Watching the HBO documentary “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart” (trailer below) turned me into a belated Bee Gees fan. Twin brothers Robin and Maurice are prematurely deceased, Robin at age 62 and Maurice at age 53. Youngest brother Andy (a solo artist, not a member of the Bee Gees) died way too soon as well, of an addiction-related ailment at age 30. Only oldest brother Barry Gibb, age 74, survives. The air of mortality hangs over the story of their success like a cloud, but what an incredible story. Even though the curiosity of the documentary is distinctly limited, I was fully satisfied with its telling of the family story and insight into the Bee Gees’ singing, songwriting, and recording. All three Bee Gees brothers were gifted.
Revisiting their catalog in light of the documentary, I have come particularly to appreciate their songwriting. I would guess this great couplet from “Stayin’ Alive,” for example, is Barry’s: “We can try to understand / The New York Times’ effect on man.” We can try.
Via the No Depression email newsletter, I learned last week that Barry Gibb’s Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook Vol. 1 was released on Friday. Harry Carrigan’s No Depression story is “Barry Gibb Reimagines Classics and Deep Cuts through Collaboration on ‘The Gibb Brothers Songbook.” The news is that Barry went to Memphis to record selected Bee Gees’ numbers with some of his favorite country and Americana artists.
Hillary Hughes has Barry’s comments on a few tracks in the Entertainment Weekly story “Barry Gibb’s country moment: ‘It’s time to do what I love and not what everyone asks me to do.'” Stephanie Nolasco has a little more in the Fox News story “Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb talks going country with ‘Greenfields’: ‘You have to work pretty hard to be accepted.’”
My theory this morning is this. Even if you were never a Bee Gees fan, I’m guessing you may have had a favorite Bee Gees song without much thinking about it. Mine is “How Deep Is Your Love.” What a beautiful melody. Where the song asks “How deep is your love,” the answer is not “I really need to know,” it’s “I really mean to learn” — so much better. And “‘Cause we’re living in a world of fools” states a permanent truth.
Among the artists who join Barry Gibb on the disc are Keith Urban, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Sheryl Crow, Alison Krauss, Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert, and the Americana duo David Rawlings and Gillian Welch. I was unfamiliar with Little Big Town and Jay Buchanan, but I enjoyed both of them. If you’re a fan of any of the artists, you may want to check out the recording for that reason as well.
Even though the set was recorded in RCA’s famous Nashville Studio B with celebrated country producer Dave Cobb, I don’t think the disc has much of a country feel. Cobb seems to me to have taken it in more of an easy listening direction. The effects of aging on Barry’s voice are audible. I have nevertheless listened to the set several times on a streaming service with pleasure. I certainly look forward to Vol. 2. I thought some readers may want to start with a favorite number or artiest and check out the rest of the disc if it might be of interest.
All 12 Greenfields tracks are posted on YouTube. The disc leads off with “I’ve Gotta Get A Message To You.” This was the Bee Gees first top 10 American hit and an omen of many more to come. Barry is joined by Keith Urban.
I don’t believe that “Words of a Fool” is a Bee Gees number. Gibb wrote it for an unreleased 1986 solo project. Jason Isbell joins him on the recording. It’s a striking confession of faith.
“Run To Me” was a top 20 Bee Gees hit in 1972. It is also one of my favorite Bee Gees number. It seems to me an indestructibly beautiful song. Brandi Carlile joins Gibb on this recording.
“Too Much Heaven” was a number 1 hit for the Bee Gees in 1979. It still sounds pretty, pretty good with Alison Krauss making her distinctive contribution.
“Lonely Days” was a huge comeback hit for the Bee Gees — their first comeback, in 1970. Atlantic Records president Jerry Greenberg is quoted as saying of the Bee Gees recording: “I heard that song and went crazy.” He sent out tapes of the recording to Top 40 programmers before the single was pressed. The ladies and gentlemen of Little Big Town join Barry on it here.
“Words” was written and sung by Barry Gibb for a Bee Gees single in 1968. It was a huge hit in Europe. The boys performed it on the Ed Sullivan Show on March 17, 1968. Now it seems tailor-made for Dolly Parton. I seem to recall that Barry has identified it as his favorite Bee Gees number in one of the many interviews reviewing his career, but he has said that of one or two others as well.
“Jive Talkin'” was yet another comeback hit for the Bee Gees. Reaching number 1 in 1975, it reappeared in Saturday Night Fever. Barry is joined by Jay Buchanan and Miranda Lambert on this recording. It slows the tempo down to the one Barry says he originally intended for the song.
“How Deep Is Your Love” was another number 1 hit for the Bee Gees, this one in 1977. It too reappeared in Saturday Night Fever. Little Big Town and Tommy Emmanuel join Barry Gibb on this recording. In one interview Barry identified the Bee Gees track is as his favorite of their recordings. It is certainly the favorite of a lot of fans, me included.
“How Can You Mend A Broken Heart” was the Bee Gees’ first number 1 hit in the United States. The year was 1971. Sheryl Crow joins Barry on this recording.
“To Love Somebody” was a top 20 hit for the Bee Gees in 1967. With his big voice Jay Buchanan gives the song a soulful reading.
Barry Gibb actually wrote “Rest Your Love On Me” as a country number. It was released on the B side of “Too Much Heaven.” Olivia Newton-John teamed up with Barry on this recording. I had completely forgotten how much I liked the Cliff Richard / Olivia Newton-John duet on “Suddenly” in 1980-81, a recording that is one of my deeply guilty pleasures.
I don’t know where Olivia Newton-John fits in with the scheme of Greenfields. I do know that she sang it with Andy Gibb once or twice upon a time.
“Butterfly” is a song that the three brothers wrote in Australia before they returned to England to make their mark. Americana artists David Rawlings Gillian Welch provide the harmonies on this number, originally released as a Bee Gees deep track in 1970.