Barry Gibb: COUNTRY-SOUL MELODY
Updated: Jan 24, 2021
Barry Gibb has come full circle. From the folk-rock trio with his brothers to adapting Philadelphia soul into the Bee Gees’ distinctive disco, and now as a country crooner who at the age of 74 says his musical journey has been along the same arc from the beginning.
Gibb’s new album, Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers’ Songbook, Volume 1, and the new HBO documentary The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart show how his decades of melody-driven songwriting and astonishing harmonies with his late brothers Robin and Maurice have traversed genres and many different cultural roots.
For him, it all fits together.
“Country music in Australia in 1958 was rock n’ roll. You got used to loving people like George Jones or Johnny Cash. I remember [Cash’s “Ballad of a] Teenage Queen”… that voice! Then beyond all that, Roy Orbison—his songwriting, his insight and how he built those records. To start a song like “Running Scared” or “Crying,” to start very small and build and build and build to a climax -- that’s not an easy task, you know? That inspired me to write songs,” Gibb told Melinda Newman for Billboard magazine.
For the new album, Gibb and his guests recorded all the songs with producer Dave Cobb at Nashville’s historic RCA Studio A, where countless classics were made by Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Elvis Presley, and primary influences Orbison and the Everly Brothers had hundreds of others have recorded.
Gibb's new album begins with the open-chord, soul-gospel of “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You,” a duet with Keith Urban and later features a tasteful version of the classic “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” with Sheryl Crow, one of pop music’s best and most versatile singers who matches nicely with Gibb's whispering vibrato.
Then there’s a quiet, poignant version of the timeless 1968 Bee Gees hit “Words,” sung with the queen of everything, Dolly Parton.
“Dolly told me that she wrote ‘Jolene’ and ‘I Will Always Love You’ right where she was standing” in the studio, Gibb told Gary Barlow on the BBC Radio 2 show, I Write the Songs. “I'll never forget that.”
Gibb had not seen her in person since the recording of “Islands in the Stream,” her country-pop smash duet with Kenny Rogers written by the Gibbs and recorded in 1982. The song originally was meant for Diana Ross.
“So we just went to work on that, and the R&B song became a country song. There's such a close link between country music and R&B music. Songs like ‘How Can You Mend A Broken Heart,’ the rest, these are country songs,” Gibb said in the BBC interview.
Jason Isbell duets with Gibb on “Words of a Fool,” a song that the former Bee Gee demoed in 1986 but never released. Their performance is soul as much as country, with gospel hymn-like lyric and cadence, Hammond B-3 organ and Isbell’s slide guitar. Originally from Green Hill, Alabama, near Muscle Shoals, Isbell belts out his part with passion and skill. Gibb's own soulful vocal is dramatic but restrained. (See videos below.)
In a conversation for Rolling Stone in late 2020, Isbell offered Gibb an apt description of the brothers' influence: “I think you guys were way ahead of your time because you were making music that affected people in the same way that black R&B records did, but you didn’t sound like you were ripping off black artists. You sounded like yourselves.”
Finding the right key
Born on the Isle of Man off the coast of England, Barry moved to Manchester with his family when he was about five years old, he told BBC program. Then the family moved by slow ship ride to Australia, a “paradise” for Gibb that helped him appreciate rural life.
As young men, the Bee Gees, short for the Brothers Gibb, moved to England to join the music boom unleashed by The Beatles.
Years later, after 13 folk-rock albums, they were working with producer Arif Mardin on the funky “Nights on Broadway” for 1975's Main Course, the group's first real foray into disco. Until then, the brothers had avoided the R&B path, fearing they'd sound ridiculous (as some would later claim). Still, the veteran producer could see the promising direction of their music. He asked if one of the brothers could scream in falsetto toward the end of the song. Barry volunteered.
“But the truth is, the falsetto comes from the (R&B groups) Delfonics and the Stylistics,” Gibb told Isbell in Rolling Stone. “It comes from all the different records where the falsetto was a feature. Brian Wilson, Frankie Valli. It became something that we didn’t fear anymore. I discovered it. I didn’t even know I could do that.”
In the HBO documentary, Gibb talks about the profound influence of soul music, especially starting in the late 1960s. But Gibb also told Billboard that as a young man he “also fell in love with bluegrass music.”
“I love all music, but I think country music or Americana music, what's going on now, it’s still the best songs, it's still the best music. And it comes from one place. You can go anywhere else in the world, and you won't find the great songs that you find in Nashville,” Gibb said in the Billboard interview.
