“Brotherhood” is the album Eric and Leigh Gibson wanted to make for years.
Usually, The Gibson Brothers write their own songs, but with “Brotherhood,” they interpret songs by bluegrass greats the Stanley Brothers, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, The Monroe Brothers and the Louvin Brothers.
“We talked about it for maybe 10 years,” singer and banjo player Eric Gibson said during a songwriting trip to Nashville. “But then we’d write a batch of songs and say, ‘We need to get these songs out there.’ But about a year ago, my brother, Leigh, was adamant. He said, ‘Let’s save our songs and do this record, or we’re never going to do it.’ He pushed me to do it and it was the right move.”
The Gibson Brothers — a five-man bluegrass band that also includes bassist Mike Barber, fiddler Clayton Campbell and mandolinist Jesse Brock — also move beyond bluegrass in “Brotherhood,” singing pre-bluegrass by The Blue Sky Boys and a song by rock ’n’ duo The Everly Brothers.
“It’s primarily a bluegrass album, but it being a concept album, we painted outside the lines a little bit,” Gibson said.
Rounder Records, one of the great labels in roots music, released “Brotherhood” this week. It’s the 12th album by The Gibson Brothers, one of bluegrass music’s most honored acts of recent years.
“We’re thrilled,” Gibson said. “Some of my first bluegrass records were Rounder projects. I don’t know anybody who’d be better at handling this record than Rounder. They’re a roots music giant. And we’ve been at it a long time. It felt like now is the perfect time to do this kind of a record.”
Until recently, Rounder, a label that’s released many recordings by Louisiana artists, was based in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The Gibson Brothers, based in rural upstate New York, often ran into Rounder co-founder Ken Irwin.
“We talked about doing stuff together before but it just never worked out,” Gibson said. “We’ve always had a friendly relationship with Ken Irwin. But when he found out that we wanted to do a duet record, he just about jumped up and down. He’s a believer in the music. He’s dedicated his life to it.”
Eric and Leigh Gibson, born 11 months apart, grew up on a dairy farm, two miles from the Canadian border.
“We started doing everything together at the same time,” Gibson remembered. “Playing music together, playing baseball, going to church. I think the proximity in age has a lot to do with it. And we didn’t leave the farm much. When you have a family farm, it takes all hands on deck to get it done. But in some ways our isolation helped us. We figured this music out together.”
In 1982, the boys came home from school one day and saw their father sitting at the kitchen table.
“He said, ‘There’s a man giving lessons on stringed instruments at the country store. One of you is going to play the banjo and one’s going to play the guitar.’ ”
The boys took lessons for 18 months.
“Our teacher set us on our course. He made it fun for both of us. He was such a good teacher, and I fell in love with the sound of the banjo.”
When the brothers went to fiddle contests and bluegrass festivals in the area, they were well received.
“Everywhere we went people were nice to us,” Gibson said. “They were glad to see some young fellows coming along, carrying on the tradition.”
Unlike some states in the South, upstate New York has never been heavily populated by banjo pickers.
“Bluegrass has gotten more popular in our area,” Gibson said. “But it’s not like North Carolina or Tennessee, where you shake a tree and a banjo player falls out. You have to search for other pickers far and wide. Luckily, Leigh and I had each other.”