is something they’ve done from early on in their career. Both Leigh and Eric admire the songwriting scope of bands such as Blue Highway, the SteelDrivers, and Claire Lynch, and they’re in the same category—consistently writing and recording high-quality material. It’s no wonder they top the charts. They move people.
They’re also one of the few bands that constantly and consistently listen for new material. Two songs (“I Know Whose Tears” and “Jericho”) by old-time banjoist and songwriter Joe Newberry made it onto their latest album because the brothers recognize great songwriting when they hear it. Eric says, “We met Joe Newberry at Augusta Heritage Bluegrass Week [Elkins, W.Va.] when we were teaching there in 2008. What a good relationship that’s turned out to be. He’s an amazing songwriter, and we found material just by being there. And, we found the title song, ‘Ring The Bell,’ when we played a club in Muncie, Indiana, and an opening band played it. I went up to the lead singer, Chet O’Keefe, and said, ‘I thought I’d heard all the great gospel songs, but where did that one come from?’ He said, ‘I wrote it.’”
Yet, it’s their own material that makes the Gibson Brothers stand apart from other bands. On the new album, “Farm Of Yesterday” (by Eric) and “Bottomland” (by Leigh) both deal with the trials of farming and of families, but is approached in different ways. “Bottomland” was originally recorded on a never-released project the brothers had done for Skaggs Family Records and the first version, apparently, had a full country band behind it. But, this new track, done acoustic style, is truly moving. Leigh used his own experience of his father working long into the evening on the farm. Eric’s “Farm Of Yesterday” is also a tribute to his father, who suffered a heart attack in early 2009. (Thankfully, he’s doing better now and was able to hear the song on the new album).
Katy Daley of The Katy Daley Show on BluegrassCountry.org has been a big fan and supporter of the Gibson Brothers from early on. “Both Leigh and Eric are exceptional songwriters,”she says. “Of course, you have to mention their harmony singing right up front. I wish more people would really listen to their song arrangements. The music is layered and textured, enhancing the lyrics and bringing the brother-duet tradition into the twenty-first century. I love what they’re contributing to bluegrass.”
The pair has also begun to co-write when they stop by Nashville. Eric says, “For a time, we would avoid Nashville, but we have a lot of friends there and we’ve learned to take advantage of our time in that town. We record there, and we’ve also started co-writing with people like Tim O’Brien, Gary Nicholson, Jon Weisberger, and Mike Henderson. I found with co-writing, if you go in with an open mind and don’t put pressure on yourself, it can be fun.”
Their touring schedule has stayed steady at 10-15 days a month for the past few years; bookings agents are Paul Lohr and Jake Kennedy at New Frontier Touring. One of the ways the band has been able to build a following across the country is the willingness to play the small clubs and venues around anchor gigs in order to make new fans. Leigh says, “If you ever want to try to grow your bookings, it just doesn’t appear out of thin air. You’re not going to see as good a [pay] the first time into a club, but the next time it gets better.” Eric adds, “We don’t try to stay away from small venues. If we have anchor dates and they’re on the way, I just say to the guys, ‘If we have a chance to play, let’s play,’ and we’ve played a lot more in the last few years.”
Still, there are natural ups and downs in the music business. Bassist Mike Barber calls 2007 the year of the “Great Gig Scare.” For some reason, they weren’t playing as much, maybe because they didn’t have a release to support or maybe just because of the vagaries of the music business. “I don’t know why,” Eric says. “Some years are up and some down.” But, where stress might make other bands break up or change their sound, the brothers treated it as just another bump in the road and kept going.
They had made a decision in 2005 to go to a full five-piece band, but by 2007, Eric says, “We thought we might have to do more work as a duo or as a trio. But then, the album did really well and the bookings starting coming back.”
Their latest release, “Ring The Bell,” is a full band album using their touring band of Mike Barber on bass, Clayton Campbell on fiddle, and Joe Walsh on mandolin. “Our last two years have been our best,” according to Eric. “The band just loves to play. Mike is the glue in our band. He’s like his dad [resonator guitarist, Junior Barber]. When Junior was in the band, he was just a fanatic about achieving tone. Mike’s that way. Joe Walsh has been with us about a year and he’s just hungry. He can’t wait to get that mandolin out of the case. Clayton’s been with us five years now and I think he’s hit a new level of playing. All the guys pride themselves on backup work. When it’s their turn to shine, they shine, but they support the song.”
