That Bluegrass Music: Remembering the first time I heard the Gibson Brothers

At the 2009 Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival. Photo KS Saroyan
At the 2009 Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival. Photo KS Saroyan

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.

8 thoughts on “That Bluegrass Music: Remembering the first time I heard the Gibson Brothers

  1. That was the very festival where I first heard them as well! I had unknowingly just met my husband, Mike, a couple of weeks earlier. He was playing bass with The Del McCoury Band at the time. I lived in NYC and since he was going to be in my neck of the woods, I made the treck up to the festival to be with him. I was enjoying the music that afternoon before Del & the boys arrived and I had my socks knocked off by the Gibson Brothers! I remember talking to Eric right after their set and telling him how much I loved their music. Eric & Leigh are two of the sweetest guys we know and have been great friends during the coures of Mike’s and my, now, 10 year marriage. Love the “Bloods”.

    1. Dear Meredith,
      What a story! I am so happy that you shared it. I would love to hear more one day about your time in NYC! And how Eric and Leigh became the “bloods”?? I wish that we could have been at the Station Inn last Wednesday. I knew Mike would be there and Katy Daley’s pics on FB confirmed my notion. I relish every single time I heard Mike play with the Del McCoury Band and also with Ronnie and friends. Relish! A few years after Essex at Merlefest, Ronnie told me members of Phish were at Essex Junction that day, too. I had been wondering who the tall stringy guys in the rain in front of the stage with me for Del’s set were. I didn’t know who knew they were or that they were so famous even when I saw them talking to Del at the end. It was a gathering of greats bands. And Great GREAT people. And I haven’t even said anything about NBB’s performance that day. Again, thanks for sharing your story hearing the Gibson Brothers for the first time and, of course, Mike. Beautiful.

  2. Hi John,

    This is a fine tribute to some very fine folks. In the past couple of years I’ve been a big fan of the Gibson Brothers and have done a little writing on the subject myself. And I’m very envious of this excellent article. You are as much of a gentleman as Eric and Leigh and the rest of the band, and that is a considerable amount. Class, kindness and talent – a great combination.
    Thank you.

    Jim Bourey
    Dover, DE and Dickinson Ctr, NY

    1. Roland,
      It’s an honor to hear from you. I introduced myself to you at the back of the Station Inn in December of 1998 while Ronnie and Friends were on stage. I was in town, having just interviewed for residency at Vanderbilt and Memphis. I high tailed it back from Memphis when I got word Ronnie, Jason, Robbie, and Mike Bub were going to be playing that night. Fortunately, I did not get a speeding ticket! I look forward to corresponding more and one day being able to chat again in person. You were so gracious and kind to me on that evening.
      John

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