At an age when most young guys are listening to bands custom-tailored to annoy parents, Eric and Leigh Gibson were exploring music more old-time than MTV. "Oh we were weird," 33-year old Eric told Seven Days in a recent phone interview from his home in upstate New York. "But the music my friends were listening to didn't make much sense to me as a farm boy," he explains. Bluegrass music, a growing obsession for himself and his brother, was a hard sell for his peers. "They thought I was a little whacked, but I didn't care. I knew when I picked up that banjo or guitar, I could lose five hours in a hurry."
From their humble beginnings on the family dairy farm in Ellenburg Depot, New York, to national and international acclaim, the Gibson Brothers have done things their own way. "We have an open-minded approach to our music," says Eric. "We're a bluegrass band, but we'll do a song by Ray Charles, The Rolling Stones or The Band -- a good song is a good song."
The approach seems to be working; The Gibson Brothers are currently enjoying the kind of success it takes many pickers decades to achieve. Over the course of five critically acclaimed albums, the duo has displayed a knack for sophisticated songcraft that still adheres to tradition. And how many acts can boast that they're huge in Plattsburgh? The Gibson Brothers can; they've dominated Peacock Music's top 10 for nearly a year. The "boys," as they're still referred to across the lake, bring their tight-knit vocal harmonies, affable humor and crack band to the Vergennes Opera House on April 28.
Born just 11 months apart, Eric and Leigh enjoyed a fairly typical rural upbringing. Baseball and church functions filled the spare hours, but music was always encouraged in the Gibson household. The fledgling musicians started playing at age 12 and 11, respectively. "Dad bought a banjo and a guitar, and we had a piano that Mom could peck out a few melodies on," Eric remembers. "They listened to music a lot, but when we started -- whew! I remember many nights when we'd get done with chores and supper, get our instruments, and Mom and Dad would sit down and listen to us for three or four hours. I've heard a tape of what we sounded like back then, and it was God awful. But somehow they put up with it."
The brothers began as an instrumental duo, with Eric on banjo and Leigh on guitar. In an inspired bit of early career advice, their church minister pointed out that there might be something missing. "He said, 'Boys, words are important. People like words,'" Eric recalls. "But we had to work up our courage. Eventually we sang in front of the church -- they tend to be more tolerant than in other places, probably!"
From there, the Gibsons refined their vocal technique by emulating the legends of bluegrass and country music. "Around that time we got our hands on some old Don Rich and Buck Owens recordings, and they had the best duets," Eric says. "That's when it all started to make sense with the harmonies."
Although music was quickly becoming a huge part of their lives, the brothers temporarily set aside their acoustic ambitions to concentrate on college. Eric attended school in Ithaca, Leigh in Plattsburgh. "I left my banjo home for the first seven weeks I was there, actually," says Eric. "I had baseball dreams in my head, and I went down there to pitch. I quickly learned that 82 miles per hour might be fast for Ellenburg Depot, but it's not fast enough."
He subsequently dropped his ballpark fantasies and earned a degree that he actually used. "I was a tenured English teacher for four years, teaching junior high and high school," Eric says. By that point, he and Leigh were playing together again, booking shows that took them far from the family farm. Soon they were recording what would become their debut album.
Augmented by "third brother" Mike Barber on upright bass and his dad Junior on resophonic guitar, the Gibson Brothers released their debut disc Long Forgotten Dream on Virginia's Hay Holler label in 1996. Suddenly getting serious about music, Eric was forced to do some soul-searching. "I had a crisis of conscience," he explains. "I was out in California playing a gig during finals -- my principal was a big fan of the band, luckily -- and I thought, 'What kind of teacher am I? I'm in California during finals week.' That summer I talked to my wife about taking a year of absence to concentrate on music. Well, it's been seven now, and I've never gone back."
Their third release for Hay Holler, 1998's Another Night of Waiting, received generous airplay and earned the group the International Bluegrass Music Association's "Emerging Artist of the Year" award. It was an exciting time for the Gibsons, as they began sharing stages with many of their heroes. "Early on we met Bill Monroe, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson -- they were all so enthusiastic and friendly. Sometimes you feel stupid 'cause you don't know what to say to them. But you just have to get it off your chest -- they're why you got started in the first place.
"When I met Earl Scruggs, I made a fool of myself," Eric continues. "I came bounding up to him like a 22-year-old farm boy and said, 'I'm gonna do something I've always wanted to do!' and he just took a step away from me like I was nuts. And I said, 'No, no -- I just want to shake your hand!' I felt like such a doofus. But it meant so much for me to meet that man."
Despite their early success, the duo encountered frustrating times. Following the release of Another Night, they signed to Ricky Skaggs' label, hoping to kick-start the next phase in their careers. Heading to Nashville with band in tow, Eric and Leigh abandoned their bluegrass roots in favor of a straight-ahead country sound. "It was kind of our wilderness time," Eric recalls. "We tried for the mainstream, but we somehow made an album that was too country for country radio. Ricky said it was like 'Buck Owens meets the Everly Brothers.'"
Skaggs began soliciting major labels for assistance. A Nashville subsidiary of Atlantic Records agreed to pick up the record, but the parent company eliminated the branch before the disc could be released. The brothers, and their musical effort, were left in limbo. "We just kept waiting and waiting," Eric recalls. "Finally, I just called Leigh one day and said, 'Leigh, let's go play some bluegrass. We know how to do that.'"
Signing to Sugar Hill Records let the band return to their initial inspirations. Their first two recordings for the label -- Bona Fide and their latest, Long Way Home -- exceeded commercial and critical expectations. "We had two number-one bluegrass records with Sugar Hill," Eric relates. "What I love about the label is that they let us produce our own records. We put out bluegrass albums, but they don't care if we experiment a little bit and step outside of the box once in a while." The Gibson Brothers recently finished recording their third release for the imprint. The as-yet-untitled record comes out in October.
Although bluegrass requires a great deal of musical discipline, the Gibson Brothers strive to keep their concerts easygoing. "I've seen a lot of the old masters of the past, and they look like they're up there ready for a gunfight," Eric says with a laugh. "That isn't us. We want to have fun. I want people coming to the shows to forget their problems for a couple hours and, hopefully, have a good time."
Bluegrass already has a long and vibrant history, but it's not time to close the book just yet. By honoring the past while simultaneously looking forward, the Gibson Brothers are helping to keep the music alive in the 21st century. "We don't want to go back and sound just like anybody," Eric Gibson says. "I hope people hear our records and say, 'That's the Gibson Brothers -- that duo from upstate New York.'"