Credit the Gibson Brothers with taking what could be considered a bold new step with their recently released new album Mockingbird. Like the species it alludes to in a title, it brings with it a wake up call to a dual direction in their trajectory, one that finds them putting aside their bluegrass roots, at least temporarily, in favor of a vintage ‘70s sound that echoes the imprint of Laurel Canyon, the California coast, and the era when singer-songwriters made an essential impression in the full span of American music.
It’s no small risk for a band whose previous 13 albums found them reaping their rewards as one of the more popular bluegrass bands of the past few decades. Certainly they’ve reaped their rewards in that arena, having been named the IBMA Entertainers of the Year two years in a row — in both 2012 and 2013 — while successfully forging a path from their native upstate New York to the far reaches of the heartland.
That’s not to say there’s not an unerring feel of familiarity. Co-produced by the Grammy winning duo Dan Auerback and Fergie Ferguson, Mockingbird ploughs familiar turf, recalling such classic influences as the Eagles, Tom Petty, the Byrds, and the Flying Burrito Brothers.
After catching the Gibsons at AmericanaFest in Nashville a couple of weeks ago, we made it our mission to talk to the band and get their thoughts on where this direction was leading. Leigh Gibson was only too happy to oblige.
Bluegrass Today: clearly, this is a new move for you. Can you offer some insight into how this all came about?
Leigh Gibson: It is a new direction. We started our career in bluegrass. Then we got an opportunity to work with Dan Auerbach and Fergie Ferguson, and they didn’t put any limitations on what kind of record we were going to make. We knew we wanted to change things up a little bit and it would be considerably different from what we’ve done before. But it didn’t feel like it wasn’t going to be us. It’s a sound that was always a part of us. It’s that Southern California sound that we grew up listening to. My father was a big fan of classic country acts, and he was also a fan of Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt. Those folks were also influenced by the same beginnings of bluegrass that influenced us, whether it’s Bill Monroe or the Louvin Brothers. When you think of that Southern California thing, you also think of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers. They were impacted by those guys like we were as well.
It doesn’t feel weird. I know it’s a different form of music in a way, but it doesn’t feel like we’re pretending at all. It feels right, it feels good when we do it.
So what did you have to adapt as far as the arrangements were concerned?
The recordings we made for Sugar Hill from 2003 to 2007, 2008, you hear fiddles and banjos, but even so, we still relied most heavily on acoustic guitars and electric guitar. We brought in pedal steel because that instrument is a part of our DNA, and if we wrote a song that didn’t fit the bluegrass template, we still loved the song. A few years ago we did an album called Brotherhood which was a tribute to brother acts and it featured the acoustic guitar and mandolin stuff and our two voices. People’s perception of us is generally based on the songs that we write and our experiences, but other people like the fact that we harken back to those brotherly harmonies. Other people like what we did 15 years ago. People tend to like you, and hopefully fall in love with you, for what you were doing before. But you can’t really do that all the time. When I play for an audience, the reason I pick up a guitar, isn’t for the audience, if that makes any sense. I want to please our crowd, I really do, but if you’re not pleasing yourself, it’s going to feel phoney, it’s going to feel like reenactment rather than creation. You’re going to try to reenact something you did before rather than create something new. The thing that’s really going to excite the audience is to feel like they’ve experienced something that just happened. So if you play to what people see you as, you’re never going to find that again.
What kind of reaction have you gotten to the album at this point?
I’ve heard a lot of things personally in terms of some good natured ribbing. People I’ve become close with over the years in the bluegrass community. And I’ve seen some rather sharp criticism online from people I don’t know, people who never reached out…so I’m not sure if they were fans of ours anyway or simply people who are fans of traditional bluegrass. I understand that. I love bluegrass too. We certainly wouldn’t have dedicated our lives and out careers to music we didn’t care about. It’s not like we’ve left it behind and will never play it.
So what’s your feeling about bluegrass at this point?
Actually what we’ve done recently with this Mockingbird band makes me more excited about playing bluegrass than I have in years. When you learn something different, it makes you appreciate the things you did before. When you’ve done something successfully you tend to lean on that success a lot. You approach things the same way that made them successful, and you don’t grow musically. As a guitar player, when I play electric guitar with the Mockingbird band, and then I come back and play acoustic guitar with the bluegrass band, I understand my role even better. It makes my role clearer in my mind and it makes that role count more. I don’t think you ever intend to get lazy, but sometimes when you’ve done something successfully so many times before, you don’t reach out and try new things. You tend to get a bit stagnant. To do something different has rekindled my passion for what we do as a bluegrass band.
Is there any crossover as far as personnel between the two bands?
