Six years ago, Eric and Leigh Gibson were one of the hottest new acts in bluegrass. The International Bluegrass Music Association named them "Emerging Artists of the Year" in 1998. And then, The Gibson Brothers switched gears, headed to Nashville, tried their hand at mainstream country music and almost disappeared altogether.
Last year, The Gibsons returned to their roots with a well-received CD called Bonafide. One of the sweetest sounds in bluegrass music is that of brothers singing harmony. And there's plenty of that on the new Gibson Brothers release, Long Way Back Home.
On the surface, Eric and Leigh Gibson seem unlikely candidates for "bluegrass stardom." The brothers were raised not in Kentucky or Virginia, but on a family dairy farm in upstate New York, just a few kilometers from the U.S. border with Canada. So how did they get exposed to the music? Eric Gibson, older than his brother Leigh by less than a year, and a banjo player since the age of 12, puts "the blame" on his parents.
"My mom and dad liked all kinds of music," he explained. "At various times they bought instruments, but never really learned to play them. We listened to a lot of different kinds of music, and then when I started playing banjo and Leigh stated playing guitar, well, we were introduced to Flatt and Scruggs by our instructor. And then, we started scoping out the local scene and hearing local bluegrass bands and caught the bug for bluegrass."
I asked guitar player Leigh Gibson to explain what it was that attracted him to bluegrass. After all, it's not usually the music of choice for teenagers!
"I think there's an honesty about it. You don't have to be a rural [country] person, although we were, to relate to that," he said. "And to understand longing for home and family and things like that. And, I think maybe the improvisational aspect of the music might attract people. The fact that a mandolin player will jam out for two minutes in the key of B with no capo, it's pretty impressive."
Seven of the 13 tracks on Long Way Back Home are Gibson Brothers originals. The others from writers including Kieran Kane and Gordon Lightfoot. Another recognizable track is The Gibson Brothers cover of the Band's Ophelia. Leigh Gibson first brought the song to the band several years ago. But it wasn't until last year that he was able to convince the rest of the guys that it was a good choice.
Leigh Gibson: "I remember four, or five or six years ago, trying to bring the song "Ophelia" to the band. I don't think I was ready to sing it yet, maybe I didn't give a good performance when I showed it to the guys because they all said 'uh huh.'"
Cole: "Yeah, I see that look right now, that 'uh huh' look."
Leigh Gibson: "We had a rehearsal last fall, and I showed it to the guys, and they kind of liked it. And I said 'Why don't you do this intro?' And I showed them the horn part that 'The Band' does as a tribute to 'Dixie.' Mark and Eric worked it up on mandolin and banjo. And once you get a banjo kick off?"
Eric Gibson: Oh come on.
Leigh Gibson: You're good to go.
Cole: You're still not buying that?
Eric Gibson: No. I love the song now. But he thinks he tricks me. 'Get the banjo out Eric.' And if Eric likes the song on the banjo, then it becomes OK with Eric.
Leigh and Eric Gibson, along with bandmates Marc McGlashan and Mike Barber, will be spending the next few months touring the U.S. and Canada. Then it's back into the studio to record a follow-up to Long Way Back Home. Leigh Gibson, the band's guitar player and lead singer on a majority of songs, wrote Dreams That End Like This. Eric switches from banjo to play a stellar guitar solo on the track.