Both pickers and lovers of good harmony singing will be satisfied when the Gibson Brothers open for Phillips, Grier, & Flinner at the Ark on Saturday, June 7. Brother duets have a long tradition in country music, and these two men show they know all the moves in their beautifully thought-out arrangements. They've gotten a top-notch bluegrass band together on their latest release, Bona Fide; their longtime bassist, Mike Barber, keeps things rolling along by slapping the instrument just when you least expect it. But for me it's their songcraft that really sets the Gibson Brothers apart.
This band is about original songs. Leigh and Eric Gibson don't come from the bluegrass heartland, but they did grow up in a land of fading farms and vanished livelihoods: the strip of upstate New York that abuts the Quebec border. They write the same kinds of love songs, road songs, prison songs, grandfather songs, gospel songs, and raised-by-the-railroad-line songs that other bluegrass song makers do; they just write them better.
| They never miss the assonance that ties a line together:
We smile through every mile we make, every single one:
She's the queen of style, so sweet and bold,
On the open road.
Or the new twist on a familiar phrase: "Oh, you're so pretty, but I'm just plain to see." Or the telling detail: the "old woodsmoke memories" of a relative who "helped me to laugh and helped me to live"; the disillusioned lover who heads for the city to become "just part of the crowd, a drop in a down-pouring rain"; the farmer who, as his land is being auctioned, is "shaking real hard, but not making a sound."
Most of the songs are written by one brother or the other. The Gibsons also have written a few songs with Dick Decasse, owner of Dick's Country Store and Music Oasis in Churubusco, New York. (This is grassroots music indeed, and the Gibson Brothers have probably played in front of enough tough barroom crowds that they can deliver a good time to just about anybody.) One of those shares its theme — the suspicious man confronting his girlfriend — with hundreds of other bluegrass songs. But rarely outside the songs of Carter Stanley have the lover's words cut so deep:
| What you got to say?
Oh, what have you to fear?
Have you been untrue to me?
Whisper in my ear.
And they do a few songs that sound traditional but don't have any models in the tradition at all. "Ragged Man" is an acid-etched portrait of two brothers, one successful, the other a street person who says, "I see you in the papers that blow across the street. I burn 'em in the old trash can — but they don't warm me none; nobody loves the ragged man."
So show up, if you wish, for the fine harmony that only brothers or sisters can sing. Show up for some splendid bluegrass playing. But if you're on the lookout for well-made songs, don't miss the Gibson Brothers under any circumstances.