Q&A with Katy Daley – The Gibson Brothers

Here is Katy’s interview with Eric and Leigh, The Gibson Brothers, about their latest album, In The Ground, due February 17 on Rounder Records. She takes them through each of the tracks for something of a verbal preview.

KD: We’ve been looking forward to this album release for two years. Your last release was Brotherhood, which paid tribute to other brother duets. In the Ground contains all original Gibson Brothers songs. When we say co-written, do you automatically put each other’s names on a song?

Leigh: No. If I were to seek assistance from Eric in any kind of way to complete a song, I would credit him as a co-writer. If I lend a few lines or an idea, he would do the same. There are some where we didn’t have a chorus yet. Depending on the song, we might contribute more than others. We don’t have the situation where everything he writes my name automatically goes on it and vice versa. We actually have to do some work to get a co-write.

KD: Highway has been released to radio for several weeks now. What can you tell me about this song?

Eric: I wrote the majority of that song probably 17 years ago. I had two verses and a chorus. And every album we would record Leigh would say, “Why don’t we try Highway? In my mind it’s more of a rockabilly song than a bluegrass song. I didn’t really hear it working for the band. Maybe I kind of gave up on it. I liked what I had but I didn’t think it worked. Finally, Leigh said, “You really need to finish that. Let’s try it with the band.” We tried it down in Florida and it had some energy and some fire to it. Everyone was smiling when we got done. Leigh said “Send me the words and I’ll finish it.” Later he said he knew that was how he would get me to finish it by saying I’ll help you finish it. I never sent him the words. I just wrote another verse and we recorded it

Leigh: We thought Del would come in and sing that last verse. Eric really let go and sang it interestingly, I thought, on that verse because it was a throw away because he thought Del would sing it. That added something really exciting to it. Well, our schedules didn’t line up with Del’s. The more we got to listen to that verse we thought, let’s keep it. We’ll have to save Del singing on one of our records for another time. Del is a hero of ours but I’m really glad Eric threw caution to the wind and sang it thinking he was going to throw it away because it’s really good singing.

KD: Speaking of Del, a few years ago the McCourys and the Gibsons played a concert in DC. Del told the Washington Post: “…when I hear someone like the Gibson Brothers, I know it’s them from the first note. They have that little thing in their voices that no one else has…” I know what he means. Tell me what the Gibson Brothers’ sound is to you.

Leigh: It’s in the tradition of a brother duet. I think the reason we sound different is because we weren’t around a lot of other bluegrass in that formative time, when you’re getting brave enough in your later teens and early twenties to start singing. I wasn’t around Ronnie Bowman or Dan Tyminski, who are great singers and we didn’t get to watch other bluegrass musicians like Del McCoury or Bob Paisley play until we were in our mid-twenties. We had gone past that point where we might really try to emulate somebody. I think the geographic separation we had from the heartland of bluegrass music sort of made us sound different. I think you can almost throw that back to an earlier time when a mountain range or a big body of water would create differences in cultures or how they talk. It was more prominent a few years ago but that’s what happened to our music. We heard the founders and the first generation of the music on records. We had a limited access to bluegrass radio and few record stores who would sell it where we lived. So there wasn’t an immersion at bluegrass festivals when we were kids where we might try to sound like some band we liked. We just started singing together. We talked the same and we wound up singing the same.

KD: That makes sense. Now what about Homemade Wine? I’ve had a few of those mornings myself.

Leigh: I have a friend who really likes to make homemade wine. I’ve had it but it’s not for me. I’ve had a few of those mornings, if I’m being honest. I just put myself in the shoes of someone who might have enjoyed the homemade wine a little too much.

Eric: I said to him, what prompted that? He said, well, I’ve never written a drinking song. It’s a good fun number. Kind of reminds me of a song Nashville Bluegrass Band might have cut. Just has that kind of feel. That’s one of our favorite bands of all time. Alan O’Bryant was so good to us. For some reason when I hear that I think about him.