Otherwise known as the third Gibson brother, bassist Mike Barber is soft-spoken, yet with an impish grin and baby-face that belie his 39 years (17 of which he’s spent touring with the Gibson Brothers). Mike lives in Jericho, N.Y., less than twenty miles from the Canadian border, and near Plattsburgh where he was raised.
In 1993, when he was 23, Mike worked the midnight shift in a factory in Plattsburgh when his dad and the Gibsons asked him to jam. That turned into a position as full-time bass player. Mike’s father, Junior, played and recorded with the Gibsons in the ’90s and Mike joined soon after the band originally formed. Like the Gibsons, Mike loves and appreciates old country music, bluegrass, blues, and rock-n-roll and began playing music originally on electric guitar with local rock bands, then switched to electric bass at 19 years old. He recalls, “I got aggravated playing with bass players who couldn’t keep good time, so I switched to bass to hear what I wanted to hear.”
After someone left a carved-top German bass in his father’s garage one night after a jam session, Mike tried it and fell in love with the tone of an acoustic bass. He is still a fanatic about tone and timing. In his search for the perfect bass tone for the band, he has settled on using a mix of gut (G and D) and steel strings (A and E), but it’s undoubtedly his touch that creates such a gorgeous tone for the Gibson Brothers band. He still plays a 1949 Kay bass, only the second bass he’s owned.
Mike is also integral in co-producing the Gibson Brothers albums and it was his suggestion that led to Eric and Leigh recording their duets live on the same mic, which they’ve done for the past two projects. Mike says, “I just wasn’t hearing the same kind of thing in the studio as I was hearing on stage. Sometimes their harmonies and the way they phrase perfectly together just raises the hair on the back of my neck, and I wanted to hear that in the studio.”
The Gibsons’ roots are in early country music: Don Williams, Don Gibson, Ray Price, Merle Haggard, Buck Owens, and the other honky-tonk greats who captured the excitement of their music on their recordings. The Gibson Brothers take that approach into the studio with them. Mike says, “We try not to overkill it. We won’t play a song to death before we record it. We want it to still be fresh.”
After 17 years, Mike and the brothers still hang out together on the road and enjoy jamming—something rare for a band that has been together so many years. Mike says, “They’re just a lot of fun to be around and we like to keep it light-hearted. For me, as long as this keeps going, I’m sticking with it.”
Fiddler Clayton Campbell lives in Nashville, Tenn., about an hour from where he grew up in Draffenville, western Kentucky. Clayton’s father, Clay Campbell, led a touring country music band before starting the Kentucky Opry music hall in 1988. The Opry is still going strong and is the same place where Clayton first fiddled on stage at five years old. Not too many years after that first performance, Clayton became a member of the house band and learned how to play behind an assortment of country acts and singers nearly every Friday and Saturday nights. “My dad always had a really good country band,” Clayton remembers. “One reason [the Gibson Brothers] get along so well is that we all listened to old country growing up.” When the band is not on the road, Clayton still comes back and plays in the house band at the Kentucky Opry.
Another youngster in the area at the time was Josh Williams, now two-time IBMA Guitar Player Of The Year, with whom Clayton played in a band called the Kentucky Young’ns when they were eight and nine years old. Clayton began competing in fiddle contests and attended the Mark O’Connor fiddle camp when he was 14, meeting heroes such as Buddy Spicher and making friends with players he would later see out on the road. He was also interested in other kinds of music and played electric fiddle in bands during college at Murray State University where he was a violin performance major. Clayton points out, “I grew up in Kentucky, but it wasn’t that cool to get into bluegrass. Not until O Brother, Where Art Thou? came out was it cool. It wasn’t until 2001 that I really started playing a lot more acoustic music.”