Much later, Gibb even bought Johnny and June Carter Cash’s former lakeside home in nearby Hendersonville, Tennessee, but the house burned to the ground before Gibb could ever make it a part-time residence.
On one of the new country album’s finest moments, Alison Krauss joins Gibb on the classic Bee Gees ballad “Too Much Heaven.” Atop a low-key arrangement, Krauss turns into a soul diva on the chorus, backed on harmony by Gibb just as he did with his brothers in on the original 1978 recording that seemed to include dozens of layered vocals. (See videos below.)
Gibb told the Minneapolis StarTribune’s Jon Bream that after that session, Krauss asked Gibb to write a song with her and Robert Plant for a forthcoming project (possibly a sequel to their landmark 2007 album, Raising Sand.
All of these songs show off the Gibbs' incredible knack for memorable melodies, especially “Run to Me,” from the 1972 album To Whom It May Concern, sung beautifully here by Gibb and Brandi Carlile. (See videos below.)
On the ancient-sounding “Butterfly,” East Nashville folkies Gillian Welch and David Rawlings take Gibb’s brothers’ parts, with Rawlings’ beautiful guitar plucking dancing atop the tune’s gorgeous melody.
“I remember us recording 'Butterfly' in 1966. It was one of the songs that we loved that nobody really heard. So that was a magic moment” on the new record, Gibb told NPR.
Jay Buchanan, the lead singer of the L.A.-and-Tennessee-based fuzz-rock outfit Rival Sons, takes an impressive and surprisingly R&B-oriented turn on “Jive Talkin'” on the new album, alongside country star Miranda Lambert, herself sounding more like a Memphis soul singer than from her native Oklahoma.
On his own, Buchanan, bravely covers “To Love Somebody,” sounding both like Otis Redding (for whom the Gibbs originally wrote the song) and Bad Company’s Paul Rodgers. It was Buchanan who first introduced producer Dave Cobb to the singing of Chris Stapleton, at the time the soulful lead vocalist for the bluegrass group The Steeldrivers.
Later, Gibb became so taken with Stapleton's work with Cobb that he decided to seek out the Nashville producer.
“There's a streak of country music in all of our songs,” Gibb told Bream of the StarTribune. “I'm a country artist. It doesn't matter what anybody else thinks I am. Always have been.”
Gibb also sings his lost country ballad “Rest Your Love On Me” ably with longtime friend Olivia Newton-John on the new record. Originally the B-side on the American single of “Too Much Heaven,” it was the Bee Gees’ only country hit, reaching No. 39 on Billboard's charts.
Newton-John recorded it as a duet with Andy Gibb for his 1980 album, After Dark. Most notably, it was treated with soul by Conway Twitty as the title cut for his 1980 album. His version hit No. 1. (See videos below.)
Back in the summer of 2012, bluegrass master Ricky Skaggs introduced Gibb on the stage of Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium for a special performance of the Grand Ole Opry. The long-running radio show returns to its former home in downtown Music City for some performances each year.
The Opry crowd offered Gibb a warm welcome, and the former Bee Gee returned the favor.
“This is the center musically,” Gibb responded with awe. “I could not be prouder to be here—and I’m standing in the circle.”
Backed by Skaggs’ group Kentucky Thunder, Gibb sounded right at home, singing an old Civil War-era ballad, “When the Roses Bloom Again.” (See video below.)
“They went strolling through the gloaming… (and one day) I’ll be with you when the roses bloom again.”
Gibb seemed emotional in sending out love to his then-93-year-old mother and to his late brothers. In a way, “they’re all here,” he said.
Then Gibb performed two more soulful Bee Gees songs: “To Love Somebody,” with fiddle and dobro replacing the more symphonic flourishes on the 1967 original (released when Barry was only 20), and a bluegrass version of “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?,” once recorded by Al Green. The latter worked beautifully in a bluegrass style, with more fiddle, dobro and Gibb’s whispering vocals blending nicely with the country harmony singing of Kentucky Thunder.
The performance wasn't Gibb's first stab at country. Decades earlier, “Words” was cut by everyone from Glen Campbell to Brenda Lee, Barbara Mandrell, Shawn Colvin and even K.C. and the Sunshine Band, who recorded in the same Criteria Studios in Miami where the Bee Gees made most of their hits. Gibb still lives in Miami today.
The Bee Gees' youngest brother, Andy, scored a 1977 funky-pop smash with “I Just Wanna Be Your Everything,” written by Barry, which would be covered by country star Connie Smith.
