On 'Greenfields,' Barry Gibb Takes The Bee Gees' Legacy To Nashville

Jan 8, 2021
Originally published on January 8, 2021 10:01 am

In more than four decades of music, Barry Gibb and his brothers Robin and Maurice created almost too many hits to count as the pop powerhouse the Bee Gees. Today, at 74, Barry is the last living Gibb brother, and has continued on as a solo artist. If you've only ever associated his name with the disco era, his new album may surprise you: It turns out that the musician, who emigrated from the U.K. to Australia when he and his brothers were kids, has always been a big fan of American country music.

"Since I was about 9 or 10 years old," Gibb says, "it was really in my system and it never left. Bluegrass music and country music is really what I care about more than anything else. Once all my brothers were no longer with me, once I was alone, I was able to focus on, 'Well, what's my passion?' "

When his son introduced him to the music of country star Chris Stapleton, Gibb decided to take a chance. He reached out to Stapleton's producer, Dave Cobb, about potentially making a record together — and discovered the latter was a major Bee Gees fan. The result, out Nov. 6, is the new album Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers' Songbook Vol. 1, a collection of Bee Gees songs reworked as duets with some of the biggest names in Nashville, including Dolly Parton and Jason Isbell.

Gibb spoke with NPR's Rachel Martin about turning toward his passion, missing his brothers and creating a new life for their discography. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for an edited transcript.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


Rachel Martin: How is it that you have never recorded a country album of your own until now?

Barry Gibb: I didn't have that sense of belonging. You know how it is in Nashville; it's a pretty closed circle, if you like. And it's a hard place to penetrate even if you love the music and you want to be there.

That's a little crazy for me to think about. You're one of the Bee Gees; how could you feel out of place anywhere?

The same for everybody — if you walk into another realm of music, you have to work pretty hard to be accepted.

And Dave Cobb, he's the real deal, right? Was there any part of you that thought, "Maybe he won't be interested in making an album with me?"

I thought Dave wouldn't be interested, [but he] said he wanted to do it. Dave came here to Miami, and we sat and listened to tracks that might appeal to him that'd never been recorded. I didn't go into this think they were going to be literally duets. I was hoping to get these country stars to just sing one of our songs.

Oh, you didn't think you were going to sing along?

I thought, maybe a cameo. Or maybe I'd pop in here or there. Dave will tell you I'm an angler: If I don't have to be involved, I won't be. But he called me!

YouTube

You did a couple of songs from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack on this record.

"How Deep Is Your Love," yeah.

Can I ask you to take a step back and think about the evolution of the music you made with your brothers, and its resonance here in this country in particular? People who know your story know that there was a massive backlash to the music of the disco era.

I think that was a mistake on the part of the industry. 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. But it was a project — a bit like making a film. You become a character and you try to fit in with the soundtrack. ... But reinventing yourself is, to me, the greatest fun of all.

On this album, are there songs that you attach to specific memories of your brothers?

Oh yeah, "Butterfly." 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.

I guess I'm wondering about the loss you must have felt for, literally, the sound of your brothers' voices. When you're singing a three-part harmony, it's like you can feel the vibrations of those other people: in your body, in your head. Tt becomes part of your own instrument. I wonder if you miss that.

Of course I do. We spent over 40 years around one microphone; how do you ever get past that? You don't. 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.

But I imagine it's so cool to have these bright talents in Nashville taking those songs that you made with your brothers and giving them a new life, maybe a new audience.

That's the mission for me. It's not about me, it's not about the Bee Gees. It's just about those songs and how special they are to me. I want people to go on remembering them, and this was a way to do that.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEE GEES SONG, "STAYIN' ALIVE")

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK, let's do this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAYIN' ALIVE")

BEE GEES: (Singing) Well, you can tell by the way I use my walk I'm a woman's man, no time to talk.

MARTIN: Man, I love the Bee Gees. The singer here, of course, is Barry Gibb, with his brothers Robin and Maurice. In their more than four decades of music, they wrote almost too many hits to count. But for many of us, there is nothing more Bee Gees than this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STAYIN' ALIVE")

BEE GEES: (Singing) Stayin' alive.

MARTIN: Today, Barry Gibb is 74. He's a solo artist and the last living Gibb brother. And if you associate him with disco, his new record might surprise you. Barry Gibb has gone country. His album is a collection of Bee Gees songs reworked as duets with some of the biggest stars in Nashville. Here's him singing with Dolly Parton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORDS")

BARRY GIBB AND DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) You think that I don't even mean a single word I say.

MARTIN: Gibb and his family emigrated from the U.K. to Australia when he and his brothers were kids. And turns out this Australian pop star is a lifelong country music fan.

GIBB AND PARTON: Oh, yeah, since I was about 9 or 10 years old, it was really in my system, and it never left. So bluegrass music and country music is really what I care about more than anything else.

MARTIN: Really?

BARRY GIBB: Yeah. Once all my brothers were no longer with me, I was able to focus on, well, what's my passion?

MARTIN: We found this video of you as a teenager with your brothers performing what would be an early Bee Gees single, "The Battle Of the Blue And Grey."

GIBB: That's right.