We share a bass player (laughs). The guy that plays bass in the Mockingbird band plays upright in the bluegrass band. We’ve also been playing a lot this year with a fellow named Justin Moses. He’s probably one of the finest musicians in Nashville. He played fiddle, banjo, mandolin, guitar and dobro. We had been touring as a four piece, and then he joined us back in January. For the longest time we had the same people in the band and it made for an incredibly long run. We have a core of guys who have been together over 25 years, and we have some folks that come in and out. I’m really enjoying it. When people come and go, it can be kind of stressful, but I feel like I’m learning something from all these guys.
How do you see bluegrass progressing?
Things that were looked at as cutting edge 30 years ago are now looked at as middle of the road. It does change. I’ve listened to it all. I’ve been around this industry for a long time now and it’s exciting what people are doing with it. We’ve always been seen as a more traditional bluegrass band, but when you hear the musicianship of a group like the Punch Brothers or the Travelin’ McCourys, you have to just say ‘Wow!’
It also depends on the songs…
The most valuable commodity in any form of music is a good song. That’s the hardest thing to find. You can appreciate all the other parts of it — the musicianship, the performance… but if the song isn’t there…to me that’s the most important component in any form of music.
You had some great players working with you on the new album. How did that affect what you did?
When we recorded Mockingbird, we were around some of the greatest musicians in history. Bobby Wood, Gene Chrisman, Billy Sanford, Dave Roe…it just became apparent how much sound they made with how little they were doing. They’re not playing for any other reason than to create this beautiful fabric that tells story of the songs along with the lyrics. You’re creating this moment, and that’s something you don’t hear enough of in any form of music. In bluegrass, you tend to hear people playing a lot, rather than tending to create songs that give people that moment in the song, and doing it with the least amount of notes. That’s what infuses the feel of story with the notes that help the song along. The really great bands still do it, but its become a lost art I’m afraid.
How did you go about choosing the songs for this album?
When we met with Dan and Fergie in late December and on the first day, in a three hour span, we wrote three songs and then came back and wrote three or four more songs with some other guys. We just wrote songs every day. Dan gave the opportunity for creative people to come together and create in a very comfortable setting. I never felt the pressure that I’ve felt before. It was just a great zone to be in creatively, and he fostered that. We just wrote the tunes that you hear on the record. There are a couple of songs that didn’t make the record, not because they weren’t good songs, but because they didn’t get the same kind of performance you might expect.
Your cover of REM’s Everybody Hurts is especially striking. How did the choice for that song come about?
It’s a song everybody kind of knows, and it lends itself well to harmony. So we brought it in but then somebody said, “How about Everybody Hurts?” even before we had a chance to bring it up. Really? Dan was all over it. Who hasn’t heard that song? It’s been heard everywhere. It’s a huge song. We had never tried to sing it, had never even thought of it. I thought we were totally lost when we first tried to sing it, but it totally came together. It was like, “Oh, there it is!” You totally find it in your voice. You tend to sing it louder than you want to, to exert yourself more, but that song is very much in a very, very sort of understated place. I loved the way it turned out. It was something that had to go on the record. It had to.
It’s become a very defining song for you. It represents this new outreach you’ve experienced. On the other hand, the songs that surround it sound like they’ve been around in the ethos forever. They sound like standards as well.
Nothing about it, from the writing of it to the learning of it — with the exception of Everybody Hurts — none of it felt unnatural. It didn’t feel forced, it didn’t feel anything other than a homecoming in a way. And I think part of it was due to Bobby Wood. Who hasn’t heard his gift on everything from Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head to Sweet Caroline. We’ve all heard it. If you listened to AM radio in the ‘70s or the ‘80s, you’ve heard it. And those are the songs I heard in my father’s pickup truck on the dairy farm we grew up on. And here we are. And it all felt so natural. This is a musical quest for me. And that’s how it felt with the other people on the album. I wouldn’t do anything differently. I’m really glad we did it.
You do a cover of Jackson Browne’s These Days in concert. Have you recorded it?
No. I remember hearing it on one of the first record’s I ever bought, Greg Allman’s first album Laid Back. Then I heard New Grass Revival’s version of it. And John Cowan did a solo version of it. It’s so funny, because these are all the little musical components that made us who we are today. It’s a pretty broad group of people, whether you think Jackson Browne or John Cowan or New Grass Revival.
And of course New Grass Revival is one of those bands that really brought bluegrass further, just like what you’ve done.
I love that band. My big regret is that I never saw them live.
So what’s next now that you’ve ventured out in this new direction? Will you continue this tack?
I can’t really give you an honest answer. I don’t really know, and I won’t really know til we reconvene in the studio. I love recording both kinds of music. So if we end up recording another bluegrass record, that would be fine with me. And I’d certainly love to record this kind of music again. So we haven’t decided. We’re not fighting about it, we just haven’t decided. We don’t know what we want to do yet. We’ve just stuck a toe in the water and we’re trying to figure it out. I’m not ready to walk away from either one. They both mean too much to me to let go of. They’re both part of what we do so I’m not willing to choose. I’ll pursue opportunities with both of them. I’m the one who has to live it. A good song is a good song.