Barry Gibb, known for making harmonious radio classics with his late brothers, Maurice and Robin, in the Bee Gees, has found new singing partners on Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1, out Friday (Jan. 8).
The shimmering Capitol Records collection pairs Gibb with country and Americana artists, including Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Keith Urban and Little Big Town, to reimagine of some of the Bee Gees’ biggest hits — among them, “Lonely Days,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” “Jive Talkin’” and “Words.”
The album, recorded in Nashville with producer Dave Cobb in October 2019, arrives a month after HBO’s acclaimed documentary, The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, has re-ignited interest in the Australian trio’s music and set it soaring back up the charts.
The film traces the group’s R&B influences, but below, Gibb tells Billboard his country inspirations run similarly deep.
In the documentary, you talk about how R&B influenced your sound. How did country music influence you?
Country music in Australia in 1958 was rock n’ roll. You got used to loving people like George Jones or Johnny Cash. I remember [Cash’s “Ballad of a] Teenage Queen,” which was probably 1958. That voice! Then beyond all that, Roy Orbison — his songwriting, his insight and how he built those records. To start a song like “Running Scared” or “Crying,” to start very small and build and build and build to a climax — that’s not an easy task, you know? That inspired me to write songs.
But I also fell in love with bluegrass music. I love all music, but I think country music or Americana music, what’s going on now, it’s still the best songs, it’s still the best music. And it comes from one place. You can go anywhere else in the world, and you won’t find the great songs that you find in Nashville.
You recorded the album at Nashville’s legendary RCA Studios, where Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson and the Everly Brothers recorded. Had you ever been to the studio before?
No. Dave Cobb showed me around Studio B and, and it was just exhilarating because those were the artists that I love. When the Everly Brothers came into our lives, probably about ’57, ’58, my sister started bringing those records home, and I just freaked out. When you think about the Everly Brothers, the Everly Family were a bluegrass group. So when suddenly they turned into rock & roll mainstream performers, it blew my mind. What wonderful songs and what amazing harmonies. It made you very emotional, which is what Roy Orbison would do.
These are heartbreaking songs, but at the same time, what was important was that romance was important. Sentimentality was important. I miss that now, so I felt, “Well, if I could get all the artists that I truly admire to sing one of our songs, then the music will survive a little bit longer.”
Elvis performed “Words” live during his Las Vegas residency in 1969. Did you ever meet him?
I tried. I was at Graceland. His uncle was working the gates. I told him who we were and all that stuff. I think it was Robin and I. He said, “If you want to meet Elvis, just go up the drive.” And he opened the gate, and we went up the yellow brick road, you know. [Laughs.]
At the top of the hill, where his front door was, was a limousine. Elvis couldn’t come out or wouldn’t come out, one or the other — but the message was, “He’s with his father, he can’t come out.” So that was a major disappointment, but he was Elvis. I looked inside the window of the limo and there was a television. It was the first time I’d ever seen a television inside a car. That was probably ’71, ’72.
Did you record with all of these artists face to face?
“Run to Me,” Brandi wanted to do that before I could get to Nashville. So she went ahead and recorded it with Dave, and then I put my vocal on that later. I didn’t meet Miranda — she did it when I wasn’t in the studio. I think some artists are like that. They go, “Well, I’ll come in and sing, but I don’t want anyone else there.” I dealt with that with [producing] Diana Ross, where someone else being in the sound booth room was just not acceptable, you know? And I think even Dave’s like that. He doesn’t really like people being there that really don’t have a reason to be there.
Speaking of Miranda, some of these songs translate very easily into country songs without much rearranging. But one of the big surprises is how well “Jive Talkin’” works — which you, Miranda and Jay Buchanan recreate as a slow groove.
There were so many songs that were really written in the spirit of country music. “Islands in the Stream,” for instance, was written for Diana Ross, but when I agreed to work with Kenny [Rogers], he wanted to do a duet with Dolly. And so we suggested that one — we knew it was good, we knew it was potentially very strong, but we didn’t know it was a duet. So we just went to work on that, and the R&B song became a country song. There’s such a close link between country music and R &B music. Songs like “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,” the rest, these are country songs.
Were any of the artists intimidated to sing with you? If you’re Keith Urban, how do you sing “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” in front of you?
Keith grew up about a hundred miles from where I grew up in Australia. He’s fantastic. I mean, he gave us a great gift because he brought Nicole [Kidman] with him, and that was such a thrill. I’m freaking out, you know. It’s not really about anyone else being impressed by me or intimidated by me — it’s the other way around. I told Dave, “This is terrifying.” I wasn’t producing the album. I put that all aside and left it to him and [his engineer]. Dave actually plays in the band, which is something that I might’ve done at one point, but to see him do that’s pretty humbling.
How did you and Dave Cobb meet?
My oldest son, Stephen, played me a Chris Stapleton song on his iPhone. I freaked out and I said, “Wow, there are people making records like this now? There are still bands making records and not programming and that it’s real?” I said, “Who is this?” And he said, [Chris Stapleton], and then he said, “Dave Cobb is the producer.” I said, “I want to work with that guy. If I make any more records, it’s with him.”
So Stephen went to Nashville, and met with different people, he met with [co-executive producer] Jay Landers, who then took the helm and made it his mission to get these other people involved.
Did you try to get Chris on here?
Chris was just coming off the road and he was tired out. I think Dave Cobb put it perfectly: People like Chris, they can’t say yes to everything. I truly understood that, because that’s someone who knows how to deal with their own career. So you can’t just go to the opening of an envelope.
How did you come up with the list of artists on the album?
It was a group effort, but I named all the people I wanted to work with. I didn’t know I was going to get Jason Isbell and I didn’t know I was going to get [Rival Sons’] Jay Buchanan. But Alison said “yes,” and Dolly said “yes” right away. And it just sort of streamed from there.
Dolly was a great thrill, and as incredible as she always is. She’s such a humble person. I just don’t understand how people of that stature remain calm and humble and ready to have a laugh, you know? Dolly told me that where she was standing at the microphone is exactly where she stood when she did “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene.” You know, that’s mind blowing.
Had you seen her since you recorded “Islands in the Stream” with her 40 years ago?
No, I have not seen her since that time. Her 50th wedding anniversary had just happened. And September was my 50th wedding anniversary. It’s crazy. So 50 years, my God — but at the same time we had that much in common, you know?
The album title includes “Vol. 1.” Are you already thinking about a second volume?
Absolutely, absolutely. Providing that Capitol wants me to do another, and Dave wants to do another one. He’s always said that would be great, we should do another if we can. He works very quickly and very fast. Sometimes they cut three tracks in one day, but I’ve never done that.
Alison [Krauss] was fantastic. She was almost immediate. Olivia Newton-John was spot on from the first note. She hasn’t been in the studio for awhile, she’d been out of action, and she was so thrilled to just get back to singing. So there were all kinds of feelings with every one of those people.
Any plans to tour behind the album after the pandemic?
Yeah, the desire is there, of course. The question is: Is anyone going to be touring? If I can find an audience, I’ll tour. It’s difficult for everybody. I can’t imagine how many artists are sitting there watching Netflix and wondering what happened… [Playing live] is a little nerve wracking because you have to depend on yourself, and I’m so used to over years to the three of us depending on each other. So it’s different, but I love doing it. I miss doing it.