More than two decades into his professional musical career as one half of the Gibson Brothers, Leigh Gibson thought he had a pretty good handle on the guitar.
In 2018, Leigh and his brother, Eric, broke out of the bluegrass mold, finding themselves in new terrain, with the album, “Mockingbird,” which sounds more like Tom Petty than Tony Rice.
The late-career left turn was both frightening and freeing.
“You grow up learning to play a particular kind of music and for me that was bluegrass,” Gibson explained. “And when you’re successful with something, you lean on that success and that style of how you approach guitar. You don’t intend to stop growing but your growth slows. But I feel like ‘Mockingbird’ opened up more space in our sound. And I feel like I’ve improved. I really do.”
Produced by Dan Auerbach of the Black Keys and the legendary Fergie Ferguson, “Mockingbird” is rooted in 1970s Southern California soft rock and country, a sound that Gibson has called “warm and glow-y” for the nostalgia it invokes in listeners of a certain age.
Some longtime fans, however, were irritated, fearing the brothers had abandoned a sound that had made them stars in bluegrass, a status that was cemented with back-to-back wins as Entertainers of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association, perhaps the genre’s highest honor, in 2012 and 2013.
But Gibson and his brother won over most of the naysayers in concert.
“Most people say they are prepared to be upset and really loved it,” Gibson said. “But it’s still us, still our songs and our story. It’s a different presentation.”
The brothers still embrace their bluegrass heritage. When they play at The Ramkat on Jan.4, it will be as a bluegrass band.
At MerleFest last year, the brothers performed two sets, one with their bluegrass band and the other with the “Mockingbird” band, which also includes a drummer, a bass player and a pedal steel player.
A handful of songs from “Mockingbird” work as bluegrass numbers, but some, such as their stunning reading of R.E.M.’s “Everybody Hurts,” work better with the “Mockingbird” band.
Fans of both sounds should take comfort that the Gibson Brothers want to continue to explore both genres.
“We’ve never turned our back on bluegrass, but I can’t imagine not doing both. I’ve had far too much fun doing it,” Gibson said “And I think our next record will be a little bit of both. It’s a little freeing to say we’re not worried about how the record sells or how it gets played. I can’t chase what I think people are going to like anymore.”
Those different musical personalities reflect Leigh and Eric’s upbringing in rural New York where they listened to such 1970s rock staples as the Eagles and Bob Seger on the radio and their dad’s Emmylou Harris records.
“And once you find Emmylou, you go backward, and you find Gram (Parsons), and it’s not so different from bluegrass, some different instruments, but the vocals are very very prominent,” Gibson said.
The Gibson Brothers recorded 13 albums as a bluegrass duo, earning acclaim for their tight harmonies.
When it was time to record their 14th album, they reached out to Ferguson, who has worked with Johnny Cash, Sturgill Simpson and Tyler Childers.
Some of the players on the album include musicians who worked with George Jones, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley.
Writing sessions were quick, with some songs coming together in little more than an hour.
The Gibson Brothers have a busy year ahead, with plans to return to the studio and touring, which includes festivals where they will play sets of bluegrass and songs from “Mockingbird.”