KD: I’d like to send a shout out to Ben Surratt, who has engineered several albums for you. When listening to the CD, it sounds like I’m standing right in the room with the band. It sounds so pure and natural as if there’s no electronics that ever touched the music.

Eric: You know it’s funny you say that. I heard us on the radio last night and it was a song that Ben engineered. I was thinking the same thing. First of all, he’s a great guy and he’s a wonderful engineer. He really knows how to make your instrument sound the way it’s supposed to. He has the vocal setting for the mix just as it’s supposed to. I like working with him.

KD: We can’t talk about the sound of your album without a standing ovation for your band.

Leigh: Mike Barber has been with us for 24 years. Mike was playing in rock bands until he actually got hired to play with the Gibson Brothers and that’s when he learned the upright bass. Mike helps produce our records. I think his hand along with our voices has really helped make our own sound. He’s been very influential in that as well.

Eric: Our fiddler, Clayton Campbell has been with us 12 years now. He’s so good backing a vocal and in lifting a chorus, which is important in this band. Jesse Brock’s been with us now for 3-1/2 years. IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year twice. He’s added a lot to the group. They’re all team players and great guys to travel with.

KD: I know all of your songs are based in truth, or at least partial truth, but this one is rock solid advice Eric got from your Dad as he went off to college.

Eric and Leigh Gibson

Leigh: It is a true story. It’s Eric recounting a conversation he had with our father when he was getting ready to go away to college. You have to remember we didn’t travel a lot. You’re tied to the farm. You’re committed to it and each other. You end up having a lot of time spent at home. Eric’s the oldest and was going away to college first. He had a scholarship attached to his baseball performance. He went to Ithaca College and even though it’s only 4-5 hours away from home, it seemed like a world away. I’m sure it was emotional for my Dad to see his boy go off. Remember who you are and don’t let the world change you.

Eric: Yeah. I’ll never forget that. It’s been in the back of my mind since then. It never occurred to me to write a song about it. He said that to me before I left: “Remember who you are.” I kind of knew what he meant but it made me think, “Well, who am I?” I think he was just saying don’t forget what you learned here. It was important what you learned here. We’ve never let go of it.

KD: No secret that you’re both baseball fans. So the inspiration for the next song came from Yogi Berra?

Eric: I heard a story about Yogi Berra, the great NY Yankees catcher who passed away just a few years ago. He’s known for saying things like “It’s not over ‘til it’s over.” “Nobody goes to that restaurant anymore, it’s too crowded.” Yogi-isms. One I hadn’t heard until right before I started working on this album was about a trip to Cooperstown, where the Baseball Hall of Fame is. He was on a trip with his wife, Carmen, and they were lost. Carmen said, “Yogi, we’re lost.” And he replied, “Yah, but we’re making good time.” (chuckle). I thought that was just a great line.

KD: This next song, My Quiet Mind, is one Leigh wrote with Shawn Camp.

Leigh: He’s a great writer. A seasoned writer. He doesn’t waste much time or energy. He’s a really talented writer in that regard. Eric had set up a writing session for us a few years ago in Nashville. The night before the session Eric came down with the flu. I went to the session alone and this is what we came up with. I had the idea for the song from a poem. Not that I was reading 16th Century English poetry. I was watching a television program in which the poet recited this line. Basically the poem has to do with man’s search for the quiet mind, peace.

Eric: Don’t we all want that? Don’t we all want things to slow down so we don’t have those Three O’Clock in the Morning moments? I just think this song captures what we all want.

KD: When you co-write is it best to go in with a clean slate and not something in mind? What if the person you’re writing with doesn’t like what you brought to the session? Is it better to go in even-steven? Or is it ok to go in with an idea?

