Chattanooga Times Free Press entertainment reporter Casey Phillips spoke with Eric Gibson, co-lead singer and founder of the New York-based Gibson Brothers bluegrass band, about the simple beauty of simple music, what would have to happen for the band to break up and why they're doing so well, despite the economy.
CP: As 2012 gets under full steam, what do you guys have coming down the pike in the coming months? Anything you're particularly excited?
EG: A lot of playing. We're really happy we have a healthy 2012 ahead of us. I think a lot of it has to do with our last two albums selling well. We did real well at the IBMAs last fall winning Vocal Group of the Year, and that kind of thing seems to make it easier on your booking agent finding work for you. We're looking at a lot of touring, and we'll hopefully be recording again in the fall. We're trying to write and gather good songs. You want your new project to top the last one that came out, and hopefully we can do that. Our goal is to keep getting better. We've gutted it; we've stuck together a long time now, and it seems like it's paying off .
CP: Lets talk about the IBMAs. You kicked Dailey & Vincent off a three-year run on Vocal Group of the Year. You said it's helping your booking agent, but how, if at all, did that award affect your perception of yourselves as artists?
EG: [Laughs.] I don't know how it's changed the perception of ourselves. To be truthful, I was surprised that that happened. We're a brother duet, and Dailey and Vincent can do duets very well, but they also have a very powerful quartet and trio. Maybe it was just the year of the brother duet. I don't know.
I think we have refined what we've done over the years, and our perspective is that we're one of the few brother duets left. We're trying to really hone that and find songs that let our brother duet shine.
I don't know how it's changed anything as far as our own perspective goes. I'm very proud of it. I'm very honored the IBMAs saw fit to give it to us.
CP: Is their more to being a brother duet than marketing shtick? Does it actually have an impact on the music or is it just something to help sell the band to venues?
EG: No, I think it does have an impact on the music. I think a duet does allow you to have edge to your music. If you're doing a trio or a quartet, you're making these chords. If the tenor singer goes to something other than the third, it's going to mess up the baritone part, mess up the chord. There's more freedom with the duets. The Louvins and The Delmores and The Everlys - you can break rules. You don't have to have the tenor singer singing the roots note; you can break rules and do a fifth or a seventh or even sing in unison sometimes.
I look at the brother duet, and even a good duo like Buck Owens and Don Rich, they were like a double stop on a fiddle, you know what I mean? It was like two racehorses running stride for stride with each other. With a duet, the way we mix our records and the way we want to sound on stage, we don't have the lead singer way out in front and the harmony singer way in the back. We're side by side. It reminds me of a fiddle player playing double stops.
It's beyond marketing. That's a nice easy way to categorize, but I've never thought of it like that. Maybe we should have been a bit more savvy with that sort of thing in marketing, but we just make music. I don't think we over think things. Maybe we should think about things a little more than we do.
CP: The last time we spoke, you mentioned that you and your brother sometimes have different views on how to approach music and butt heads but that you can make nice afterwards since you're brothers. How often do you disagree? Are you constantly having to find compromises or do you tend to agree more often than not?
EG: It seems like the last few years, we hardly ever disagree on material. We just seem to have the same opinion about it as we grow older. Maybe we just know what we like. In the past, maybe we disagreed a little more, but in the last few years, it seems like we're on the same page, as far as picking material.
We're very honest with each other. I'll lean on him. If I bring a song to him and he doesn't jump up and down about it, then I'm not excited about it. I have that level of trust with him. It's the same with him coming to me with a song. If I don't jump up and down about it, he'll write another one or we'll write another one.
We know what fits. It feels like we do.
CP: That sounds like a good thing, but do you think there are times the band could benefit from having more of that contrarian perspective?
EG: Maybe. I don't know. Our bass player Mike Barber has been in the band so long - he's been in the band for 19 years - and sometimes we'll ask him. He's been a mediator of sorts with us during the years when we didn't get along so well. [Laughs.]
There are times when you're on the road for so long, and you're tired, and you lose perspective and start grumbling about the other guy. Mike Barber probably knows more of my secrets and my brother's secrets than anybody. [Laughs.] Musically speaking, he's co-produced our last several albums, and I think he is that third voice. He'll say, "That song really suits your guy's vocals."
We're very independent. I don't want to get an outside producer. I don't want to lose control of my music. I'm very territorial about it. I figure we must be doing something right. I'm 41 years old, and I'm still in the game. Maybe that's stubborn. We just worked on a soundtrack last year with an outside producer, and it was great, but as far as making a Gibson Brothers' record, I'd like to keep making them ourselves.
CP: What would have to happen for you guys to stop playing together? What would he have to do for you to throw your hands up in the air and walk out the door?
EG: [Laughs.] If he quits, I quit. I mean, I don't know what he would have to do. That's a good question. [Laughs.] I can't say in print what he would have to do for me to quit. [Laughs.] Steal my wife away from me - that's about the only thing he could do that would make me quit, but he wouldn't do that. [Laughs.]
CP: When last we spoke, Joe Walsh had just taken up duties as the band's mandolinist. Now that the lineup has been steady for three years, are you in a different rhythm?
