The Gibson Brothers

A couple of hometown pickers hit the big time

page24_nd2004_webIt’s been said that the reason Eric and Leigh Gibson and their bluegrass band play Ellenburg Town Hall each year during the fall festival is because Hilda Danforth bribes them with her gooseberry jam. Town historian and council member Danforth, known to some as “a gentle hurricane,” definitely has influence—culinary and otherwise—around these parts, but the truth is the Gibson brothers wouldn’t miss entertaining their hometown crowd for all the gooseberries in the universe.

And what seems like the core of the cosmos to folks from the surrounding hamlets of Ellenburg Center, Ellenburg Corners, Ellenburg Depot and Merrill on this autumn evening is the seat of their hilly, rural community on the northernmost slant of the Adirondack Blue Line, near Quebec. This place was once potato-growing country, a mining town and logging center, with tanneries and butter factories along the West Branch of the Great Chazy River. Nowadays there’s work at surrounding prisons in Lyon Mountain, Altona, Dannemora and Chateaugay. But where locals punch time cards isn’t the topic of conversation tonight: it’s all about the Gibson boys.

Thirty-three-year-old Eric, and Leigh, eleven months younger than his brother, are, after all, signed recording artists who’ve put out six albums, pick with the pros, and play eighty-plus gigs a year at the hottest bluegrass festivals and venues in the country. They’ve even strummed their stuff twice on what they consider hallowed ground, the Grand Ole Opry, in Nashville (“It was out of a dream,” says Eric). Then there’s bluegrass radio, where the Gibsons are regulars: their album Bona Fide was number one in the nation for airplay in August 2003, and their newest CD, Long Way Back Home, received the same honor this past September and Oc­tober. (Both albums are on the Sugar Hill Records label, along with artists like Willie Nelson, Nickel Creek, David Grisman, Dolly Parton, Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs and Jerry Douglas.) Add to that a nomination by the International Bluegrass Music Association for Song of the Year, pitting the Gibsons’ tune, “That Bluegrass Music,” against songs performed by Rhonda Vincent, Tim O’Brien, Larry Sparks and Blue Highway. There’s no mistaking the direction, if not the current altitude, of their music careers.

Geography and genealogy play a huge role in their success: the guys grew up on the family dairy farm five miles north of Ellenburg Depot. Eric studied banjo and Leigh learned the guitar at Dick’s Country Store, in Churubusco. From there, explains Leigh, “we were a local band, then a regional band, then a Northeastern band, now a national band. Our success has been a slow burn, which al­lows us to appreciate it.”

The brothers performed their way through the State University College at Plattsburgh—where they were just designated the youngest-ever “distinguished alumni”—and kept it up while Eric taught English at AuSable Valley High School, in Clintonville, and Leigh worked the family homestead. Farming was hard, but the life of a musician is a tough one too. Leigh thinks of it as a business: “You have to stay on top, take risks, try different things.” Fortunately, he says, the execution of the business—the actual playing—is the fun part.

When they’re not on the road with the band, Eric, his wife and two young sons live in Brainards­ville, and Leigh, his wife and baby boy reside in Scotia. These are guys content to hang out with family, and even a quick listen to Bona Fide reveals their connectedness to loved ones and home—songs such as Eric’s “Ar­leigh,” about his late grandfather: Saw on the fiddle and raise up your glass / To old woodsmoke memories shared in the past / To go back there’s little that I wouldn’t give / He helped me to laugh and he helped me to live. “Not to sound corny,” says Eric, “but it was almost therapeutic to write.”

Back in Ellenburg Center on the Gibson Brothers’ big night, Sandy LaBombard, their aunt, is thinking about “that song, ‘Arleigh,’” she says from behind the bar at Sandy’s Shamrock Inn. “It’s so much like Daddy.” Through a window cluttered with neon beer signs, LaBombard’s watching the townspeople, well-fed after a spaghetti dinner at the fire hall, rolling past the bar in cars and pickups, searching for parking places or strol­ling to the town hall, just down the road. The scene reminds her of a couple of St. Pat­rick’s Days back in the early ’90s, she says, when the Gibsons performed at her bar. “It was a wicked, wicked thing,” she recalls. “You could not get in the door and the cars were parked up every street.” She continues: “We just love those boys. They were raised nice and it shows. And you know,” she says, gesturing to the steady stream of people outside, “they get a piece of it too. They’re a part of it too.”

LaBombard isn’t kidding. Inside the hall’s theater—a quaint, overwhelmingly mauve-colored space Hilda Danforth painstakingly renovated with help from Clinton Probation Department clients and a handful of earnest volunteers—the audience is positively fired up. Down the aisles they come, mostly gray heads, chatting, offering hugs and handshakes and cradling goodies they bought downstairs in the lobby: hockey-puck-size cookies, brownies, small brown paper bags stuffed with popcorn. Soon all of the theater’s wooden seats are occupied and this former silent movie house kicks to life with the energy of the Gibson Brothers: Eric, Leigh, mandolin player Marc MacGlashan, of Nashville, and upright bassist Mi­chael Barber, of Jericho, New York, the baby-faced son of resophonic guitar legend Junior Barber.

Their sound is unbelievable. Eric and Leigh’s harmonies are seamless, the timbre of their voices perfectly matched. The quartet tears licks, picks and plucks feverishly; fingers fly, timing’s tight. Even when the musicians step up to their mics the motion is smooth, seemingly choreographed. Between songs there’s constant commentary from Eric and Leigh: explanations of where lyrics came from, anecdotes of what sounds like a pretty exciting life on the road, and ribbing among the brothers. At the beginning of the first set, Leigh introduces his brother: “Eric sings, he does a lot of writing and he aggravates a lot on the road. He’s the mean one, folks. Mean as a snake.” The crowd crows in response. The Gibson Brothers perform “Don’t Forget the Coffee, Billy Joe,” “Satan’s Crown Jewel,” “Ophelia,” “I Still Miss Someone” and much, much more. It’s heating up in here; the floor bounces as a heavy foot in the audience taps along. Toward the end of the second set, the Gibsons’ twenty-eight-year-old sister, Erin, is called to the stage. She sings “Red Rose” and “Lighthouse” angelically, the latter a number she performed with her brothers on Bona Fide.

When the show’s over, the townspeople slowly, stiffly sift their way through the lobby, snapping up CDs and t-shirts, and file out into the country night, where the air is musky with the smell of skunk and cigarette smoke. Later, the Gibson brothers agree there’s nothing like playing at home. Eric says he’ll never get used to signing autographs in Ellenburg: “I’ll think: I’m just Eric, I know you. Don’t look at me any different.” But without the support they get from home, adds Leigh, “there wouldn’t be a reason to continue.”


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