Featuring the stunning blood harmonies of days gone by and an abiding love for classic sounds, The Gibson Brothers long ago earned the respect of the bluegrass establishment – even scoring back-to-back wins as the International Bluegrass Music Association’s (IBMA) Entertainer of the Year in 2012 and 2013. Even so, they’ve always cultivated an adventurous spirit.
Having grown up on a dairy farm in the far north of New York State, sandwiched between the Adirondack Mountains and Quebec’s provincial border, their musical appetite was as varied as their home was removed from the bluegrass heartland – from Flatt & Scruggs to Celtic traditionals, and from Tom Petty and The Eagles to French-Canadian fiddle tunes. Throughout their two-decade recording career, The Gibson Brothers have subtly mixed bluegrass reverence with a hint of rock refreshment, but with their new album, Mockingbird, Eric and Leigh Gibson have taken a bold creative departure – at least for the time being.
Mockingbird’s 11 tracks still feature their celebrated close harmonies, but also pull heavily from the countrified world of late 60s/early 70s rock, all masterminded by producers Dan Auerbach (of The Black Keys) and David Ferguson (Johnny Cash’s American Recordings series). Freewheeling and fun, but also rooted in the crisp refinement of their past success, the boisterous rural funk of tracks like “Sweet Lucinda” stands alongside breezy Laurel-Canyon rock in “Cool Drink of Water,” while “Travelin’ Day” explores a trad-country template and R.E.M.’s seminal 90s hit “Everybody Hurts” becomes a swaying example of country R&B.
“The impetus behind the music was that we had done bluegrass our whole career, and when we got talking about the next record, we really just decided we didn’t want to do the same old thing again,” he explains. “It’s not because we were ashamed of what we were doing. We love what we do. There was no intention of anything. This all really happened naturally.”
“I think people love a band where they found them,” banjo-playing lead singer Eric Gibson adds. “But it was so exciting that we didn’t have time to think about ‘Oh, is this gonna upset people who are used to what we’ve done in the past?’ We just dove into the process and had a ball.”
Speaking with The Bluegrass Situation by phone, The Gibson Brothers dug into the inspiration for Mockingbird – and the creative avalanche that followed.
The obvious question here is “What made you want to get away from bluegrass?” But I feel like being from upstate New York might have had something to do with it. Is your approach to bluegrass a little different?
Leigh: We started learning how to play bluegrass when we were 11 and 12, and the guy who taught lessons at our local store played five-string banjo and guitar, among other things. Our father just happened to have both of those instruments, but he didn’t have a banjo because he was into Celtic music. So the guy we took lessons from taught Eric out of the Earl Scruggs method book, and I think that’s what pointed us in the direction of bluegrass.
Eric: Yeah, and once we heard Flatt & Scruggs it really drew us in, but if we hadn’t gotten into the Scruggs handbook, we probably would have played something else.
So what was the idea behind Mockingbird? Do you think of it as a rock and roll album?
Eric: There are definitely elements of rock and roll, but I hear country in it, too. I don’t know where it neatly fits. I’ve heard some people call it an Americana record, but on top of it all I hear the brother harmony. I think it’s that, weaving through a variety of styles.
Leigh: We wanted to do something different, and originally we had some tunes that didn’t fit neatly into the box of a bluegrass band. But we didn’t know we were gonna make a whole album. We were just looking to record some tracks.
Eric: And we ended up not recording any of the songs we were thinking about. We just wrote a bunch of new ones! … When we went to Nashville and started working with Dan Auerbach and David Ferguson, they asked us, “Do you wanna make a country record?” And we said, “Let’s just write songs and see what they need.” They handled the producing chores and did a beautiful job, and came up with sounds that I know I couldn’t have come up with.
You reached out to Ferguson to produce Mockingbird first, and I know he also engineered your first Nashville bluegrass album, Another Night of Waiting. Why was he at the top of the list for this project?
Leigh: [Laughs] Because he’s fun.
Eric: He’s a character and once you meet him you don’t forget him. We’d see him here or there and he’s been doing all kinds of big things in the last 20 years. He’s the one who engineered all those late-career Johnny Cash albums with Rick Rubin. He’s worked with U2, and lately he’s been working with Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers. We’d see him and he’d say, “Why don’t you come record some music with ol’ Ferg?”
