LIVE: Gibson Brothers @ Proctors GE Theatre, 12/09/2021
Two brothers who grew up on a farm in Ellenburg Depot on the Canadian border playing Bill Monroe’s Kentucky bluegrass Christmas music to an audience of Capital Region suburbanites? I could not imagine in advance just how they’d make it work.
The Gibson Brothers welcomed us into their family. It was not saccharine. Backed by four masters of the strings and a drummer, the two brothers showcased their prowess as one of the top bluegrass acts in the world, and we all got to sit at the head table for Christmas dinner. Here was a duo that debuted on the Grand Ole Opry in 2003, appeared on Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion in 2014, and received honorary doctorates of fine arts from the State University of New York during the spring commencement at SUNY Plattsburgh in 2015.
Leigh teased Eric about being “the golden boy, mom’s favorite.” And Eric teased Leigh, saying his wife comes to Christmas dinner with several pies while others bring chips and soda. He goaded brother Eric about his black studded western shirt. “Leigh made fun of my shirt. Told me I looked like Custer.”
In 2015, Eric told me their telepathic connection was “downright scary. We try to come out firing and look at the crowd and try to judge what they want to hear. So, when we decide what we’re gonna play as the crowd is applauding at the end of a song, we just back away and look at each other, and one of us will say a song, and several times lately we’ve done songs that we haven’t done in ages. And we’ve said it at the same time.
“Most of these guys (whose songs we’re doing) came from agricultural backgrounds,” adds Eric. “They worked on the farm. They probably went to church, and it’s not unlike our situation. We grew up on a dairy farm up along the Canadian border. We were isolated. We didn’t go places. Dad wanted us home. He let us play one sport, baseball. We’d go to church, go to school, and play baseball, and we had the instruments around the house, so we’d gravitate toward those.”
Daddy was a farmer. They began performing as adolescents, playing gospel instrumentals in the local church, and added vocal harmonies to their act a few years later, performing numbers by artists such as Buck Owens and Jim & Jesse.
Today, in concert they are crack professionals that make it all look easy. “All four Beatles gave our next album a thumbs up,” winked Leigh. The setlist ranged from originals like “Dick’s Country Store” about a real store in the town of Morris in the north country to “North Country Christmas” done by Del McCoury on a recent album; from “Yule-ing Banjos,” a play on “Dueling Banjos,” to “Santa Looked A Lot like Daddy.” From Merle Haggard’s “If We Make It Through December” to Flatt and Scruggs’s “Footprints on The Ground.” Sister Aaron handled vocals on some of the more traditional numbers including “Away in A Manger,” and “Light in the Stable.” They encored with “Silent Night” where Aaron took the first verse, Leigh the second, and all three shared the third.
Leigh told me in 2013, “It took a while for people to get to know us and say, ‘Oh, they aren’t pretending,’ (and) to understand that ‘our music is who we are, and we’re not dressing up for Halloween here. We’re really doing this.’”
Bluegrass doesn’t have to be from Kentucky and when the brothers celebrate Christmas, we’re all family.