When I heard that the lone surviving Bee Gee, Barry Gibb, was releasing a country album, I didn’t bat an eye. Though the band are best known for the falsetto-laden hits of their disco years, and secondarily for the baroque psychedelia they played in the 1960s (which music snobs like me love), Gibb’s musical life is peppered with precedents for this rootsy turn. Born in the UK and raised in Australia, the brothers Gibb grew up listening to the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly, and they experimented with country music long before it was fashionable. The Bee Gees’ 1971 B side “Country Woman” is an early take on country rock, and on Gibb’s unreleased solo LP from 1970, The Kid’s No Good, he makes his best attempt at a Texas accent. More famously, Gibb wrote Conway Twitty’s 1981 chart-topping “Rest Your Love on Me” and cowrote Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers’s 1982 pop-country crossover smash “Islands in the Stream.” His new Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, Vol. 1 features guests on every track, an approach I usually don’t dig (especially when a legacy act ropes in a lot of current stars in an attempt to stay relevant). But the album offers an interesting overview of the Gibb brothers’ repertoire, including takes on some of their earlier songs. The new version of the exquisite 1968 hit “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You” is similar to the original; the strings are intact, Aussie country singer Keith Urban manages not to sound intrusive, and the piano (which recalls Garth Hudson’s playing in the Band) is only a bit more forward. In a stroke of genius, Gibb invited Dolly Parton to sing the sublime “Words,” and her getting-creaky-but-still-lilting twang makes a wonderful pair with his trademark romantic, bravado-filled vibrato on the choruses.
The production, by Jason Isbell, is mercifully tasteful—for ornament, he confines himself to sparse strings and a lonely pedal steel guitar here and there. That said, Jay Buchanan of Rival Sons overdoes “To Love Somebody” with inappropriate rock shrieking that almost makes me yearn for the Michael Bolton version (and wish that no one would ever cover this song again). And how do the disco songs fare with their countrified makeovers? Not well. I like Gibb’s voice on “Jive Talkin’”—it’s deepened in a “Sly Stone on angel dust” kind of way—but not even Hammond B3 and over-the-top sultry vocals from Miranda Lambert can turn it into a country song. “How Deep Is Your Love” makes Gibb’s vocal limitations clear (he’s 74, so I’ll cut him some slack), and the arrangement gets an unfortunate bubblegum Muzak feel from its slick layers of backup vocals and Tommy Emmanuel’s awful, new-agey acoustic guitar. Gibb develops a sudden, odd lisp on “Rest Easy on Me” that makes it sound like he’s wearing dentures that don’t fit, but Olivia Newton-John (who had a pretty decent country period herself) delivers a powerful guest turn, with a touch of Bonnie Tyler grit on her pipes. Almost all of the album’s weirdness is redeemed by its lead single, a version of the deep Bee Gees cut “Butterfly” that features Gillian Welch: Gibb’s multitracked voice is in fine form, and Welch adds authenticity to the song’s airy Americana vibes. All in all, Greenfields is a rough and messy ride, despite its glitz, but it offers a few nice moments for old fans and current mainstream country lovers. Though I’d recommend listening to The Kid’s No Good before approaching this oddity, you could pick a worse way to spend a sunny afternoon than with what might be Gibb’s swan song. v