Not a lot of bluegrass musicians hail from New York; there’s Dr. Banjo (Peter Wernick) and Mr. Mandolin (David Grisman), but after them the list gets short. The Gibson Brothers are New York natives – upper New York State, to be precise – and together they create their own hotbed of bluegrass.
Red Letter Day marks the Gibson Brothers’ third Sugarhill release, and it includes two original tunes by Eric Gibson and three by Leigh Gibson, joined by other songwriters including Don Gibson, Kieran Kane, Bruce Robison, Chris Knight, Mark Howard, Ray Charles, and Bobby Womack.
Converting R&B and rock and roll songs to bluegrass is nothing new. But the Gibson Brothers’ explorations of other genres, such as Ray Charles’ “I’ve Got a Woman,” have the same level of authenticity as the brothers’ originals.
At the time Red Letter Day was made, the brothers’ band was going through personnel changes. Fiddle player Clayton Campbell and mandolinist Rick Hayes joined just after the recording session dates. For the session itself, the Gibsons brought in Ronnie McCoury on mandolin and Jason Carter on fiddle, both from the Del McCoury band, along with percussionist Sam Zucchini, steel guitarist Russ Pahl, Josh Williams and Marc MacGlashan on other mando parts, and Andrea Zonn on vocals. Long-time bass player Mike Barber served double duty on bass and as co-producer.
On Red Letter Day, Eric Gibson plays all banjo parts, as well as some guitar, while Leigh plays strictly guitar. Their vocal styles draw on the dual-lead vocal traditions pioneered by the Delmore Brothers, but with a unique twist. Born within a year of each other near the Canadian border, their voices have distinct Canadian inflections reminiscent of the great vocalist Ian Tyson of the pioneering folk duo Ian and Sylvia. What is a Canadian singing style? Listen to this, and you’ll here it – straight, unadorned, and with a precise vocal attack. Perhaps it comes from playing hockey at too early an age? But if you want to hear what great Northeastern bluegrass sounds like, Red Letter Day is the place to start.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Nov. ’05 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.