Leigh: There’s a fine line between going in with an idea and going in with an agenda. I don’t think you want to go in with an agenda. Say you go in with a verse and a chorus to sit down as equal partners creating something and then you’re really tied to everything you’ve worked towards so far. Even though you’re open minded, there’s still a part of you that can get a little hurt if someone turns away from something you’re already emotionally invested in. I think that could stymie the writing session. I’ve experienced that. So now when I get together with someone to write I might have an idea for a title or a general concept but I don’t spend any time hashing anything out that’s just going to get thrown away. I save that stuff for me to complete or in a much more informal relationship that I have from Eric. It doesn’t bother me if he hates something. I’m not going to get mad about it because we’ve been through so much of that already. If it’s somebody you don’t have as close relationship with, it might hurt the session. I just tend to go in with a broad sense of this is an idea and start working from scratch.

KD: And who wrote the next one, I Can’t Breathe Deep Yet?

Leigh: That’s mine. I guess we’re getting older. You’re always reaching for the next thing. Sometimes you can get caught up in that and don’t appreciate what you’ve already accomplished and what you’ve already been blessed to have. This song was just me singing about that. Things I do have. I sometimes overlook them. Even though I know I have them, I still want more. Still want to do more, accomplish more, provide more so I Still Can’t Breathe Deep Yet. Can’t relax.

KD: Eric, I Can’t Breathe Deep Yet and My Quiet Mind, have elements of wondering where you are in life. What do you and Leigh choose as your guideposts to sort of measure how your careers are going?

Eric: I always want to look to see if we’re doing better now than I was last year or the year before. And we are. Getting more and more bookings all the time. We’ve just come off our busiest year. This coming year looks to be as busy. Just the kinds of jobs we’re doing. All quality shows. There are fewer and fewer jobs we’re doing where we say, “why did we take this job?” I think we’re being smarter in our career. Most importantly, the band is getting better all the time. And that’s an important benchmark.

Here’s a funny story about the first job we had. We were playing a little street fair in Malone in 90 degree heat. We were 13 and 12. We got paid in donuts. (laughter) At the end the lady goes, “I really don’t have any money but I do have donuts.” So we each had a donut. At least we didn’t have to split it.

KD: I want to talk a little bit about why people identify with your songs. Your songs always hit home. They say write what you know and I guess you’re writing the human experience.

Leigh: We’re not trying to write for anybody else. We write what means something to us. If it means a great deal to me and it’s specific to me, that’s all I can really do as a writer. Just write something of value to yourself. You mention the human experience. People plug themselves into the songs. Even if someone has no experience as a dairy farmer they might have experience with a different kind of frustration or different kind of nostalgia that’s attached to dairy farming. The experience is not the same but the emotion is shared. That’s what happens with the folks who like our music, they recognize that we’re being genuine to ourselves. It allows them to get into the song on a personal level as well. In my experience any time we’ve ever chased anything that wasn’t genuine to us, it’s not been successful. And you get the feeling, “I just sold myself out.”

KD: Eric you brought your mother’s family into this next song called Fool’s Hill.

Eric: Yeah. I don’t think it’s a real common phrase. Leigh asks around the country when we’re playing it. “How many of you have heard this?” and only a few say they have. My mom is a very tolerant, loving person. I’d hear her say about a young person who was having a hard time and getting into trouble, “Oh he’ll be all right, he’s just climbing Fools Hill.” I always thought that was a great phrase. I also used it as an excuse to get my Uncle Dolan into a song. He may have climbed Fools Hill a time or two. He got in trouble back in the ‘60s for bringing a horse into a bar room on Christmas Eve. I was able to get that in there. I love this song.

KD: Leigh, tell us about Friend of Mine. It started out as a little tribute to your guitar.

Leigh: That was my initial attempt. I started writing this sitting in the passenger seat of the van. I started thinking about how many miles I’ve spent traveling with a guitar. You develop a close relationship with your instruments. They become a part of you and you use them as a conduit to express yourself. I looked over while we’re driving down the road and Mike Barber, who’s been playing bass for us for 24 years, and who’s been a friend even longer than that, has shared all these miles and experiences as well. I decided to write him into the song. It’s about our instruments but also about the people we share our lives away from our families with. If you think about it, I spend half my time with these four other guys that I don’t spend with my children or my wife or my mother. Those relationships are very important because if it’s not good, it’s a really bad life. We’re very fortunate to have good relationships with our people and each other.

