Late last year, as I chatted with Eric Gibson, I silently doubted him when he said he thought the Gibson Brothers next CD would be their best yet. After Ring the Bell a few years back and album of the year honors and other awards for Help My Brother over the last two years, delivering something even better seemed a tall, if not impossible, order.
I should have listened to him.
They Called It Music, the Gibson Brothers’ new release on Compass Records, is better than anything the upstate New Yorkers have delivered so far, and that’s saying something.
The band has been around since the last century, as Claire Lynch might say, but Eric and Leigh and their sidekicks have come into their own over the last four or five years. With Help My Brother, the Gibsons erased much of the sense that they couldn’t crack the top tier of bluegrass because they were – GASP!!! – from so far north they practically lived in Canada.
Now, with They Called It Music, geography and any other artificial limitations are completely irrelevant. The Gibson Brothers are among the elite bands in bluegrass today – and as this CD demonstrates, they keep getting better. I’m convinced that 20 years from now, the Gibsons will be remembered as one of the best brother duos this side of Ralph and Carter Stanley, with Eric and Leigh mentioned in the same breath as Charlie and Ira, Bobby and Sonny, Jim and Jesse. And they’re young enough that they’ll probably still be adding to their legacy at that point.
But don’t take my word for it and wait around for a couple of decades to see if I’m right. Just put on this CD and listen.
Yes, the harmonies are exquisite. They do duets as good as any bluegrassers alive, and there are several gems on this record. But the lead vocals provide the real wow factor here. Eric is in fine form on the title cut, which he wrote with Joe Newberry, and others.
But Leigh delivers the powerful emotional punch, especially his plaintive refrain on Something Comin’ to Me, (written by Lee, Eric and Shawn Camp) and the poignancy of The Darker the Night the Better I See (by Joe Newberry) and Daddy’s Gone to Knoxville. That last one is a swing number, and the line “You’d better love your daddy while you can” is especially meaningful following their father Kelly’s recent passing. While that one was written by rocker Mark Knopfler, these guys have always written about their parents and family (Farms of Yesterday, Safe Passage, Bottomland) and they do it again throughout this album without getting syrupy or overwrought. (As if playing and singing superbly isn’t enough, one or both of the brothers have writing credits on half of the 12 songs. Is there nothing these guys can’t do?)
But Leigh’s best lead vocal performance, to me at least, is on I Will Always Cross Your Mind, written by Roy Hurd and Elizabeth Hill. He’s going to get a lot of backing for IBMA male vocalist this year. (The album was released just in time to meet the deadline for 2013 consideration.) And if Help My Brother was album of the year in 2011 and this one is better, it stands to reason that They Called It Music should grab a bunch of votes, too.
But the Gibson Brothers didn’t make this music to win awards, and you shouldn’t listen to it with trophies in mind. Just put it on and enjoy.
Enjoy the sweet harmonies of Home on the River, a duet in three-four time popularized long ago by the Delmore Brothers.
Enjoy the spot-on fiddling of Clayton Campbell and some of the solidest rhythm you’ll hear in any genre, with Joe Walsh on mandolin and Mike Barber on the upright bass.
Enjoy the moment. The Gibson Brothers call it music. We’re lucky enough to be around to hear it.
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