[10 April 2008]
We all know people who, as Robbie Fulks sings, like “every kind of music but country”. My suggestion when encountering this kind of person is to sit him or her down and play Iron & Diamonds. If, by the end of the album, said person is not totally in love with the Gibson Brothers, chances are this horrid taste extends to other elements of his life as well, so you really shouldn’t be associating with that kind of riff-raff anyway, because this record is incredible.
The album kicks off with a version of Tom Petty’s “Cabin Down Below” that easily could have been played at the Ryman back in the early days of bluegrass. Not only does this track showcase the sheer musical skill of the Gibsons, it also reveals that Tom Petty is at heart a country songwriter. Iron & Diamonds features a number of other covers as well, including a version of Steve Earle’s “The Other Side of Town” that sounds like a recently unearthed classic. The Gibson Brothers also pay tribute to one of Americana’s often overlooked songwriters, Julie Miller (wife of Buddy), and her haunting song “Somewhere Trouble Don’t Go”. This high-speed and haunting version will stick in your head for days; hopefully it’ll inspire you to seek out the original as well. And the Gibson Brothers aren’t too proud that they ignore their roots when they cover “Gone Home”, a song from Hee-Haw, with a little help from girl singer Erin LaClair. Surprisingly, this song is tender and beautiful, two adjectives one would never think to associate with Hee-Haw, but there you have it.
Interspersed with these eclectic covers are several original works which are some of the Gibsons’ best songwriting to date. Titular song “Iron & Diamonds” is a poignant look into the hard lives of iron miners in upstate New York and their legendary passion for playing baseball: “Sons followed steps down to the mines / Behind Dads they never knew / They came alive between the foul lines / With pride and dignity / In the bleachers and the batter’s box / A miner could be free”. As hardcore bluegrass fans know, America’s sport and America’s music have a longstanding relationship, thanks in part to Bill Monroe, who used baseball to draw crowds for his bluegrass concerts in the 1940s. Thus, Eric and Leigh have paid tribute—perhaps unknowingly, though I doubt it—not only to the miners of the Adirondacks, but also to the beginnings of bluegrass.
On an album of fantastic songs, two stand out from the bunch. “One Step Closer to the Grave” is a banjo-heavy upbeat traditional number despite its dark lyrics: “One less heartbeat / One less breath / One less moment to prepare for death”. “Bloom Off the Rose” is another one that sounds like a classic, and is very similar to the Louvin Brothers’ “Must You Throw Dirt in My Face”, in which a young man’s naivete is shattered when love goes wrong. This one also features great mandolin pickin’ from Rick Hayes. I could keep going and give you a song-by song account of this record, but how many times can you say something is wonderful?
With Iron & Diamonds, Eric and Leigh Gibson have cemented their role in bluegrass music’s storied history of brother duets, joining the Monroes, the Louvins, and the Stanleys in the tradition of those high lonesome harmonies that can only be created by family. Lucky for us, the Gibsons seem to be far less dysfunctional than any of the aforementioned brother duos, so hopefully they’ll continue to be making great music together for a long time.