MARTIN: This is on Australian TV. It's amazing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BEE GEES: (Singing) Now, Stonewall Jackson stepped right up, and then he said to me - he said, the battle's getting rough, son. Guess we better flee.

GIBB: Yeah, it's insane.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: But this is a song...

GIBB: It's the meanderings of a backward child (laughter).

MARTIN: Right. You wrote this song, right?

GIBB: Yeah.

MARTIN: And it's about the American Civil War. Can you explain?

GIBB: I know. Go figure - 'cause if I try to remember writing it, I don't, you know? Maybe that first year in Australia, country-western music was really all you heard. And it was called rock 'n' roll. So it just grew from that.

(CHEERING, APPLAUSE)

MARTIN: In getting ready for this interview, I found examples of your work that classified as country songs and learned about some major country hits I didn't even know that you had written. How is it that you have never recorded a country album of your own until now?

GIBB: I didn't have that sense of belonging. You know how it is in Nashville. It's a pretty closed circle, if you like. And it's a hard place to penetrate, even if you love the music, and you want to be there.

MARTIN: That's a little crazy for me to think about. I mean, you're Barry Gibb.

GIBB: No (laughter).

MARTIN: You're one of the Bee Gees. How could you feel out of place anywhere?

GIBB: Oh, of course you do. It's the same for everybody. If you walk into some - another realm of music, you have to work pretty hard to be accepted.

MARTIN: But when his son introduced him to the music of country star Chris Stapleton, Barry Gibb decided to take a chance. He reached out to Stapleton's producer, Dave Cobb, about maybe making a record together. Gibb didn't know what to expect, but turns out Cobb was a huge Bee Gees fan.

GIBB: Dave said he wanted to do it. Dave then came here to Miami. And we sat and listened to tracks that might appeal to him that had never been recorded.

MARTIN: Cobb and Gibb picked two of them for the album, including this one featuring Jason Isbell.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WORDS OF A FOOL")

BARRY GIBB AND JASON ISBELL: (Singing) But all hope is gone if you don't act on the words of a fool.

GIBB: (Singing) Now, times may be tough.

I didn't go into this thinking they were going to be literally duets. I was hoping to get these country stars to just sing one of our songs, you know?

MARTIN: Oh, you didn't think you were going to sing along.

GIBB: I thought maybe a cameo, or maybe I'd pop in here or there. And they will tell you I'm an angler (ph). I don't have to be involved. I won't be, you know? So - but he caught me (laughter).

MARTIN: You did a couple of songs from the "Saturday Night Fever" soundtrack on this record.

GIBB: "How Deep Is Your Love?" Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOW DEEP IS YOUR LOVE?")

BARRY GIBB AND LITTLE BIG TOWN: (Singing) How deep is your love? How deep is your love? I really need to learn 'cause we're living in a word of fools.

MARTIN: Can I ask you to think about the evolution of your music and the music you made with your brothers and its resonance here in this country in particular? I mean, people who know your story...

GIBB: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...Know that there was a massive backlash to the music that you made during the disco era.

GIBB: Yeah, but there was a massive backlash against that genre.

MARTIN: Right.

GIBB: And I think that was a mistake on the part of the industry. There was something very beautiful and summery and rhythmic about all of 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, you know? - that style, that style. But it was a project, a bit like making a film. You become a character, and you try to fit in with the soundtrack and the film and John Travolta. You just - it becomes a project. After that, you will try something else. But reinventing yourself is to be the greatest fun of all.

(SOUNDBITE OF BARRY GIBB SONG, "BUTTERFLY")

MARTIN: On this album, are there specific songs that you attach to specific memories of your brothers?

GIBB: Oh, yeah - "Butterfly."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUTTERFLY")

BARRY GIBB, DAVID RAWLINGS AND GILLIAN WELCH: (Singing) Green fields where we used to wander.

GIBB: But I remember also recording Butterfly in 1966. It was one of the songs that we loved that nobody really heard. So that was a magic moment.

MARTIN: But I guess I'm wondering about the loss you must have for, literally, the sound of your brother's voices when you're singing a three-part harmony.

GIBB: Yeah.

MARTIN: It's like you can feel the vibrations of those other people in your body, in your head. It's...

GIBB: Yeah.

MARTIN: It becomes part of your own instrument.

GIBB: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I wonder if you miss that.

GIBB: Of course I do. Of course I do. We spent for over 40 years 'round one microphone. So how do you ever get past that? You don't. But if I get the opportunity to be on stage, as far as I can tell, they're right there with me. I can still smell the cologne that Maurice used. You know, when you're on a microphone, there are things you just never forget.

MARTIN: But I imagine it's so cool to have these bright talents in Nashville taking those songs that you made with your brothers and giving them this new life, maybe a new audience.

GIBB: That's the mission for me. And it's not about me. It's not about the Bee Gees. It's just about those songs and how special they are to me. I want people to go on remembering them. And this was a way to do that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BUTTERFLY")

GIBB, RAWLINGS AND WELCH: (Singing) Butterfly, yeah.

MARTIN: Well, it's been a real pleasure. Thank you so much for your time.

GIBB: Thank you, darling. It was great.

MARTIN: Barry Gibb's new album is called "Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers' Songbook (Vol. 1)" Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.