The Gibson Brothers,
They Called It Music
(Compass, 2013)

Mark Newton & Steve Thomas,
(Pinecastle, 2012)

If they're able to keep it up, the Gibson Brothers may one day be judged among the most important bluegrass bands in the genre's history. If you think I'm overstating the case, be assured that this is hardly my idiosyncratic (or hyperbolic) opinion. By any measure that defines superior bluegrass, Leigh and Eric Gibson are there with distinctive sibling harmonies (splitting the difference, perhaps, between the Louvins and the Everlys), terrific solo voices, tuneful originals, thoughtful lyrics, creative covers and tasteful arrangements. And they don't sound like anybody else, in good part because they're not a Southern bluegrass band. Their home territory is rural upstate New York.

I can't say, unfortunately, that I've heard all of their albums, but I can attest that They Called It Music, their latest, will cause no one to doubt that they deserve their consistently good press. The title song, written by Eric, celebrates the traditional music once played and sung at home, in the work place and at the dance hall. It's not the first song written on this theme, but it's as powerful as any, a manifestly sincere tribute to the deep roots of the Gibsons's approach to song-making. The rural districts of their native state once had a stringband tradition so robust that it inspired a Syracuse University Press book, Simon J. Bronner's Old-Time Music Makers of New York State, published in 1987. I wonder if the Gibsons are familiar with it.

I also wonder if somewhere they and Shawn Camp, with whom they wrote "Something Comin' to Me," have crossed paths with "Talking Too Much," which Robin & Linda Williams and I co-composed some years ago. (It's on the Williamses's 1996 Sugar Hill album Sugar for Sugar.) Parts of "Something's" melody seem something like a paraphrase of "Talking's." Then again, there are only so many chords, these things happen, and who's complaining? "Something" is a fine song in its own right. They Called It Music is both unfailing pleasure and serious art, and I hope the Gibsons have many years and many recordings ahead of them.

Another album of contemporary bluegrass, Mark Newton & Steve Thomas's Reborn, has been getting plenty of spins, each one deserved, here at the old homestead. As a bluegrass traditionalist (though I hope not the genre's equivalent of a mouldy fig), I am automatically on my guard when I see "modern" and "bluegrass" in the same sentence, though my rational mind tells me I've heard lots of worthy music that's responded to that description. Then, on the other hand. ... Well, anyway, Newton & Thomas are dealing in the good stuff that repeated exposure does not generate contrary judgment.

They don't sound at all like the Gibson Brothers, I might add, though as fellow bluegrassers they and their band are -- obviously -- playing the same instruments. Newton & Thomas take a looser, sometimes jazz-inflected approach such that one imagines their improvisational tendencies take flight in live performance, though I am equally sure they never indulge in the mutant excesses of jam bands. This is true bluegrass, and the boys are not above bowing to the oldtime sounds that preceded Bill Monroe's marvelous invention, as witness the clawhammer banjo punctuating the wonderful opener "Old McDonald."

Newton boasts a long career in bluegrass, and Thomas in Nashville studios, recording with country-pop acts -- nobody would ever misidentify them as "roots" -- Brooks & Dunn and Barbara Mandrell, but also with the Osborne Brothers and the Whites. Apparently the two don't write much -- Thomas contributes the one original -- but their taste in material is gloriously wide-ranging, covering everybody and everything from mountain tradition to the Delmore and Louvin Brothers, Monroe and Dallas Frazier to folk-era songwriters. In that last category I was astounded to hear "Pineywood Hills," which Buffy Sainte-Marie penned and recorded in the mid-1960s and which has rarely been covered. I hadn't heard it since last time I listened to Sainte-Marie, an experience long lost in memory's mists. Anyway, it's worth reviving, and it's also a tribute to Newton and Thomas's knowledge and intelligence, not universal qualities in the bluegrass realm.

Willis Alan Ramsey, whose flame burned bright briefly in the early 1970s but whose influence on Texas' folk-based singer-songwriters remains, contributes the remarkable "Painted Lady," a much more interesting song than the title would suggest, in my reading a meditation on masculinity and femininity in some of their more lamentable manifestations. You might think that's a lot for a bluegrass act to carry, but happily it doesn't deter Newton & Thomas.

music review by
Jerome Clark

27 April 2013

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