The idea of Barry Gibb releasing a country album seems weird at first glance. A variety of styles were known to the Bee Gees for their mastery – from baroque pop to disco in the 60s – but country was not one of them. They recorded country songs, but they’re mostly on their least successful release, Cucumber Castle of the 1970s, and they’re definitely not among the few highlights of the album. And her relationship with Kenny Rogers in 1983, Eyes That See in the Dark, sounded more like, well, the Bee Gees than the County’s Rogers of The Gambler or Coward. With Dave Cobb, a producer best known for his work with Jason Isbell, Gibb recorded Greenfields in Nashville and a number of artists with names such as Whiskey Myers and Wheeler Walker Jr. Although the majority of the track listing revisits the hits of the Bee Gees, often one detects Gibb looking for dusty corners for material that might fit: Rest Your Love on Me was resurrected from Too Much Heaven’s B-side; Words of a Fool comes from an unreleased demo from the mid-80s; the beautiful Butterfly is an outtake dating from Australia’s years before their success. In the supporting cast, the sheer number of Nashville stars – from Keith Urban and Alison Krauss to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – underlines the respect of the Gibb brothers among their fellow musicians, which is never a bad thing.
Although the standing of the Bee Gees with critics is higher today than it was a few decades ago (when, incredibly, the Guardian published an article by Rod Liddle on how awful the Bee Gees were in reaction to the death of Maurice Gibb), it is still not as high as it should be. You never see Odessa or Main Course or the soundtrack of Saturday Night Fever in the lists of the best 100 albums of all time, where they really belong.
It is a state of affairs not helped by the fact that recent cover versions of their work appear to come from the seedy end of the pop spectrum, suggesting that the seedy end of the pop spectrum is where the power of the Bee Gees is strongest: it is more uplifting to hear Brandi Carlile or Dolly Parton perform their work, whose breathy, quavering vocals on Words are a highlight, than Moves, B Recontextualizing their greatest hits has a value that familiarity can’t tarnish.
If a Jive Talkin’ version with Miranda Lambert and Jay Buchanan (frontman for Dave Cobb regulars Rival Sons) doesn’t really fit – the slowed-down tempo steals the song from its euphoria – the stunning, stripped-back version of Too Much Heaven by Krauss is a great example, casting the melodic richness of the song in a new light.
Similarly, the reworking of “Run to Me” by Carlile features much harder and more assertive vocals than the fragile 1972 version by Barry and Robin Gibb: it underlines the fact that such a powerful ballad can be relatively easy to overlook in a catalog of as many hits as the Bee Gees ‘.
“In the past, Bee Gees songs have proved capable of going a long way intact, probably the only song in history to have been covered by Nina Simone, Tom Jones, Joe Strummer, Gram Parsons and Lee “Scratch” Perry in 1967’s To Love Someone. The arrangements here are softly done and always exquisite, led by piano or acoustic guitar, the orchestrations subdued; they are closer to country-inflected pop than country per se, except for the pedal-steel-heavy Words of a Fool. One wonders what would have come of it if the songs had been stripped back any further by Gibb and Cobb or taken into rougher Americana territory. The version of I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You by Keith Urban is good, but with its lyrics about a convicted murderer facing the death penalty, it’s a song that would fit, not to mention forgettable, crass outlaw country.
Butterfly is, as noted, a far better song than its earlier obscurity suggested – proof that the songwriting abilities of Gibbs were remarkably developed before he jumped back to the UK on the boat. -and the assisted recording by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings is great, but it’s intriguing to think of a more austere version of the duo’s recent albums. The album title, Volume 1, shows that Greenfields is more than a one-off experiment: with all its strengths, there is the risk of Barry Gibb