You might expect an album that is half bluegrass and half plugged-in country to be a disjointed mess. If we also told you it was recorded by two sets of musicians, in two separate gatherings, on opposite ends of the covid shutdown, you might even wager it would be a complete cluster-eff.
And odds are that in the hands of anybody else the new Gibson Brothers release, “Darkest Hour,” might have been just that. In the hands of producer Jerry Douglas though, it is anything but.
Despite the differing genres and despite all the challenges the pandemic presented, this is one very coherent package of songs that all fit just right. It’s an album to listen to with no preconceived ideas of what you expect the Gibson Brothers to sound like. Forget about genres and just listen.
It’s a dozen outstanding songs with two things in common — Leigh and Eric’s superb songwriting and the brothers’ fine voices, especially when they do the brother harmony thing.
Those vocals were learned years ago from bootleg Jim and Jesse tapes a friend gave them in hopes of warding off the influences of new grass. They’ve been nurtured by 30-plus years of singing together.
“The cassettes that really we were drawn to because it was more in keeping with the instruments that we were playing would be the Jim and Jesse tapes just to hear that honest, simple, beautiful harmony from those two brothers, the McReynolds brothers,” says Leigh Gibson, the older half of the duo, which has been performing together since their teenage days in the 1980s. “It was just something we heard and we started singing those parts and applying that to everything that we did. That brother duet style singing.”
(^ Hear Leigh talk about how the brothers developed their vocal style)
Gibson says Douglas had two major objectives. First, he wanted the vocals to be a focal point for the album.
“Jerry wanted to unbury us a little bit vocally, if you listen to where our vocals are on (2018 Dan Auerbach produced release) Mockingbird, then listen to where they are on this record, they’re a little bit more out front,” says Gibson. “Jerry wanted to strip things away and to have the song out front a little bit more rather than the production.”
The second was to simplify the electric side of the Gibson’s music so that it could be played on stage with the Gibson’s usual five-piece band.
“If you wanted to cover every single part that is on the “Mockingbird” record, you’d have to tour with a glockenspiel and a xylophone. There’s just a ton of stuff,” Gibson says.
The album kicks off with a quick Leigh Gibson G-run, but make no mistake, its the vocals that are front and center on the bluegrass romp “What a Difference a Day Makes.” It sets the tone for what follows.
The musicianship is outstanding throughout. In addition to the Gibson Brothers longtime bassman Mike Barber, the likes of multi-instrumentalist Justin Moses, and fiddler Eamon McLoughlin (the staff fiddle player at the Grand Ole Opry) help out on the bluegrass numbers. Douglas chips in on the dobro for the bluegrass tunes and contributes some lap steel to the electrified stuff.
“What a Difference a Day Makes” is not just the first song on the album. It actually was the first song recorded when they started work on the record in March 2020.
When they regathered to finish in February of the following year, Douglas brought in some of his longtime sidemen — electric guitarist Guthrie Trapp, drummer John Gardner, and Todd Parks on bass.
Douglas’ tasteful fills on the resophonic guitar, McLoughlin’s sublime fiddling, Moses’ understated mandolin play, and Eric Gibson’s banjo picking on the bluegrass numbers gives the boys’ vocals fine backing without ever stealing the spotlight from the singing. The same holds true for the electric numbers.
Now a point needs to be made, and maybe should have been clarified earlier — when we say “electric” or “plugged-in” it in no way means the fellas are biting the heads off of bats or flashing devils horns as they rock out. It’s still very much Gibson Brothers music. The songs all fit well, there is a flow to the way Douglas put it all together. The difference between the bluegrass style ballads like “Hearts of Fire” and “I Feel the Same Way As You” and the “electronic” songs like “Who’s Going To Want a Heart Like Mine” and the upbeat closer “This Good Day” is nothing more than an electric guitar and drums replacing the mandolin and Douglas swapping dobro for lap steel.
It’s a simple concept really. Forget about labels and genres and reduce it down to a very simple formula — good songs, well sung. And that, in a nutshell, is what the Brothers looked to create and what Douglas brought to life.
“I’ve kind of always been the opinion that if it’s a good song, whether it’s a bluegrass song or not, we should be able to do it with a guitar,” Gibson explains. “And you should be able to do your song with a guitar and not worry about it not sounding good, because if it’s at its core, good, it’s going to sound good in every way you play it.”
Douglas agreed. “He said, you should be able to do anything you want to do,” says Gibson. Douglas had the Brothers send him all their unrecorded songs, then selected the 12 to record for the album. The Brothers gave Douglas a very wide berth artistically, following his lead even if it took them in an unexpected direction.
“It’s funny because some of the songs that he treats more as a singer-songwriter with electric guitar, and I would’ve thought if I was producing a record, that’d be a bluegrass song. But Jerry heard it another way,” Gibson says. “That’s one of the things when you ask somebody to produce you, it’s like, you be the guide of this little journey we’re on, and we’re going to play ball here and see where it goes . . . when somebody produces, you got to follow their lead, man. It’s what you have to do.”
An example is the rollicking bluegrass number “So Long Mama,” which Leigh originally wrote for the Mockingbird band.
“Jerry heard it as bluegrass, which just goes to show you,” Gibson says. “It really works as a bluegrass song, but my intention as a songwriter was for our electric side.”
Douglas waits until the album’s fifth track to slip in one of the “electric” songs, “Shut Up and Dance”, a classic honky tonk anthem that fits this collection of songs perfectly and works well as a transition from the first half of the album, which is mostly the stringband stuff, and the more plugged-in back end.
“Jerry was like, well, they’re going to hear it eventually and I didn’t want to feel like we’re hiding it,” Gibson says. “A lot of times bluegrass bands will tend to do that. If they step out a little farther, they’ll hide it way to the back of the record. But we thought, yeah, put it up towards the front. Why not?”
It all works because they are all well written songs and because Douglas kept those amazing brother harmony vocals the focal point of the album. When Eric sings “I Go Driving” about his nightime drives during the lockdown around the seen-its-better-days upstate New York area where they grew up, you can almost close your eyes and envision the cows grazing on the family farm.
“One Minute of You,” which Leigh wrote for his daughter Annie, rings true with any girl dad who knows they grow up far too fast.
It would be neglect not to mention “I Feel The Same Way As You,” a heartache put to music with harmonies every bit as amazing as you’d expect when you learned Alison Krauss was singing on the song.
Leigh says he is still not sure how that happened, but he is glad it did. “I’m not sure how we were lucky enough to get her, but she, she’s had a long relationship professionally and personally with Jerry . . . (I’m) very grateful that she did that.”
For the record, Del McCoury does not appear on the record. We mention that because Eric’s vocals on “Dust,” a tune he wrote with his son Kelly, sound an awful lot like the man with the finest hair in bluegrass.
“Everybody says Eric sounds like Del, and Eric did write the title track on Del’s new record. But yeah, I mean that could be a Del song for sure,” admits Gibson.
That, of course, is not a bad thing. Then again, there doesn’t seem to be a bad thing to say about this album.
“Darkest Hour” is available from The Gibson Brothers web site and on most major streaming services.