For the third year in a row we journeyed into the North Country, that massive swath of barren rural land crossing New England and Upstate New York whose distinctive culture and accents are a recognized cultural artifact. We braved threatening weather to attend the Gibson Brothers' North Country Christmas Show, a benefit for the Future Farmers of America featuring Eric and Leigh Gibson, whose band has, for the past several years, been one of the top bluegrass bands in the nation. The show, held in the auditorium of Northern Adirondack Central School in Ellenburg Depot, NY, gives locals a chance to see their claim to fame, and "the boys," as almost everyone knows them, an opportunity to thank the community for the values they celebrate, which have made them so popular in bluegrass. Their unique performing style featuring their huge catalog of songs (most of which they write), brother harmonies, and not-quite-too-biting brother bickering has endeared them to audiences across the country, while they never forget where they came from.
In many ways, Leigh and Eric break the stereotype of bluegrass stars. They come from nearly as far north as one can in the US. They're not Southern in accent or attitude. Their roots are Scots-Irish, and the family migrated south to their farm in upstate New York from Canada in the 19th century. The boys left the farm to attend college, both majoring in English at nearby SUNY Plattsburgh, while singing in church and then at small festivals, before becoming increasingly popular along the bluegrass trail.
“I go to festivals, and sometimes people ask me whether I know them,” one woman said to me during the intermission. “When I tell them I used to sing with the boys in church, they sorta roll their eyes with a 'yeah, sure' look. You should have seen their eyes when Eric came down from the stage and gave me a big hug.” The school custodian, who I talked with while he was mopping the floor before the crowd arrived, even though he knew they'd be bringing in wet feet to undo his work, spoke of their being a part of the community, of his life. Now local people, no longer isolated by the Adirondack Mountains to their south, are planning on going on a Caribbean cruise with them.
Part of the joy people find in their performances comes through moments like the pranking of their younger sister, Erin Gibson LaClaire, as she sang the “Little Drummer Boy” at last year's Christmas show.
The Gibson Brothers' music doesn't deny or exclude their rural background, but it puts it into a contemporary context of the inevitable differences made in our lives by changing social conditions and technology. Songs like “The Barn Song” and “Farm of Yesterday” capture these changes, reminding us that while change is inevitable, so is loss.
“The Barn Song,” recorded in 2010 at the Jenny Brook Bluegrass Festival, celebrates the importance of a barn to a young boy's development, and how that barn eventually gave way to a fast food restaurant. What was lost and what gained?
Unlike some groups who either work from a set list they prepare for each performance or design a show that hardly changes during a tour of six months or even longer, the Gibson Brothers work without a list, taking from their audience responses or even on-the-spot requests for the songs they chose to sing and responding to each other spontaneously, in the moment, giving each performance a shape and tone of its own. Perhaps this is why their fans return time after time to see them perform, never finding that their shows become old. It also keeps the brothers on their toes, listening to each other throughout the program. Every member must stay tuned in and ready to play any song in their lengthy catalog. Particularly in New York and New England, where many in their audience have been watching and listening to them for more than 20 years, the band is ready, on no notice at all, to reach into the past.
Here's an extended clip of how it all seems to work out. This video includes three very different songs, all characteristic of a Gibson Brothers performance, including “The Happy, Sunny Side of Life” an unrecorded cover of a song by the Blue Sky Boys, Eric's song “Farm of Yesterday,” and the classic Jimmy Martin song “Hold Watcha Got.” The clip, recorded from a concert at SUNY Plattsburgh, is particularly interesting for illustrating what goes on between the songs at a typical show of theirs. This was one of the two years in which the Gibson Brothers were named IBMA Entertainers of the Year.
Which brings us back to a cold, snowy day in northern New York, with about 650 people gathered in a high school auditorium to celebrate the Christmas season with two men who grew up among them and represent their community with pride to the rest of the world. Here's Leigh singing one of the most beloved of all Christmas carols.