KD: Another relationship song is Little Girl.

Leigh: Eric found this in a notebook from several years ago. As we got ready for the record he said it wasn’t ready because it didn’t have a chorus. I had some time so I sat down and wrote the chorus. I thought it would be interesting to do a call-and-response in the brother duet tradition on the chorus. And I think it works

Eric: Yeah, it does work. I just wrote about my wife. I started writing this maybe 10 years ago or more when things weren’t going so well with my career. I was feeling like I married this beautiful, wonderful woman and I was letting her down. She wasn’t coming out and saying I was letting her down but we weren’t where we thought we would be at that point in our marriage. As far as finances, you know. I just said to myself, “Am I selfish?” At the time we weren’t playing as many dates and I was doing some work on the side with my father-in-law. That part about dirt beneath my fingernails that was from using a shovel and doing excavation. I would come home to a nice warm home with my wife and kids. Those are real feelings right there.

KD: The next song, I Found a Church Today, was a joint effort.

Leigh: I had recently started attending a church in my town. I guess we were both looking for something at that point in our lives. We sat together and I helped him hammer out a chorus in the Branson Best Western. Eric had the idea for the song and wrote it on the plane, and we finished it in the hotel room. We wrote this before Brotherhood came out, which didn’t have any original music on it. By the time it came to record this, we thought it would be neat to do it in a brother duet style with just mandolin and guitar and voices. I think that gives the message of the song a little bit more impact.

Eric: I thought his chorus just lifted the whole song. I love that song. I just sounds old school.

KD: You’ve mentioned writing in notebooks, on iPhones, in hotel rooms. How do you write? What are the mechanics of your writing?

Leigh: It depends. I haven’t made a leap to the Mac Book yet. It’s pretty much handwritten on whatever I can find. If I’m home, I’m sitting at the dining room table with a guitar, paper, and pencil. I always have my phone in my pocket so I’ll bang out some lyrics on my iPhone. Just enough that I don’t lose the idea. Typically, my lyrics won’t get typed until the record company is asking for them for the liner notes.

KD: How ‘bout Look Who’s Crying?

Eric: Leigh wrote that years ago and he wrote it as a shuffle. As we got closer to recording I said, “Why don’t we do Look Who’s Crying?” We’ve had that song forever and we’ve done nothing with it. He said, “I hear it more as a Stanley Brothers style up-tempo waltz.” I asked, “How are you going to handle that on the chorus?” and he said. “We’ll do it as a call and response.” We started messing around with it and I really liked the way it turned out.

KD: You had a very cool co-writer on Everywhere I Go.

Eric: My son, Kelley, wrote this with us. He was a real gift for melodies. I’ll hear him in his room and I’ll ask him where did you get that. “I don’t know, Dad.” This is one he had started and I loved the melody. I was back at our hunting camp back in the woods north of where we used to have a farm. I was just fiddling around with it on the guitar and Leigh asked, “ What is that?” I told him Kelley’s writing a song and he asked how close he was to finishing it. Oh, maybe about half. Leigh asked, “Do you think he’ll let us work on it?”

I went home and said, “Uncle Leigh loved your melody. He wanted to know if you would let us work it.” Kelley said, “Nope.” (chuckle) He’s 20 and he’s stubborn like his father and his uncle. We’re very territorial about our songs. Then my younger son, Kieran, who is 3-1/2 years younger said “Kelley, if they record it, your name will be on the record and if it gets any airplay you might make a little money.” And Kelley said, “OK Dad, you guys can work on it.” So we finished it. I’m really proud of him. He’s 20 and he’s got a cut on Rounder recording. That’s pretty good. A few years ago someone asked him, “Is your goal to be in your father’s band?” And he said, “No, I want my own band.” And I thought, “Good for you buddy. Good for you.”

