Album Review: The Gibson Brothers – Help My Brother
The tenth time’s the charm for Eric and Leigh Gibson. The brothers–and their talented band–keep outdoing themselves with each successive record. Their latest, Help My Brother, features the best harmonies in the business (sorry, Dailey and Vincent), and they’ve never sounded better together than they do on these dozen tracks.
Some of the brothers’ finest work on previous records has been the songs where they pay tribute to their upstate New York roots, as they’ve done with “Iron and Diamonds” and “Bottomland.” On album closer “Safe Passage,” written by Leigh, they do it again, providing a truncated family history that stretches back to a treacherous journey across the Atlantic and subsequently includes a stint in the Union Army and a few generations trying to coax a living from rocky farmland. The final verse brings us into the present; though the newest generation of Gibsons doesn’t have to fight or farm for a living, some things don’t change: “I cross these many miles… my journey with a guitar in my hand/And mother prays for me/She prays for my safe passage/She prays that I will make it back alive.”
On their last two albums the Gibsons recorded songs by Tom Petty, Steve Earle, and Buddy and Julie Miller. Here, though, they stick close to classic country and bluegrass, with the Louvin Brothers’ “He Can Be Found” and Jim and Jesse McReynolds’ “I’ll Love Nobody but You.” It’s pretty gutsy to cover two of music’s finest–and most beloved–brother duos, but Eric and Leigh hold their own: their version of “I’ll Love Nobody but You” is two and a half minutes of driving bluegrass, with Leigh’s tenor reaching impressive heights on the chorus while backed by lively fiddling courtesy of Clayton Campbell.
The Gibson Brothers have surrounded themselves with some of bluegrass music’s finest talent on Help My Brother: Ricky Skaggs contributes his golden voice to the classic-sounding gospel tune “Singing As We Rise” (written by Joe Newberry, whose contributions to Gibson projects are regularly among the albums’ strongest lyrics); Claire Lynch’s vulnerable vocals on “Talk to Me” are backed by another guest, Alison Brown, whose wood banjo adds warmth to the intimate-sounding ballad.
There is some fine talent behind the scenes too. Eric and Leigh penned songs for this record with Tim O’Brien (“Want vs. Need”) and Jon Weisberger (“One Car Funeral”). “One Car Funeral” is, despite its toe-tapping tempo, one of the saddest bluegrass songs released this year, with lyrics about a man so unloved that the only two people at his funeral—the preacher and the gravedigger–couldn’t be bothered to care about the guy.
With a love for traditional bluegrass and an ear for modern material, the Gibson Brothers are one of bluegrass music’s most interesting and dynamic acts. The best way to experience them is still to catch one of their exhilarating live shows, but until they come to a festival near you this summer, putting Help My Brother on repeat is a pretty good way to go.
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