Despite having written hit songs for country classicists such as Conway Twitty or duet partners Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers, no one would have ever confused the Bee Gees with being country artists or authors themselves. Dramatic post-Merseybeat sounds such as those heard on “New York Mining Disaster 1941”? Check. Folksy pop a la “I Started a Joke”? The heavy breathing baroque of “Words”? The blue-eyed soul of “Fanny (Be Tender With My Love)” that morphed into the grand rhythm & disco of the “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack? Check, check, check. Country, not so much.
That changes with this week’s release of “Greenfields — The Gibb Brothers’ Songbook Vol. 1.” A rare solo album from Barry Gibb, produced by country magnate Dave Cobb with a handsome handful of duet partners, it pays tribute to his and his late brothers’ rich, melodic catalog, now freshly approached with a rootsy but cosmopolitan country vibe that feels as ingrained and intrinsic to the aged material as it sounds. Each lustrous song’s theatrical and trembling tone, once heard in this new, folksy form, seem so instinctually right as as country cut that you’ll nearly forget the disco and chamber-pop originals. The country lilt of “Greenfields” isn’t just in the song’s performances, it’s in their bones.
How we never noticed this before is a mystery, really. Listening to those epic songs (how better to describe the incessant build of “Lonely Days?”) in eternal Spotify playback, or as the often hurt and winding score to HBO’s “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” documentary, you can hear the nuanced lilt and the emotional narrative base indigenous to country. It is as loud and clear as a newborn baby’s heartbeat is strong. Add in the Gibbs’ natural malleability of melody (their songs have been covered by the Boss, the Bird and the Bee, Destiny Child, Billy Corgan, Lee “Scratch” Perry and Nina Simone), along with Barry’s childhood love of bluegrass and skiffle, and a high concept takes hold.
Save for a few hiccups — such as a juking “Jive Talkin’” with Miranda Lambert and Jay Buchanan — the overall results of the “Greenfields” experiment are pretty magnificent, actually. And organically. Not just because Cobb’s wood-grain tone, its swelling Hammond organ and yawning pedal steel-driven sound is in full, anthemic effect throughout the proceedings. Or because the Gibbs’ subtly theatrical melodies bring out truly potent vocal performances from already-greats such as Brandi Carlile (a take on 1972’s “Run to Me” is so much more ragged and aggressive than the brothers’ fussiness) and Jason Isbell (his stirring spin on Christian faith that fills “Words of a Fool” is musky and rousing in the most churchy of ways). It is Barry Gibb himself, still in possession of a stammering falsetto at 74, where the fortunes and focus of “Greenfields” lie.
Age has lent Gibb’s highs a rough, spectral edge, haunting songs such as the driving “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You,” with Keith Urban, or the treacly “Words,” with Dolly Parton, but it’s still a weirdly stirring. breathy marvel — enough so to pull you away from Gibbs’ flashier co-stars. Urban soars, soulfully, on “Message,” and chews mightily on the song’s torrid tale of a murderer facing his death sentence, but his voice can’t match the urgency or poignancy of Gibb. The same is true of the tick-tock-ing “How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” with Sheryl Crow. Crow simmers, but it is Gibb stirring the bittersweet pot. The always peerless Gillian Welch makes a lovely rarity such as “Butterfly” lovelier still, yet she met her match in achy-breakiness in Gibb’s teary vibrato.
That doesn’t mean that Gibb doesn’t ever yield the spotlight to his duet partners; far from it. Carlie and Isbell are the vocal centerpieces of their respective tracks, emboldened by Cobb’s sympathetic production frippery and Gibb’s willingness to pull away from a fellow soloist and let his vibrato act as would another instrument or texture. Hey, Barry learned from the best, having to share lead vocal duties with his brother, Robin, and massive heavenly harmonies with his other brother Maurice.
One could argue, in that respect, that the plush contours and the sepia-toned duets of “Greenfields” sound even more inviting and natural to our ear, and his, than Gibb’s previous 2016 solo album, the original song-filled “In the Now,” since collaborative and competing vocal volleys are his mien… the pretty and/or eerie place where all Gibb songs live most comfortably. It is the symmetry of ageless, aching vocals — Gibb with Alison Krauss on a luminous, stripped-back version of “Too Much Heaven” being the best example — set against the backdrop of melodic luster, which few but the Brothers Gibb did better, that makes this “Vol. 1” well worth a Volume 2. And 3.