For thousands of years, sailors navigated by the stars, trusting the constellations to keep them on the correct course. The same celestial bodies that led them away from home were the same ones that directed them back. Since childhood, Eric and Leigh Gibson's guiding stars have been songs recorded by music's greatest brother duos: the Monroes, the Louvins, and the Everlys, whose close harmonies have captivated listeners for decades.
On February 24, 2015, the two-time International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainers of the Year will release Brotherhood, a salute to those influential groups.
"Making an album like this is something we've always talked about," explains Leigh Gibson. "At some point you have to stop talking and start doing."
Older brother Eric elaborates: "We love that tradition of brothers singing together, and to pay tribute to that shows people where our hearts are."
For Brotherhood, Eric and Leigh chose fifteen songs from country, bluegrass, and early rock 'n' roll brother acts. The track listing reflects nearly a century of American music history, from "The Eastbound Train," a parlor tune with roots that can be traced back to the 1890s, to "It'll Be Her," a Top 20 single released by Tompall and the Glaser Brothers in 1982. This is the music the Gibsons grew up with on the family dairy farm in Ellenburg Depot, a tiny town in upstate New York that was closer to the Canadian border than it was to a record store.
Brotherhood is the Gibsons' twelfth album since their 1993 debut, Underneath a Harvest Moon. 20 years on, Eric and Leigh have matured considerably as musicians, writers and performers, causing an ever-growing legion of bluegrass fans to take notice and garnering impressive amounts of critical acclaim: not only did the band win IBMA's Entertainer of the Year Award in 2012 and 2013, but the organization presented Eric with the prestigious Songwriter of the Year Award last year as well. The Gibson Brothers have come into their own, combining their wide-ranging influences – live shows are often peppered with a variety of covers ranging from Buck Owens to Tom Petty – into a unique style that honors tradition while still sounding refreshingly new.
The material is familiar, yet in some ways Brotherhood is an album of firsts. It's the Gibson Brothers' first album on Rounder Records, their first covers project, and it's also the first release that includes the newest member of the band, award-winning mandolin player and vocalist Jesse Brock, who joined the group in late 2012.
Though Brock has only been with the band for two years, the lineup has never sounded tighter. Fiddler Clayton Campbell has been with the band for a decade, and bassist Mike Barber has played with Leigh and Eric for so long that he's affectionately known as the third Gibson Brother. While their stunning harmonies capture most of the fan and critical attention, Eric and Leigh are also accomplished musicians, playing banjo and guitar, respectively.
While this impeccable five-man team is the heart of the record, which was largely recorded live in the studio, several guests appear on Brotherhood, giving the album a welcome dose of variety while still remaining true to the original songs and the Gibsons' own sound. Ronnie and Rob McCoury sing and play mandolin and banjo on a spellbinding version of "What a Wonderful Savior is He," a song that was recorded by The Four Brothers Quartet, a 1959 collaboration between Knoxville-area duos the Webster and Brewster Brothers. Ronnie Reno, a former Osborne Brothers sideman, lends harmony vocals to "Each Season Changes You" and one of the most beloved songs of the bluegrass canon, "How Mountain Girls Can Love." Russ Pahl (who's played on sessions for Don Williams, Kacey Musgraves, and dozens more) contributes aching pedal steel to the stunning version of the Everly Brothers' "Crying in the Rain" that closes out the album, while drummer Sam Zucchini, who appeared on several of the Gibsons' earlier releases, provides percussion.
Listeners will immediately recognize material released by familiar names like Phil and Don Everly ("Bye Bye Love" and "Crying in the Rain"), Charlie and Ira Louvin ("Seven Year Blues"), Jim and Jesse McReynolds ("Sweet Little Miss Blue Eyes"), and Carter and Ralph Stanley ("How Mountain Girls Can Love"), but Brotherhood includes covers of songs recorded by some lesser-known acts as well, including The Blue Sky Boys ("The Sweetest Gift"), The York Brothers ("Long Gone"), and The Church Brothers ("Angel with Blue Eyes"). These are duos whose harmonies fit together so tightly that you can't tell where one voice stops and the other begins. The concept of families singing together is a tradition that stretches back through the history of folk music, and with 20 years of professional musicianship behind them, the Gibson Brothers, using those groups as a compass, have established themselves as proud keepers of that musical heritage.
"These are the acts that pointed us in our direction musically. After we got going, we went our own way for a while," explains Leigh. "But the process of making this record brought us back to the music we were listening to when we were just getting started. So many of these songs, when we sing them, I feel like I did when I was 15 years old, sitting in our living room in the farmhouse and learning how to play. This music is a part of our soul."