A Conversation with Leigh Gibson

 
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By Garret K. Woodward
Photography by Laura Carbone

The tiny Clinton County hamlet of Ellenburg Depot, New York, is around 1,048 miles - give or take - from the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee.  

Referred to as “The Mother Church of Country Music,” the Ryman is the epicenter of American music, quite possibly the world’s most famous performance stage. From Ellenburg Depot, one would have to head south on U.S. 11 past Malone and Potsdam, along I-81 through Watertown and Syracuse, over to I-90 to whiz by Buffalo and Erie, Pennsylvania, meander down I-71 through Columbus and Cincinnati, Ohio, and swing around Louisville, Kentucky, onto I-65, to finally see the bright lights of Nashville in the distance rapidly approaching one’s field of vision.  

And though that’s the quickest, perhaps easiest, way to Nashville from the North Country, The Gibson Brothers carved their own path to the Ryman. Now hailed as one of the premier acts in bluegrass and country music, the thousands of shows played and millions of miles traveled have brought the sibling duo from their Upstate New York farm to the — literal and figurative — mainstage of the music industry.  

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In their almost 30 years together, Eric and Leigh Gibson have steadily risen into the upper-echelon of bluegrass music, ultimately receiving a slew of awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) including “Emerging Artist of the Year” (1998); “Song of the Year” (2010, 2013); “Vocal Group of the Year” (2011, 2013); “Album of the Year” (2011); “Songwriter of the Year” (2013); and “Entertainer of the Year” (2012, 2013). 

In conversation, the Gibsons have never forgotten where they came from, nor have they brushed aside what grew their audience and bred their ultimate success — hard work and a keen appreciation for the storied history, rich heritage, and ever-evolving nature of the music they hold so dear.

North Volume Magazine: Where do you see bluegrass right now?

Leigh Gibson: Well, it’s a weird time, because I make my living from it. It’s a weird landscape, because the sort of model that we grew up trying to make a living through — make a record, sell the record, tour the record — is different because the “sell the record” part doesn’t really happen as much anymore. And the bluegrass audience is not so much into streaming like other forms of music. That’s sort of catching up, but very slowly in bluegrass. So, if you want to reach young people, it’s through a streaming service. But, they aren’t finding you on the streaming service. [The Fresh Grass Festival in North Adams, Massachusetts] is a great example of a festival that’s moving away from what people would call “traditional bluegrass.” You’re more apt to see somebody from Americana or a singer-songwriter touted act at that kind of festival, because I think they all notice that if they want to get people that are [age] 40 and below to become a fan [of bluegrass] for life, they have to change the way they book their festivals.  

NVM: In terms of your music, how does it stand out compared to other bluegrass acts? From my perspective, y’all definitely have more of a rockabilly tone to the sound and harmonies, with The Everly Brothers immediately coming to mind... 

LG: I’d say it was inevitable that we sound very different from other bluegrass acts. We had to learn bluegrass, being so very removed from its origin. So, we studied the early masters as the only reference we first had at our disposal and other sounds from the radio and my dad’s small record collection. We weren’t influenced by current acts because we hadn’t heard them — that meant by the time we did hear them we had started a style that was our own. Emmylou Harris was as burned into our DNA as was Lester Flatt. 

NVM: What is the place of bluegrass music in the 21st century? Why is it important, perhaps even crucial, that this music survive and thrive in the digital age? 

LG: I worry about the place of bluegrass music. We’ve certainly done our best to add to its survival. More than 20 years of writing and performing means something to us. The fine line that some fans require an artist to walk might, in fact, spell its disappearance as a living art form, eventually. They like how it is or even was and don’t want it to change. I understand and sympathize with that point of view. The original themes resonate with me. But, if it doesn’t change along with listeners coming along, and really mean something to or resonate with them, then they’ll likely not remain engaged with the genre. The catch-22 is that should it move too far from the early template of the genre, then it stops being what we recognize as bluegrass. So I often fear artists try to stay within these lines I just laid out as not to offend or seem irreverent and be called “bluegrass.” It makes my head spin, too. But, this fear of change or even individuality creates a sameness of style or sound. Everybody is lumped together in a pack. I’d argue that bluegrass was more diverse 40 or 50 years ago than it is today — and many of my peers would agree. Time will not stand still for anything. And as we get further and further away from the music’s origin and themes, it may sadly become a historical genre, made up of reenactors and not creators. I really worry about that and wonder who will be left to be the Don Quixote for our music if an industry doesn’t exist to sustain new and creative work in bluegrass. I think of Tony Rice. He certainly was an innovator who moved the needle forward to the point where his style is imitated by most guitarists in bluegrass — to the point that he is a huge part of the bluegrass vocabulary now. He is a legend, a father in the genre. Where is the next Tony Rice? I haven’t seen him. Maybe he’s not coming. 

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NVM: You and I both grew up in the North Country. Growing up in Rouses Point, I discovered bluegrass through The Gibson Brothers. But, how did you discover bluegrass also being from the Canadian Border? 

LG: You’ve got more Canadian television and radio stations than you did [ones from the United States] where we grew up. We had seen bluegrass acts on The Tommy Hunter Show (broadcasted by the CBC). But, I think the real reason we got into bluegrass was that my father — who was a farmer — liked Irish music, so he purchased a banjo to try to learn it. He couldn’t learn it, so under the bed it went with the guitar and the fiddle. And the local music store had a kid home from college giving music lessons. Before it became a huge store it was small, and I lived five or six miles away. Local musician [Eric O’Hara] was giving lessons. He could play banjo, pedal steel, and any kind of guitar style you’d want. So, he taught my brother banjo and me guitar. And Eric [Gibson] learned from “Earl Scruggs & The 5-String Banjo,” which is a bluegrass method book. So, I would say, more than anything, that’s what set us on our way toward that style of music.

NVM: Though The Gibson Brothers have always had a firm footing in bluegrass, the band itself has seemingly avoided being pigeonholed, in terms of musical description. Why is that important to keep those lines blurred, and what does that mean for the group pushing ahead? 

LG: We always wanted to be song-based and let others worry about what we are. The way I’ve always felt is that we’re The Gibson Brothers and hope fans follow us for our music, not a genre. We found a home for our songs in bluegrass, and I’m grateful for that. We’ve met countless people of great quality through our music in that world and hope to meet more. But, I always hope they’re along for the ride because the songs mean something to them — not the category they’re presented from. 

NVM: When I interviewed your brother, we spoke about both finding and loving bluegrass and being from the North Country. He said that the bluegrass sound is never too far from the mountains, which includes the Adirondacks. What’s your take on that sentiment and the place of bluegrass in our native landscape? 

LG: As I get older, my mind gets closer and closer to the farm in Ellenburg Depot. That image includes the view of the Adirondacks just south of there. I think that’s why it was so easy to be taken with the themes The Stanley Brothers cried out about.