KD: Ok, Leigh. We’ve come to the title cut, In the Ground. Talk about writing something you know.

Leigh: I wrote about my experience and the fact that we see fewer and fewer small family farms like we grew up on around the country, and I especially notice it where I’m from.

KD: When you say small farm, how many acres are you talking about?

The Gibson Farm

Leigh: Some would be milking 20 or 30 cows, and others would be milking 75-100. We milked about 50-60. My father owned nearly 700 acres but a lot of that was not tillable. It was a collection of abandoned 40 acre farms we inherited or purchased. People would pass away and their kids wouldn’t have interest back in 1920 in carrying it on, and my great grandfather would buy that 40 acres of tillable land. It was a patchwork of little farms that made up the Gibson Farm with the barn and the house being on their original homestead, which was a double, 80-some acres. But it wasn’t all tillable.

When we rode the school bus we’d stop every eighth of a mile and pick up another kid that was living on a small family farm. And now it seems so much more of a rarity, not only when I go home, but in other parts of the country, too. Eric and I have discussed this. Things change. We realize that. It doesn’t mean we have to be comfortable with that. I feel badly about that. It doesn’t mean that things are worse for these people. I just feel bad. I had such a great experience growing up that I feel badly that my kids aren’t going to experience that directly through me or even an uncle. It’s just the way the world has gone. I don’t have to like that.

Eric: I don’t even know how Leigh signs this song. I really don’t. The last verse to me is just chilling. You know what he’s talking about. He’s talking about our Dad. “I watched my hero go home.” I have to steel myself when I hear that song. I have to harden my heart to do that song. It’s beautiful and it says what we wanted to say.

KD: Let’s talk a little bit about Leigh’s stage work. It’s really remarkable.

Eric: I’m biased. I don’t understand why he’s only once been nominated for IBMA’s Male Vocalist of the Year award. I think he should be Male Vocalist one of these years. I’m not taking away from anyone else, but dang, he’s great. I don’t know if there’s a better emcee. He has some things that he leans on if we play for a new audience. Some nights I can’t believe where he goes! He’s just so funny. He is witty. I’m the straight man ‘cause I can’t keep up with him. He’s really good. I think his writing on this album is stellar. For a few years he wasn’t writing as much. He likes to write in the morning and when he had young kids getting ready for school or staying home, it was hard. But they’re all in school now and doing real well so he’s writing more and the band benefits as a result.

KD: And the listeners, too. Your fans have really been waiting for this CD. It’s been two years.

Eric: It’s funny. When we cut Brotherhood, I was really proud of it. Still am. It’s in my Mom’s car all the time. I borrowed her car the other day and I listened through it. And I thought it’s a good record. But people would come up to the guys in the band. They wouldn’t come up to me or Leigh, they would come up to the other guys and say “It’s good but I miss the boys’ songs. I want to hear the boys’ songs.”

One day we’re not going to be the boys anymore. We’re getting there quick, but soon we’ll be too old to be the boys anymore. This album has all the boys’ songs on it. When we finished Brotherhood we thought what should we do on the next one and we said, “Let’s write the next one.” I felt very strongly that we needed to write the whole record. Maybe it’s ego, I don’t know. The majority of the songs people request are songs that we’ve written. So we listened. We hope they’re happy with this one.

For more information on the Gibson Brothers’ music or tour dates, visit www.gibsonbrothers.com.

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About the Author

Katy Daley

Katy Daley had long been a part of the Washington, DC bluegrass and country radio scene, on WAMU's Bluegrass Country and WMZQ-FM. She received DC Bluegrass Union's 2017 Washington Monument Award and was named IBMA's Broadcaster of the Year in 2009 and 2011. She has since retired from radio, but not from bluegrass music.