In 2003, Clayton joined singer Adrienne Young, whose band included guitarist Tyler Grant, and played with her for about a year until he was asked to join the Gibson Brothers in November 2004. The brothers were completing the album “Red Letter Day” and Clayton played on two tracks. He would play on all the songs on the next two projects, “Iron & Diamonds” and “Ring The Bell.” Clayton says, “Musically, my style fits theirs. But, I think a huge part is the camaraderie. I consider all those guys really close friends and we enjoy what we’re doing. We’re doing this because we love doing it. They like having a fiddle. In fact, Leigh wanted to play fiddle growing up. They give me liberty to play a lot. Mike Barber is such a great musician and the whole rhythm section is really tight.”
While Clayton says he’d like to put out a solo record in the near future, his first priority is playing and recording with the Gibson Brothers. “I’m thankful that I can get by and make a living being a sideman. I originally kind of thought that I’d get a job playing with a country band, but it almost seems to me that if you want to play country fiddle, the only way to do that now is in bluegrass.”
The newest member of the band, mandolinist Joe Walsh, is originally from Duluth, Minn., and comes from a home where music was encouraged at an early age. Joe’s parents put a piano in his bedroom when he was two years old and he went on to play piano throughout high school. His route to bluegrass was through listening to folk music from Ani DiFranco and Pete Seeger, but he soon began carrying a mandolin with him wherever he went and transcribing the solos of players such as Adam Steffey and Dan Tyminski.
At 18, Joe moved to Maine to work for a year with the service organization AmeriCorps clearing national park trails, but he was mostly playing music and getting further into the mandolin. After moving around for a while, Joe was accepted to the Berklee College Of Music in Boston in 2004 and graduated three years later with a degree in performance. He was the first student whose primary instrument was the mandolin and the school hired mandolinist John McGann specifically to mentor Joe. Matt Glaser, head of Berklee’s strings department told author Chris Godsey in 2006, “He’s got very good timing, tone, and intonation. Then, on top of that, he has the ability to play tastefully and appropriately—not self-indulgently. He’s not a showoff. He has great technique, but he sublimates his ego for the greater good of the band.”
Joe began playing with bluegrass bands (Northern Lights and the New England Bluegrass Band) in the Northeast, and then in 2005 became a founding member of the Boston-based acoustic ensemble Joy Kills Sorrow, an eclectic quartet that still performs and records. Joe recorded on their first album and, in 2008, put out a solo CD, “Saturday Night Waltz,” that showcases Joe’s lyrical and ensemble approach to songs and features other great musicians such as fiddlers Tashina and Tristan Clarridge, banjoist Wes Corbett, resonator guitarist Roger Williams, and singer Ben Demerath.
In late 2008, Joe got a call from Eric Gibson who asked him to drive to Albany, N.Y., and audition for the band. After a few songs, the brothers knew they had found a gifted mandolinist and offered him the job. Joe says, “I knew if they offered me the position, I was going to do it. It was also such a good surprise to realize what nice people they are. One thing that took some adjusting to was how finely they pay attention to the groove and the rhythm. They take a microscopic examination of the rhythm more than any band I’ve ever been in. A lot of bands choose flash over the underlying musicality, but the Gibsons really pay attention to fundamentals. And I never get tired of their singing.”
In addition to touring with the Gibson Brothers, Joe also teaches mandolin and guitar at a music school, 317 Main Street, in Yarmouth, Me. About 350 students of all ages take acoustic music instruction and it’s become an active contributor to a burgeoning music scene in lower Maine. About playing with the Gibson Brothers, Joe adds, “I just feel blessed to eat the food that I want and hang with the people I do. I’ve been with enough bands to realize what an ideal situation I have.”
Success in the music business is not guaranteed (in some cases, hardly deserved), but with the Gibson Brothers, who measure success in terms of family, friends, and a life of music, they have found success by always remembering where they came from, by appreciating others, and by taking the hills and valleys of life with humor and grace.
There’s an adage the brothers live by—attributed to Merle Haggard—about a life in music: “Can you live without it, or are you a lifer?” The Gibson Brothers are definitely lifers.
Chris Stuart is a writer and songwriter living in San Diego, California.