“Look at the world out there.”
Barry Gibb is alluding to the several days of strife that accompanied Donald Trump’s most recent insurrection against the U.S. government. With a heavy sigh, however, the legend and last remaining Bee Gee was talking about the deaths of his brothers, Andy, Maurice and Robin, the joys and pains of brotherhood, the ups, downs and changing sounds within a long career (the Bee Gees commenced in 1958), and the newest projects in his life: an HBO documentary “The Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart,” and a new solo (sort-of) album, “Greenfields — The Gibb Brothers’ Songbook Vol. 1.”
“With all this, I am a country singer,” he says, matter-of-factly. “Country is what I will do from here on out, as long as I can make music.”
VARIETY: It’s everyone’s understanding that you haven’t watched the HBO documentary, and yet you participated in it by doing in-depth interviews. Why and why?
GIBB: Of course. I did everything that I was supposed to do, and told everyone how I thought everything had been in our lives, mine and my brothers’ — but I can’t watch my family fade away in front of me. You know? It’s just one of those things. I made my comments and hope others enjoy it. The response has been amazing, so I’m happy about that.
Though the documentary doesn’t delve too deeply in the hows of the trio’s fall from grace post-“Saturday Night Fever” or “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” it does focus on what the filmmakers felt was latent homophobia and racism at having dance music records burned, yours included. What’s your take?
I think that there’s some truth to that. It’s not up to me to say what is racist or homophobic, but I do know that somebody was trying to do something to it. The music would have evolved on its own. I don’t know why anyone thought that was a good idea. I hadn’t really thought about it since it all happened, and we weren’t the only artists, but I liken record burning to book burning. Once you think that you have the right to do that, you’re already problematic to society. That said, I don’t think much about that much, now. It was 40 years ago. I’m happy it was 40 years ago.
One thing to be gleaned from “Greenfields,” beyond a love of country and bluegrass, is how dedicated you are to its naturalism, and to being there now. It is a very present album.
I’m up for anything as long as I have the energy to do it. When you are 30 and younger, it’s a case of animal energy. You’ll travel as far as you have to to please the people you want to please. The greatest fun in life is writing for somebody. For something. When we wrote for Robert Stigwood, if he approved, he was going to act on it. It was a matter of people you believed in, as much as they believed in you. Those are the things I sort of miss. What I’m left with is writing for myself — to please myself, my wife, my family. I don’t look to an entity to approve or disapprove of what I’m doing. And somehow, within all this, I have become a country artist — a music I love with all my heart. It doesn’t matter what happened in the past. In my heart, this where I know I belong. The shock was that the artists who appear on “Greenfields” said yes.
Your humility is admirable, but it’s hard to imagine someone turning you down. Keith Urban killed “To Love Somebody” already (during CBS’ “Stayin’ Alive: A Grammy Salute to the Music of the Bee Gees” from 2017), and dueting with you now on “I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You”… he’s a champion of your stuff.
Keith is a perennial, already a legend. I think his voice is like Robin’s in a number of ways. He did that song perfectly.
But did you really think that you wouldn’t find collaborators?
No. I did not, Quite the opposite. This was a dream. My son played me records by guys like Chris Stapleton, and from there I became a fan of Americana. I’ve worked in and out of Nashville for a number of years, and with Ricky Skaggs. I did several (Grand Old) Oprys, and worked the Ryman a couple of times. I’m truly bitten. To be able to play a song is truly something. You know, you mentioned the eras of the ’70s and the ’80s. There’s been a lot of years gone by when it was no longer a big deal to have a great song out there. The hits go by so quickly now you barely have a chance to remember them. When I started the ‘Greenfields’ process I was looking for artists who actually liked our songs and chose one. I didn’t choose the songs, you know? My eldest son Steven went to Nashville, collaborated with Jay Landers who worked with me on the Barbra Streisand albums, and took the helm — courted country artists that I loved. With Dolly (Parton)? She and I have a longstanding friendship, but Alison Krauss. Miranda Lambert… My God. I’ve been fortunate. You can’t count on everybody. I’m delighted as to who said yes. Chris Stapleton wanted to do it but he had just come off the road.
Maybe next time. In terms of solo albums, there’s “Now Voyager.” You shelved “The Kid’s No Good,” and morphed “Moonlight Madness” into the soundtrack for “Hawkes.” Eventually, you did “In the Now” in 2016. Doing anything away from the Bee Gees — your brothers didn’t have a positive consensus on all that.
Robin did several albums and was intense about having a solo career in what was a naturally competitive spirit between us anyway, but yeah, it was all a bit of a jumble. If I wanted to do anything solo, somebody was always quick to throw up a boulder to stop that. They wanted the Bee Gees to be in the studio, not just one of us out there. There was the politics of the business too. Robin and I could have done more solo, but the work — the brand — of what the Bee Gees took precedence. My personal joy came with working with Streisand, Diana Ross, Dionne Warwick. That’s what led me to the new album. I love other people singing our songs. You work all your life to have artists of the caliber that fill “Greenfields” doing your material. We got it together in a month. I hope to God there’s a Volume 2 and 3. But, it’s always going to be country, and it’s always going to be Nashville. I’d like to see “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and “I Started a Joke” done in that vein. There’s a lot of country in those songs.
