Album Review: The Gibson Brothers – Ring The Bell

Juli Thanki | May 25th, 2009

The Gibson Brothers - Ring the Bell Iron & Diamonds was one of 2008’s best bluegrass albums, charting in the Top 5 on several year-end lists. Barely a year later, upstate New Yorkers Eric and Leigh Gibson are back with Ring the Bell. Combining the high lonesome sounds of Bill and Charlie Monroe with the sweet harmonies of Phil and Don Everly, the Gibson Brothers are the best brother duo to hit bluegrass music in years–maybe decades.

The past year has seen an important personnel change hit the Brothers and their supporting musicians. Mandolinist and longtime band member Rick Hayes retired from the road in order to begin a new career as a luthier; if he makes mandolins half as good as he picks ‘em, whoever ends up possessing a Hayes original is a lucky bluegrasser indeed. Hayes’ spot has been filled by Joe Walsh, an able replacement who fits right in with the rest of the group (Clayton Campbell on fiddle, Mike Barber on bass). It seems as though Walsh fit neatly into the band dynamics, even co-writing a song with Eric, Leigh, and the man whose position he filled.

Iron & Diamonds was such a great record that nearly any attempts to top it would fall short. Here the Gibsons choose to get a little more ruggedly progressive with their traditional bluegrass sound: Mike Witcher lays down some dirty dobro on “I Can’t Like Myself,” and there’s even some percussion on one track courtesy of Erick Jaskowiak. For the most part this change in the group’s sound is successful, though the hardcore bluegrass tracks of the album such as “Jericho” are by far the strongest cuts.

And although they’re expanding their musical boundaries, Eric and younger brother Leigh, who wrote or co-wrote six of the album’s 12 tracks, still stick tight to their typical subject matter: family, faith, and farming.

The Brothers’ Adirondacks upbringing figures prominently on this album, with both contributing a song about rural life. Eric bemoans the death of family farms on “Farm of Yesterday,” singing “They build ‘em bigger now/They got more land they got more cows/Maybe they have found a better way, it’s hard to say/But I miss that old farm of yesterday.” Leigh closes out the album with “Bottomland,” a song about a young man who escapes his family’s sharecropping life and finds wealth and success. But as anyone who has listened to a handful of country songs in his or her life knows, wealth is empty if there’s no family to love you or no home to go to.

In addition to being top-notch songwriters, the Brothers are pretty good song choosers as well. Eric and Leigh again cover Tom Petty (on Iron & Diamonds they gave “Cabin Down Below” a pretty rocking bluegrass treatment); here it’s “Angel Dream” that’s transformed into a midtempo mountain gospel tune. Joe Newberry lends two songs to Ring the Bell; the first one, opening track “I Know Whose Tears,” is inspired by a Rudyard Kipling poem, but lyrics such as “Mother, my first companion/Mother, my truest friend/Mother, way up in heaven/We’ll meet again” sure make the subcontinent poet sound like an Appalachian songwriter.

Ring the Bell
is the Gibson’s first record with their new label, Compass Records. While it may not be as immediately successful as their previous albums with Rounder, Ring the Bell signals a new age for Eric and Leigh Gibson. Their songwriting has matured and their already superb picking is in fine form here. Whether they stick with this slightly rawer sound or choose to return to their polished bluegrass past, one thing is for sure: when it comes to the Gibson Brothers, you just can’t go wrong.

3.5 Stars

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  1. [...] 9513 commenter Rick gave a brief recap of Justin Townes Earle’s show at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica over the [...]
  1. Rick
    May 25, 2009 at 6:50 pm

    Nice review Juli. They should bring you on board over at the Bluegrass Blog where the average reader would really be into your bluegrass reviews!

    Since you’re a Justin Townes Earle fan, I’m gonna go off topic here and give a brief description of JTE’s concert here in LA last night. Although the show at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica did not sell out in advance (it holds about 200), it did wind up selling out. I am not familiar with JTE’s music but was thoroughly entertained with his excellent guitar picking and on pitch plaintive vocal style (and his movements around the mic as well). For just a guy with an acoustic guitar he puts out a whole lot of good music!

    JTE has truly mastered many historical forms of country music, from hillbilly to folk to honky tonk, but it was his more modern folky style material I found the most enjoyable. This included two brand new compositions titled “Last Night In Brooklyn” and “I’m Learning To Cry” which were fantastic songs. JTE also sang the title cut of his recent album and claimed it was the first time he has performed it during this current tour! JTE’s encore included a wonderful cover of the John Prine song “Far From Me” which JTE recently recorded for a John Prine tribute style album (which will include Old Crow Medicine Show as well as many other artists). JTE is a consummate entertainer and storyteller and anyone who likes more traditional and mellow acoustic styles of country music should make the effort to see him if he comes your way. The upcoming show in Nashville where he will open for Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson should be a killer!

  2. Jon
    May 25, 2009 at 7:51 pm

    Rick Hayes has actually returned to, not started a career as a luthier. Long story, but prior to going to work for Eric and Leigh, he (among other things) made elecric guitars incorporating licensed Warner Brothers cartoon characters like Bugs Bunny.

  3. merlefan49
    May 25, 2009 at 8:00 pm

    Hey Jon,
    The videos I posted the link to in another thread were from Del McCoury’s Tent show at Romp in Owensboro Ky back in 2007. That was a night I’ll never forget :D

  4. Jon
    May 25, 2009 at 8:48 pm

    Hey, Merlefan49, I was there – early. Got on stage 3 times with Hazel Dickens and got about a song and a half done and then had to leave for Nashville and another gig. Heard about the fun under the tent from Del after…

  5. Leeann Ward
    May 25, 2009 at 8:50 pm

    Great review, Juli. I just checked them out on Emusic and love their harmonies. So, if I were to get one album for now, would you actually suggest the one prior to this one? That’s what I’m gathering from this review.

  6. Juli
    May 25, 2009 at 9:53 pm

    Jon, thanks for the info on Rick Hayes. I had seen a picture of the Bugs Bunny guitar some time ago and I’m sure it’s nice sounding, but I sure wouldn’t want to be in the audience having to look at that thing all concert long should someone actually want to play it onstage! ;-)

    Leeann, I’m really, really fond of Iron & Diamonds; it still gets a fair amount of spins on the old iPod. But their past few albums Red Letter Day, Bona Fide and Long Way Back Home are all really excellent bluegrass records as well. And this one is growing on me, too…so much for my helpful album purchasing advice!

    Rick, thanks for the JTE review…and the scoop on the upcoming Prine tribute album. Sounds like it’ll be a good listen.

  7. merlefan49
    May 25, 2009 at 10:45 pm

    Jon,
    They had to stop Hazel’s set because of the weather.
    She didn’t get to come back. It is a great festival.
    Last year 2008 Dale Ann Bradley was just into her set when there was a Tornado warning and we all had to head for cover Hazel was suppose to be there last year but didn’t make it. because of health reasons.

    Unfortunately I’m gonna miss it this year and the line up is awesome as it always is.

  8. merlefan49
    May 25, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    I like the Gibson Brothers ! I love the new cd.

  9. John Saroyan
    May 29, 2010 at 7:08 pm

    The Gibson Brothers were on the Sugar Hill label prior to signing with Compass. They were never on the Rounder Records label.

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