Leigh: And I’d say “I don’t think we can afford you, Ferg.” And he’d be like, “You’re right, you can’t.” [Laughs]
Eric: But we were riding around DelFest on a golf cart with him in 2017 and he brought it up again, and by fall we were feeling a little restless. We kept listening to records that he worked on in the van, and I think Leigh was the one who said “Maybe we should call Ferg.” I said, “Why do you think I’ve been playing all these albums over and over again!”
So then Ferguson suggests bringing in Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys. Was that a surprise?
Leigh: I was floored, to be honest. Our manager called me and said, “Well, Ferg’s first action as your producer is to bring on another producer, and it’s Dan Auerbach.” [Laughs] So I called Eric and I couldn’t believe it.
Eric: What was funny was Leigh said, “Is this something you’d be interested in?” And I was like, “Duh!” This is the kind of thing that falls out of the sky and you have to go for it.
I read that the whole album was written and recorded in just a few days. Is that unusual for you?
Eric: Yeah, we’ve never worked like that before. … Every day it would be Leigh and Dan and me, plus one other writer. We didn’t go in with any melodies. I had a couple of lines jotted down but we hardly used any of those. A lot of it just came out of conversations we were having at Dan’s studio kitchen table, like “Travelin’ Day.” Dan said, “You know, Ferg lost his stepdad a few days ago,” and we got to talking about that. Ferg said, “He really showed us how it’s done. He was brave at the end.” We said, “Our dad was the same way.”
It’s interesting that you started off with something so heavy, because the album doesn’t come across heavy at all.
Eric: It’s not. That first song is pretty heavy, but there’s a lot of love songs on there, and we hadn’t written a lot of love songs in the past.
Leigh: Dan and Ferg showed us how to love. [Laughs]
“Love the Land” seems like a reference back to you roots on the farm. Where did that come from?
Eric: That was written with Joe Allen.
Leigh: With that song, obviously Eric and I have a background of shared memories, so we’re probably thinking about the same thing as we’re writing it. But Joe’s from Oklahoma and Dan’s from Ohio, so they’re thinking about different things. I remember talking to Dan and he said, “Man, I need to get outside more. I miss it.” It’s kind of funny that it’s wherever your head is at the time. If we sat down with the same guys tomorrow, something totally different would come out.
Eric: Dan loved that we kept showing up early. I’d apologize and Dan would say, “No, no, make yourselves at home.” So we’d go back to that kitchen area and he has this beautiful vinyl collection. We’d put on different records and I think sometimes they would influence the direction of the day. Like, that one has a very Don Williams feel, and I think we were listening to Don Williams that morning.
Why did you pull Mockingbird out of that song as the album title?
Eric: Just because that kept jumping out of my head. Joe came up with the line, something like “Mockingbird, if you haven’t heard / Never been a sound so sweet.” I loved that, so I actually Googled “mockingbird.” [Laughs] It turns out they can sing a variety of songs. They don’t just sing the same thing every day, and I thought “Wow, that’s kind of what we’re doing here.”
I’m sure you’ve been asked a million times, but did the cover of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts” come out of left field?
Eric: Totally out of left field.
Leigh: Just before the last day of tracking, Dan said, “Think of a song from the 80s or 90s that everybody knows but no one would think of you doing.” So Eric and I talked about it on the way back to the hotel and came up with something by a female artist, and we got to the studio the next day and Ferg is like, “So what song did you choose?” We told him and he’s like, “Oh, I hate that song.” Allen Parker, who is Dan’s in-house engineer, said “Hey, how about ‘Everybody Hurts’?” I had heard the song – you couldn’t miss it if you’re a person my age – but I never in a million years would have thought about doing it. Those guys went and charted it, and it had such a comfortable, funky feel, that we were compelled to learn it.
Do you think your fans saw this album coming?
Eric: No. I mean, it’s a hard question. If they’ve really been paying attention to us over the years, it shouldn’t come as a big surprise because we’ve recorded stuff by Tom Petty and The Band and The Rolling Stones and Mark Knopfler. We have a variety of tastes.
Leigh: I think there are certain fans who see you as one thing, and if you do something else it can be upsetting, but no one twisted our arm to do this. It’s absolutely what we wanted to do and we’re proud of it, but we didn’t do this to offend anybody. If somebody is offended, there’s nothing we can really do about that except say, “Look at our track record and all this other stuff we’ve done that you really love. Why not give this a chance?”
Photo by Alysse Gafkjen