With the Nov. 9 release of Mockingbird (Easy Eye Sound), bluegrass power duo the Gibson Brothers (Leigh and Eric Gibson) call upon the influences of everything from the warm country sounds of Don Williams to Elvis Presley’s ’68 Comeback Special in an effort that highlights a clear — if perhaps temporary — break from the genre that has given them success for so long.
Consecutive entertainers of the year recipients from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2012 and 2013, the Gibsons knew that they wanted to take their music in a different direction after the release of 2017’s In the Ground (Rounder). While it would have been easy to stick with the formula that has brought them so much success, they couldn’t help but think back to a Nashville deal that fell through two decades prior.
“We worked on an album 20 years ago that was more traditional than what was coming out at the time,” Leigh Gibson explains to Billboard. “We were already 10 or more years past the New Traditionalist movement, and the big production sound of Shania Twain was ruling the industry at the time, so we went back to making music the way we’d already been making it before.”
Mockingbird won’t change Nashville’s opinion on the duo’s vintage sound, with possibly its strongest presence captured on “Cool Drink of Water,” which premieres below on Billboard. The genial song calls to mind the days of John Denver’s crossover success with “Rocky Mountain High.” The recording process that the brothers found once they stepped into the studio with producers Dan Auerbach from The Black Keys and David “Fergie” Ferguson, best known for his Grammy-winning engineering work on Johnny Cash’s American Recordings albums, is one that they hope to take back upon their return to bluegrass, whenever that may be.
Says Eric Gibson, “Who knows what the future holds? Bluegrass is a part of us, and I’m sure there is more bluegrass in our future, but I don’t know when.”
The Gibsons discussed with Billboard their northern New York roots running throughout their southern music, as well as working with the legendary musicians that Auerbach, who chimed in via email, set in place to help craft their latest album’s sound.
When did the concept of this album begin coming together?
Leigh Gibson: We began seriously discussing what we would do about a year ago. We’d gone back and forth on the direction before we reached out to [Ferguson] about maybe using his studio to record a few things. He mentioned it to Dan Auerbach, and…Dan reached out and asked if we wanted to just get together, write a few things, and see where it goes.
Eric Gibson: These songs were all brand new [outside of the R.E.M. cover, “Everybody Hurts”], written just before walking into the studio. That’s the way Dan likes to do it; he likes to record songs before you’ve had time to overthink it. There’s something about recording a song when [it’s] still fresh, and it still excites you to hear it, and there is still a magic than can be captured.
What differences did you find in your earlier work and working with Auerbach?
Leigh Gibson: The immediate difference was in not wearing the producer’s hat, which is a new thing for us, as many of our records we’ve produced ourselves. There are so many decisions that come along with taking on that job, and having Dan produce it, it felt like we could just be ourselves more…It was the first time we were able to let go of the reins, and it was a great experience.
Eric Gibson: I can’t remember another time [in the studio] that felt like that, where it was so joyful. The days flew by when we were in there, with days where we’d work all through the night, and would do so gladly. We cowrote all of those songs, so it wasn’t like we didn’t feel a part of it. We’ve written with some pretty heavy hitters through the years, and it’s easy to feel like you’ve been steamrolled by the end of the writing process. That wasn’t the process here; we built these songs from the ground up with Dan and the other writers.
Auerbach: I can honestly say that everything I hoped would happen, did. The brothers came into this project with open, creative minds and that made it very easy to collaborate. We had a blast every day.
What was it like recording with a roomful of legendary session players like Gene Chrisman, drummer on such Presley hits as “Kentucky Rain” and “In the Ghetto,” and Billy Sanford, guitarist on Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler” and “Coward of the County”?
Eric Gibson: I was blown away the whole time. I knew about these guys. They’re talking about working with Elvis, and Jerry Lee Lewis and Charlie Rich…and I’d just listen. At one point Gene turned to me and said, “You probably don’t know who Hank Snow is,” and I said, “I know every single person that you guys are talking about, and have been studying their music for years”…These guys aren’t young men anymore, but they’ve still got a fire, and I love that we recorded with them.
Leigh Gibson: I think a lot of the album’s sound had to do with the guys who worked with us in the studio. It was very comfortable because it was such a part of our musical knowledge, having grown up listening to these same guys.
Auerbach: It’s all about capturing the magic that happens when you get all these great artists in the same room together, and they’re all working towards a common goal. It’s never really been about anybody’s age…the speakers don’t care how old you are.
Do you feel Mockingbird may ruffle some feathers within the bluegrass establishment?
Leigh Gibson: Being geographically removed [from the South growing up] allowed us to create music that was different from what bluegrass usually is, and a lot of that has to do with where we’re from. Being from northern New York state, it took some effort to learn about bluegrass, and learn what it is. The music on this album was stuff that surrounded us growing up. This was what I’d listen to in my dad’s pickup truck as a kid.