While the Bee Gees are most famous as the emissaries of disco thanks to the monstrous success of the soundtrack to the movie Saturday Night Fever, like other British Invasion acts (via Australia), they always had roots in American country rock music. From the beginning, back in 1967 with their first international hit, “New York Mining Disaster 1941”, such artists’ influence as the Everly Brothers and Roy Orbison on the Bee Gees was apparent. So it’s not a total surprise that the lone remaining member and founder, the celebrated singer, songwriter, producer Barry Gibb, decided to make a country record. To do so, the 74-year-old Gibb procured the services of the hottest country producer in the business today, David Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile), and some all-star help (Dolly Parton, Keith Urban, Alison Krauss) to assist.
The results are a curious mix of nostalgia and timelessness. The original versions of some of these tracks, like “How Can You Mend a Broken Heart”, “To Love Somebody”, and “How Deep Is Your Love”, are masterpieces and also have been successfully covered by some of the premier vocalists of our age such as Al Green, Nina Simone, Johnny Mathis, and Janis Joplin. It’s unclear why Gibb thought these should be re-recorded. Cobb respectfully leaves the arrangements of these tunes alone, making minimal country-style adjustments to the recordings. For example, he has Tommy Emanuel open “How Deep Is Your Love” with a lovely acoustic guitar solo that captures the synthesized original’s intimacy by not straying from the basic melody. That may make the sound more country, but it’s consistent with the classic rendition.
The album features one new previously unheard track featuring Jason Isbell, “Words of a Fool”, Gibb originally wrote back in 1986 for a solo project that was never released. It’s a pleasant enough tune with Isbell’s slide guitar and gruff vocals taking the lead on a song about having hope in a cruel world. In general, the most affecting songs on the record are the most melodramatic. Isbell’s contribution is sandwiched between the histrionic odes “I’ve Just Got to Get a Message to You” with Keith Urban and “Run to Me” with Brandi Carlisle and suffers in comparison simply because it is so lowkey.
The strangest cut is a slowed-down take on “Jive Talkin'” with Miranda Lambert and Jay Buchanan (Rival Sons). Lambert, Buchanan, and Gibb have soulful vocals but seem disassociated from the song’s concerns. This is a song about a lover telling one lie, but no one seems upset by this fact. In contrast, Little Big Town use the lassitude of “Lonely Days” to express the energy that love has given them. It’s a much sweeter appropriation of weariness and sexual tension.
Greenfields takes its title from a line in “Butterfly”, here performed with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. The song is wistful and reflective. Gibb’s voice over the top of the other two suggests he’s the one with the memories. The track’s placement at the end suggests a looking backward, which is odd as the album is labeled a “Part 1”. Perhaps that’s reading too much into the words, but as Dolly Parton notes on her spritely version of the song “Words”, words are all we have…That’s not exactly true here. We have the music. The album stands as proof that Gibb still has much more to offer.