The Gibson Brothers have devoted their lives to perfecting their sound. The duo, comprised of brothers Eric and Leigh, are pillars of the bluegrass music scene. But their 14th studio release, Mockingbird, finds the brothers going decidedly country. Mockingbird is the duo’s first album cut with Black Keys frontman Dan Auerbach’s record label Easy Eye Sound. Auerbach and the Gibson Brothers also enlist the prowess of sound engineer David “Fergie” Ferguson, best known for his Grammy-winning work on Johnny Cash’s American Recordings album. The country music ascendancy is discernible throughout Mockingbird.From the instrumentation and lyrics then adding consideration of the production, Mockingbird signals a conscientious departure from bluegrass. As a result, the Gibson Brothers recorded a paradigmatic country album.
The Gibson Brothers are unequivocally signaling the era of country music that centralized suffering rather than partying and carousing. The opening track “Travelin’ Day” ruminates on dying and the acceptance of mortality. The track’s instrumentation undertakes the sense of melancholy as each verse features either a weeping pedal steel guitar or fiddle. Towards the last half of the track, a background chorus is added thereby supplementing the instruments’ howl. The vocal and musical interplay creates a ghostly intensity reinforcing the narrator’s confrontation with death. Many of Mockingbird‘s tracks specifically depict desire or heartbreak as exhibited in “Lay Your Body Down” or “I’m a Better Man”. The absence of physical or sexual connection, in addition to corporeal or personal loss, are markers of an authentic country music. Without a doubt, the Gibson Brothers revisit these themes to pay homage to the genre they venerate.
Mockingbird is evidently influenced by 1970s country music. “Cool Drink of Water” shares the sense of wanderlust infused with romance commonly present in John Denver’s repertoire. “Sweet Lucinda” is comparable to any Waylon Jennings’ yarn while the electronic keyboards in “Love the Land” reflects the ’70s country kitsch captured by Glen Campbell. After consecutive listens, the influence of Kenny Rogers, Bob Seeger, and Conway Twitty are also apparent although subtly interwoven. “So Much Love in My Baby’s Eyes” is an indisputable mash-up of Dolly Parton’s narrative with Kris Kristofferson’s twangy guitar playing.
Despite the jocularity derived from returning to the era, why go back? The Gibson Brothers’ don’t provide a clear answer but the album’s title provides a hint. A mockingbird mimics the call of the other birds much as the Gibson Brothers mirror previous musicians. This is likely the Gibson Brother’s suggesting Mockingbird is indeed a demonstration of reverence. On one hand, it’s effortless to classify any revisitation to the era as an homage. Yet, on the other hand, it is feasible to expect the Gibson Brothers to imprint their musical interpretation on the era’s conventions. Above all, the Gibson Brothers are capable of sampling the era without completely reproducing the conventions. Melding their telltale bluegrass with the 1970s country panache would only strengthen Mockingbird.
But that’s not to say the Gibson Brothers take the safest musical route. Mockingbird establishes several successful creative risks. Their fresh perspective is best encapsulated by the cover of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts“. The lyrical depiction of malaise is palpable but especially conspicuous when the duo sings, “Well everybody hurts / Sometimes / Everybody cries / And everybody hurts/ Sometimes.” The cover’s melancholy is indelible and concertized by the sorrowful pedal steel guitar. The Flaming Lips’ Derek Brown drives the pedal steel guitar and should take credit for the track’s audible anguish.
To Auerbach’s credit, his distinctive musical styling is not evident on Mockingbird. A lesser producer would have easily imposed their own style into the album’s mixing. He clearly understood and grasped the Gibson Brothers’ vision. The album reflects a reverence for their perspective. His musical presence is only heard on “Come Down” where he is also listed as a featured artist. Here Auerbach’s background vocals add a rich texture to the duo’s already harmonic vocals thereby maintaining the Gibson Brothers’ sonority.
Mockingbird is distinct from the Gibson Brothers’ overall oeuvre. The album eschews bluegrass for divergent soundscapes while firmly taking root in the 1970s country music. Arguably, the decade witnessed the apogee of popular country music’s portrayal of dejection. But then the genre peaked and transformed to reflect the techniques and innovation of current artists including the Gibson Brothers. As such, Mockingbird is akin to a musical time capsule, fully ensconcing listeners into the genre’s heyday.