James King performed with the Gibson Brothers July 19 at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, giving a workshop titled, “Our Favorite Songs.” From left are Eric Gibson, James King, Mike Barber and Leigh Gibson.
OAK HILL — Was it coincidence or fate that brought James King and the Gibson Brothers together July 19 at the Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival, sharing a stage and possibly a recording this coming winter?
These back-to-back International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Emerging Artists of the Year — the James King Band in 1997 and the Gibson Brothers in 1998 — presented an evening workshop, “Our Favorite Songs,” under the Creekside Stage tent after their afternoon sets on the High Meadow Stage. It was classic North meets South, with the Gibson Brothers hailing from New York and James King from Virginia.
“I want to hear some of that wonderful brother harmony,” King said on stage, standing with his guitar between Eric and Leigh Gibson. “Basically what you’re witnessing tonight for the first time, and I hope not the last time, you’re witnessing a Gibson Brothers-James King sandwich.”
In all, King and the Gibson Brothers band – Eric and Leigh, Mike Barber on bass, Clayton Campbell on fiddle, and Jesse Brock on mandolin – played 10 of their favorite songs: “Why Don’t You Tell Me So,” “I Just Think I’ll Go Away,” “Dig a Hole in the Meadow,” “Crazy Heart,” “More and More,” “In the Shadows of My Mind,” “Love’s Gonna Live Here Again,” “Ring the Bell,” “How Mountain Girls Can Love,” and — for the encore — “Think of What You’ve Done.”
“I’ve never done that song before,” King said after playing “Dig a Hole in the Meadow.” “I’m learning all kinds of new things ... Ain’t it fun to pick with somebody you never picked with before?”
This may have been their first time on stage together, but it may not be the last.
“I suggest that me and the Gibson Brothers go in the studio and record a song this winter,” King said. “It would be fun.”
It may also be fun for their fans, of which they have many. And their awards are piling up, too. James King is the 2013 Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA) Male Vocalist of the Year (traditional), and the Gibson Brothers are the 2012 IBMA Entertainers of the Year.
In another twist of fate, the mandolin player who was performing with King on the Creekside Stage — Jesse Brock — also played on the James King Band’s upcoming Rounder release — “Three Chords and the Truth.”
“Ken Irwin of Rounder Records gave me a call and said they were putting this project together and asked if I was interested in being a part of it,” Brock said after the “Favorite Songs” performance. “I said, ‘Sure.’ That was a no-brainer for me. I love James’s music, and it’s been about a year, a year and a half since we did it in the studio.”
Adjusting to life on the road with Eric and Leigh Gibson has been a natural process for Brock, who spent his childhood touring with his own musical family.
“I already feel like a brother. I feel like a Gibson,” Brock said. “I’ve known the guys since the ’90s when they were in the infant stage of their career, and it’s great to see them blossom into such a wonderful group with great business minds. They’ve, along the way, acquired the know-how to stay in business, and I’m glad to be a part of it and be part of the team.”
Since late June, the Gibson Brothers and the James King Band both acquired new mandolin players. Brock, who signed on June 19, met David Watson Jr. of the James King Band informally for the first time backstage between the bands’ sets. Watson, playing his eighth show with King in a few weeks, was so fresh that Chance Leadbetter was still listed as mandolin player on the James King Band’s website during Grey Fox.
Watson is a 20-year-old from West Union, W. Va., and his introduction to bluegrass began at the age of 9, while he was playing the electric guitar.
“My grandma told me about this jam session going on, but she said I had to bring my acoustic guitar,” Watson said in the Grey Fox hospitality tent. “And I wondered, ‘What the heck? Why?’ So I did, and it turned out to be bluegrass. So that’s the first time I played bluegrass, and I’ve been doing it ever since.”
A few years later, Watson began playing mandolin, filling in for several bands and had been touring with a country band the past year before James King hired him.
“I emailed him and sent him some recordings I had,” Watson said. “He liked what he heard, I guess, and he had me down to his house to meet him. He decided to hire me on board.”
Being the youngest and newest member of the band, adjustments have to be made, and there’s always something to learn.
“I guess the biggest thing I’m learning right now is how to travel and work the maps and drive all night,” Watson said. “We got here just a few hours before we played with no sleep, and we’re not going to be sleeping this night, either, except a little bit on the van, I guess.”
As for learning the music, Watson spent some quality time with King’s many recordings.
“I had about five days to learn 30 songs, so I spent a lot of hours memorizing the choruses and getting the harmony down,” Watson said. “But it just takes a lot of practice playing along with CDs and the metronome.”
On July 20, the James King Band flew out to the West Coast for a 10-day tour of northern California and Washington state. On the same day, the Gibson Brothers flew out to Ohio for a performance. Once the festival season is behind them, perhaps they’ll meet in the studio for that recording King suggested.