That’s where your heart is now.
Yeah. You know, you wander around this industry for years. You think one thing is right for you. Then you think that something else is next. This is where I’ve landed. And it’s right. See, I’m alone now as an artist. I can at least choose the thing that I want to do.
You’re alone now, and yet you have chosen duets for “Greenfields.” I’m no psychiatrist, but that seems as if you’re looking for something more communal, still.
That’s a fair observation, but this wasn’t supposed to be duets. The project was originally the people I admired the most singing our songs. Not me. It wasn’t my intention. With that, Dave Cobb and I were not always on the same page. Dave wanted duets. I wanted to let them sing and (myself) do a cameo, here or there. To me, that was more fun. In the end, however, everyone wanted to do a duet. I just fell in line, and was delighted to do so.
How did you hook up with Cobb?
Your vocals are still airy and beautiful. There’s also something there that’s heavier, rougher, more spectral… even spooky. How are you hearing your voice, and how it applies?
I’m not a kid, anymore. I still think my chops are there. I don’t use the falsetto as much as I enjoy doing, because there’s no purpose to that now. I’m happy to sing in a more natural voice now — the rest of it is all history. I do love Frankie Valli, Brian Wilson, the Stylistics, the Manhattans. But where my voice is now goes back to my youth. Bluegrass. Skiffle. There was always country music in our songs, the Bee Gees.
What was the toughest or most rewarding song to get through?
To be honest, “Rest Your Love on Me,” with Olivia (Newton John). She cut it years ago with Andy. Conway Twitty had a hit with it. I always wanted to do the song with her in the first place… When we got into the studio, she was instant. Same with Brandi (Carlile) and Alison (Krauss). Instant. Sheryl Crow. Instant. Two or three takes and it was there. Cobb wants the final vocal when you cut the track. He wants you to nail it when you’re doing it for the sake of spontaneity. I’m not used to working that way so that could be tough. I’ve spent two weeks at a time before this on a vocal. Not him. That’s exciting.
“The Words of a Fool,” a stirring solo track of yours from the ’80s, done here with Jason Isbell, is the best thing on “Greenfields,” but is probably the least known of your songs as it speaks of Christian faith with enormous potency.
I wrote that during a time of crisis with Robert Stigwood. Don’t remember all the details, but I used to sing it during soundchecks for our shows. I loved singing that song. I always promised myself that one day, I’d do it right. Doing it with Jason and Dave? That’s it now. It’s where they come from, and they relate to it immediately. There’s church in that song.
What was the process like, now, taking a “Jive Talkin’” and a “How Deep is Your Love,” and finding its malleability so to make them country?
That wasn’t a question for Little Big Town, or for Miranda Lambert. There was never a question if those songs fit or not. Remember, there’s a version of “Jive Talkin’” by Rufus and Chaka Khan that I’ve always loved as it is much slower than the Bee Gees version. I’ve always been charmed by that laid-back groove. Much more interesting. So, this time too, we slowed it down. Relaxed it. It didn’t have to be so neurotic. That said, the Bee Gees’ version was a real reaction to who we were. Look, you can’t always know what you’re doing exactly. Gut instincts count. Naiveté is important, much more than we think. The greatest thing about making music is that it all looks great, but you don’t know how it will wind up.
That’s got to be a poetic metaphor for something. Who did you like within the country/folk milieu of your early days?
The year we got to Australia, 1958, I loved the music of Bunny O’Keefe. You couldn’t follow him on stage. He really ripped it up. I loved Johnny Cash’s “Teenage Queen.” And the Everlys. They were a bluegrass family before they were a vocal duo. We were a folk group. Before that, we were a comedy trio. In Australia, we used to play working men’s clubs, returned solider clubs and hotels, and you had to have humor in your act.
Because everyone in the place was drinking.
Exactly. If you could cheer them up while they punched each other in the face — pretty typical of Australian clubs — you were OK. I’ve seen whole clubs erupt — the piano in the pool. The mess. Everything. It’s all going in the book, trust me.
So there’s an autobiography and at least two more volumes of Gibbsongs that you’ve alluded to, coming up. Producer Graham King from “Bohemian Rhapsody” is famously planning a musical biopic of you and your brothers. Where does that come in?
That’s confirmed, and in motion with a great team of people: Amblin, Paramount, Stacey Schneider and Graham King.
Who do you see playing you? Bradley Cooper’s name has been dropped here and there.
Oh, come on now. The suggestions you see online that are out there make me laugh, but they’re not made by me. Bradley Cooper? C’mon. I’m not that vain. I can’t imagine anybody right now. What I’m going to do is make sure that the true personalities of my brothers come through. I’ll work with the screenwriter to ensure that this is the Robin, Maurice and Andy you remember. They’ll figure me out, one way or another.