Many soul artists had also begun to cover the Gibbs' songs. Percy Sledge covered “Gotta Get a Message to You” (so did Jose' Feliciano), among others. Candi Staton, who like Sledge recorded her early hits in Muscle Shoals, did a disco version of “Nights on Broadway” in the late 1970s that wasn’t far off from the Bee Gees’ original.
At a massive chateau in France—the same old mansion with incredible echo chambers where Elton John had made some of his album Honky Chateau—the Gibbs gathered to write songs for a new movie about disco.
They’d sit on the staircase and sing. In only about two weeks, they wrote several songs for what became the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack, selling 40 million copies worldwide and becoming the No. 1 album in America for six full months.
There was “If I Can’t Have You,” patterned after the group ABBA and sung beautifully for the soundtrack by Yvonne Ellman. Then came “Night Fever,” “Stayin’ Alive,” the Philly-soul send-up “More Than a Woman” (performed by both the Bee Gees and the R&B group Tavares in the film) and the classic Bee Gees ballad, “How Deep Is Your Love,” which Gibb described as “icing on the cake” of those sessions. (See the videos below.)
It was their greatest run of R&B hits: “You Should be Dancing” hit No. 4 on the Billboard magazine soul charts in 1976. “Stayin' Alive” hit No. 4 in March 1978, followed by “Night Fever” which hit No. 8 in April, and “Too Much Heaven” hitting No. 10 R&B in February 1979. The Bee Gees also had five other R&B chart hits. They were even credited for the sampled groove on Snoop Dog's “Ups and Downs,” which hit the charts in 2005.
All were pop smashes, as well, including several No. 1 hits.
“There was something very beautiful and rhythmic about all that music in the late '70s, and for the life of me, I have no idea why anyone thought it should be censored, which it was," Gibb told NPR.
Then the disco boom and the superstardom that had fit them fine only a couple of years earlier ended abruptly. The Gibbs became the brunt of many jokes, their talents mocked until new generations began to groove to disco and soul themselves.
So, the brothers turned primarily to songwriting and producing for others.
Gibb recalled traveling to Las Vegas to write songs in an empty MGM Grand Hotel ballroom for Dionne Warwick, a regular performer in Sin City at the time. Together they produced "Heartbreaker," a top-10 pop hit in the early 1980s for Warwick, giving the marvelous singer (and Whitney Houston’s aunt) staying power and updating her sound from the Burt Bacharach years. The song was later covered by British roots-rocker Nick Lowe.
Barbra Streisand asked Gibb to write songs for her new pop album, and it ended up as 1981’s Guilty, a duet record by Streisand and Gibb that featured more classic pop-soul moments, with the title cut, “Woman in Love” and the smooth R&B number, “What Kind of Fool?” (See video below.)
When Diana Ross asked for one more song, possibly a hit for her 1985 album, Eaten Alive, which Gibb was producing, the brothers brought out “Chain Reaction,” invoking Ross’ formative Motown years with the Supremes.
In 1980, Robin Gibb produced a hit late-disco album for soul singer Jimmy Ruffin. Born to a sharecropping family in Collinsville, Mississippi, Ruffin is best known f`or his 1966 smash, ‘What Becomes of the Brokenhearted?” and as the brother of The Temptation’s gravely-voiced David Ruffin (“My Girl,” “Ain’t Too Proud to Beg”). With Robin Gibb, Jimmy Ruffin made the top 10 in the U.S. and U.K. with "Hold On To My Love.”
In songwriting, “the first rule is, what’s the song about? Never mind the melody,” Gibb said in the BBC interview. “For me, I always work backwards, so if I have a great chorus I’ll start thinking about how to get to the chorus.”
“But songwriting is not something you love to do. It’s something you have to do,” he added. “It’s certainly an obsession, and it will last your whole life.”
Gibb said that Arif Mardin taught him to believe it's “important that you can see the song and not just hear the song. It has to be a vision. ... When you hear the song, you imagine how that relates to your life. … Roy Orbison did that for me. Johnny Cash did that for me. You didn’t just hear a song; you saw it.”
For his country album, Gibb landed at long last in the same studio where some of his boyhood idols had recorded. Gibb told NPR that he's working on a feature film about the Bee Gees' careers and writing a memoir. All to bring glory to the brothers' music and their songs.
He longs to tour again, but it'll never be like the old days with Robin, Maurice and younger brother Andy in tow.
“We spent over 40 years around one microphone; how do you ever get past that? You don't," Gibb said. "But if I get the opportunity to be onstage, as far as I can tell, they're right there with me. I can still smell the cologne that Maurice used. When you're around one microphone, there are things you just never forget.”