The Gibson Brothers are neo-bluegrass like Alison Krauss or some of Dolly Parton’s new albums. Though they incorporate upright bass, mandolin, and, of course, banjo into their songs, the songs are really songs. They go at moderate tempos in the ballads and there’s nothing like the dizzying string picking that can make conservative bluegrass albums sound like an Olympic event as much as songcraft.
In lieu of that, and what makes the Gibson Brothers even more “neo” than Krauss or Parton, is that they write a lot of their own bluegrass songs (Parton, no slouch as a songwriter herself, instead covered her favorite standards on her bluegrass albums) and, moreover, intend for their songs to be recognizable expressions of personal feeling.
More than the speed of banjo picking, it’s that intention of personal expression that puts the Gibson Brothers clearly on this side of the great divide. The bluegrass and old-time country songs collected on Harry Smith’s landmark Anthology of American Folk Music or covered by Pete Seeger were emotional (at least in popular music, this was art before the concept of artiste) and could even be heartbreaking, but there was no attempt to make the listener, through listening to the song, privy to the singer’s personal experiences or purely personal thoughts. They were, in short, not confessional.
The Gibson Brothers aren’t weepy-confessional (the relaxed, unmacho masculinity of their twangy voices, appropriate for their songs, pretty much preclude that) (thankfully), but they are sometimes confessional. The liner notes even detail the personal incidents that inspired certain songs.
All fine and well, of course, except that the songs sometimes fall into the singer-songwriter trap of building up emotion solely for the sake of building up emotion. Sometimes it works (as in “The Way I Feel”, a bar band bluegrass singer’s “I Could Never Take the Place of Your Man”), but sometimes the songs picked reflect nothing but the emotion (“The Way I Feel”, for instance, like the Prince song, has a story upon which the song hangs), and not with so much poetry that the expression itself becomes a fully justified end. “Alone with You”, for instance, is a dream about exactly, and only, that. It idealizes “your tender kisses” and being able to “share with you the secrets of my soul.” “Lost in the rapture of your love,” it’s a sure bet that “my love would be forever true.” Anyone who’s ever written such sentiments in a love letter in junior high would have seen that one coming.
Kathy Young and the Innocents’ “A Thousand Stars”, an early rock personal favorite of mine and admittedly no great lyrical masterpiece, still has the doubt of the female singer wondering whether her love is reciprocated; it’s “Tomorrow Night” or “Will You Me Tomorrow” for proper girls too young and well-behaved to go all the way. Which isn’t to say that a great singer couldn’t redeem the bludgeoning, nuance-free straightforwardness of “Alone with You”. But if such a singer could (and it could happen), the song doesn’t get that needed great singer treatment here.
What this album made me notice is how important Krauss’s voice is to the success of many of the songs she sings. Her voice, both breathy and airy, can be sexy (“Let Me Touch You for Awhile”), spiritual (“When God Dips His Pen of Love in My Heart”), or, best of all, both (“In the Palm of Your Hand”). And, almost as importantly, Krauss’s sexy-spiritual voice animates songs that, as written on a page, aren’t as emotional or well-defined as one would hope (“Stay”, not the one by Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs; also not the one by Lisa Loeb). Though the gracious masculinity of their twangs ward off the singer-songwriter solipsism blues, the Gibson Brothers are also, as a result, more dependent than Krauss upon the actual words of their songs to give sense to their playing.
Devoid of Krauss’s vocal gift, the Gibson Brothers would be better off spicing up their works with specific narrative or incident (as in the also-semi-autobiographical “I Gotta Get Back to You”) rather than relying solely on the strength of a big emotion to put their songs across. While it’s debatable which aesthetic, whether art-as-entertainment or art-by-artistes, has produced the better body of work, there’s nothing here that builds, then undercuts, soap opera passions with as much pathos and cold humor as finding that the late Casey Jones’s children have “got another papa on the Salt Lake Line.”