In the spring of 1998 I read about Vermont’s Essex Junction Bluegrass Festival in Bluegrass Unlimited. The Nashville Bluegrass Band and The Del McCoury Band were on the bill. Traveling north from New Orleans, where I was in medical school, didn’t seem like a big deal. So I strung together plane and bus tickets with welcoming friends and family in NY City, Rutland and Burlington to get there. Who could miss a chance to see these bands on the same day?
An early arriver, I settled in to hear every band until NBB and later, Del McCoury performed. Surprisingly, discussion and excitement began in the audience around me. I figured folks knew a favorite local group was coming up. From where I sat towards the back I saw two young men approach a condenser microphone. One had a banjo, and the other a guitar. Then a bearded dobro player joined them with a curly, blonde-haired upright bass player. The first two began playing, and sang with the dobro and bass pulsing to their lead.
My heart raced and tugged me forward. I left my seat to plant myself on the grass in front of the stage for their entire set. Their high brother duet harmonies, expressive individual voices, instrumental breaks grounded in melody and the blues, and movement around the microphone bewitched me. I wondered, “Who are they?” After the set I returned back to my seat and overheard one old-timer say to another, “I’m gonna be in Nashville when those Gibson boys play the Opry.”
Sadly, I wouldn’t hear the Gibson Brothers again live for seven years. There was medical school to finish, pediatric residency in Fresno to complete, and New York City for fellowship training. But their recorded music sustained me during that long period without a live concert. Entranced by a girl I had just met? There was Wanting Wanting You. Forlorn because she wouldn’t return my calls? Another Night of Waiting. Feeling sorry for myself? I Don’t Care Anymore. Then on my wedding day I sang Alone with You and She Paints a Picture for my bride.
Even songs about life experiences far from my own were internalized and experienced vicariously: loss of the family farm in The Next One is Me; a rebel soldier tormented by pain and separation in Last Letter Home; and divorce in City Water.
Right from the beginning the Gibson Brothers demonstrated a characteristic of the best old-time, country and bluegrass music: a nostalgic gnawing at my heart. That they belong to this age and to my generation makes me feel a profound sense of pride. Hearing my son sing along with Ring the Bell and I’ll Love Nobody But You from their latest two albums brings me joy, joy, joy. It confirms that my trip north was more than worthwhile.
The Gibson Brothers made their debut on the Grand Ole Opry on April 11, 2003 with The Open Road. For more information about them, their albums and tour schedule, visit: their website or friend them on Facebook.