The Gibson Brothers,
Red Letter Day
(Sugar Hill, 2005)

A Gibson Brothers CD is always a treat. In no sense merely another bluegrass band, theirs boasts a distinctive personality, an emphasis not on instrumental flash but on melodic songcraft -- their own and judiciously selected covers -- and sweetly expressive harmonies. It isn't exactly traditional, but it feels a far cry back from Alison Krauss's bluegrass-inflected pop. Though the Gibson Brothers don't imitate anybody, they share a sensibility, I think, with the Country Gentlemen, which in its heyday (the 1960s-'70s) as one of the genre's most influential outfits brought innovative ideas and fresh repertoire into bluegrass, managing the tricky feat of being both root and branch.

Like the Gents, whose ears were attuned in particular to folk-revival approaches, Eric and Leigh Gibson (who drop Roy Orbison-style operatic romanticism into the mix) push bluegrass forward, crossing waters but never burning bridges. The effort feels purely natural, and at the end of it is a music that ought to captivate just about anybody -- bluegrass veteran or novice -- whose mind and ears are open to the Gibsons' nakedly emotional but never sloppily sentimental vision.

On their previous disc, Long Way Back Home (2004) -- yes, the title cut is the terrific early Gordon Lightfoot song -- the Gibsons seemed to be moving at times toward territory. On Red Letter Day, though, they've returned, with an occasional, subtle excursion or two there from, to bluegrass settings, with the help of two luminaries from Del McCoury's band: Jason Carter on fiddle and Ronnie McCoury on mandolin.

As we Gibson Brothers admirers have come to expect, each song is blessed with memorable melody, well-crafted lyrics, unforgettable genetic harmony and brooding, understated arrangement. The disc opens with Don Gibson's 1961 country hit "Lonesome Number One." Gibson was one hell of a singer, but Leigh Gibson (no relation) holds his own. Eric's "Walking with Joanna," propelled by his lead vocal and banjo, is a little masterwork of creative storytelling, where love for a woman and yearning for God lead the singer down the pilgrim's road, with not a single cliche on his lips. Immediately following is Kieran Kane and John Hadley's "One Raindrop," which may be the finest tune Flatt & Scruggs never wrote, recorded or imagined.

Other impressive cuts are "Sam Smith," a Leigh composition set ostensibly in the Civil War but pointedly hinting at a much more recent armed conflict, and Eric's extraordinary lovers' drama "We Won't Dance Again," with a punch you'd have to go back to George Jones' "He Stopped Loving Her Today" to match. And that's not to mention moody readings of a couple of convict sagas from country music's first decade, "The Prisoner's Song" and "Twenty-One Years," both written in the 1920s. But drop the (metaphorical) needle anywhere, and wherever it falls, the song, whatever it is, will be there.

by Jerome Clark
8 April 2006

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