EG: We just played in Nashville on Wednesday night, and there were a lot of musicians in the crowd, people we've worked with and people I respect. They came up and said, "You're band is cooking. You sound like a well-oiled machine." We're lucky that Clayton, Joe and Mike know how to serve a song. They're very conscious of rhythm, where the beat is and where everyone fits into that.
I just think it's a result of being together for three, going on four, years with this configuration. You just gel after that mount of time. We're not over thinking things; we're making music in the moment. If you happen to kick up something a little too fast, everyone has to adapt to that, or if you're going too slow, everyone has to adapt to that. Then the song becomes a different beast than it was the night before.
Those moments are what I look for on stage. I don't want to rehash the show I did the night before. We never use set lists. We know what the first song or two will be, and we go from there. There's a comfort level playing with the same group of guys for years. I hope I can keep this group together a long time.
On a good night, it makes my job so easy. [Laughs.] On a good night, it feels like riding in a Cadillac. I'm very proud of the guys in my band.
CP: Given the state of the economy, many bands are having difficulty keeping large bands on the road together. Have you guys experienced any challenges, in that sense?
EG: I'll be honest with you, a few years ago, before we had Joe in the band, when "Iron & Diamonds" came out, we were really struggling. That's when the economy really went bad. We were having a hard time, and "Iron & Diamonds" became a very stripped-down album because we were wondering if we would need to go out as a trio or do some duo dates, and if so, we didn't need to weigh the album down with a lot of instruments. Then the album became a showcase for our duet because it was so sparse. That record got some nice attention, and we started getting bookings.
I don't want to jinx us because we've had our best years during this terrible economy. [Laughs.] I really don't want to jinx us, but yeah, it comes into play. Gas prices certainly affect things, and people don't seem to buy records at the table the way they used to. When we weren't any good - [laughs] - Leigh and I joke about this, but back in the '90s when we were just getting going, you could rely on your CD sales to pay for your hotel rooms and your gas. We would make as much or more from the table as we would from the door.
That's not the case now. We're still selling CDs, but it's just not the end thing to buy a CD anymore. I don't think the record industry has caught up to the technology yet. We're doing OK, despite the lean economy, but I feel like it's getting better, myself. I don't have a plan B. I really hope, scratch and claw during the bad times to keep doing this. I've done that. You've got to really want it. We do.
CP: We spoke quite a bit last time about your previous album "Ring the Bell," and it ended up doing very well for you. Last year, you released "Help My Brother," which won even more awards. How did "Help My Brother" represent an evolution for the band in terms of how you approached it?
EG: Well, when we did "Ring the Bell," Joe Walsh had just joined the band. I think he had maybe done three gigs with us. [Laughs.] He did a great job of learning the songs quickly. He has such a great year. With "Help My Brother," we had road time as a band, and we really seem to have done our best job, to date, at picking songs that work well together.
To be honest with you, when we were going in the studio for "Help My Brother," I was nervous about topping "Ring the Bell" because that won Song of the Year and Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year. The whole album did well. They were really good stage songs, and I hoped with "Help My Brother" that it would measure up to that, but I think we've surpassed that. It seems the response was even better. It was No. 1 in Bluegrass Unlimited for eight months, and I don't think any album has ever done that. It's received a ton of airplay.
Thinking artistically about what's different about it, I don't know. I just think the songs work well together. There were a couple of break out song.
There are songs [from that album] you hear in jam sessions a lot. If you run around late at night and hear what people are picking, they're doing "Lost in Memphis," "Help My Brother" and other songs like that, so I think we've connected with the pickers quite a bit with this album. Most of the listeners in bluegrass are pickers. [Laughs.] I'd say if you go to a bluegrass festival, 60 percent of the people sitting there play something - maybe more.
CP: When you're gathering material for your albums, do you give any consideration to the fact that many of your fans may eventually end up playing your songs in jams? Does that enter your head during that process?
EG: You know, maybe we should give consideration to that. I really don't. I remember making a record back in the mid-'90s. Tim Austin produced it, and he was the founder of Lonesome River Band. We were talking about the business. We were in our 20s, and he said, "We knew we were starting to get places when we started hearing our songs at jam sessions. We really felt things were moving then." That seems to have happened in the last couple records we've made. I don't know if it's because they're hearing it on the radio or on Sirius FM or what.
We're making music to please ourselves. Our music isn't rocket science; it's fairly simple. We don't have eight chords in any of our songs. [Laughs.] Most of our songs are three-chord songs, which are fairly simple. We try to lay down a strong rhythm and sing our hearts out. If we have a formula, that's it. [Laughs.]
I think many of our songs are easy for pickers to play. You remember Creedence Clearwater Revival? The garage bands can all play that stuff. They couldn't do it as well as Creedence, but they could play it. Don't you think there's something to that? Creedence Clearwater Revival - I love those songs, and you know four guys could get together in a garage and play those tunes. It's the same thing with bluegrass. This band can't make "The Gold Rodeo Sessions," but we can make "Help My Brother" and "Ring the Bell." [Laughs.]