On the face of it, the notion of Barry Gibb releasing a country album seems peculiar. The Bee Gees were noted for their mastery of a variety of genres – from baroque 60s pop to disco – but country wasn’t among them. They did record country-flavoured tracks, but they’re largely on their least beloved album, 1970’s Cucumber Castle, and they’re certainly not among its meagre scattering of highlights. Even their 1983 collaboration with Kenny Rogers, Eyes That See in the Dark, tended more towards sounding, well, like the Bee Gees than the Rogers of The Gambler or Coward of the County.
Gibb recorded Greenfields in Nashville with Dave Cobb, a producer best known for his work with Jason Isbell as well as a host of artists called things like Whiskey Myers and Wheeler Walker Jr. While most of the track listing revisits the Bee Gees’ hits, you sometimes sense Gibb scrabbling in dusty corners for material that might fit the bill: Rest Your Love on Me is resurrected from the B-side of Too Much Heaven; Words of a Fool from an unreleased mid-80s demo; the gorgeous Butterfly is an outtake that dates back to their pre-fame years in Australia.
And yet, you understand why Gibb might be keen to undertake the endeavour. The sheer wattage of Nashville star power in the supporting cast – everyone from Keith Urban and Alison Krauss to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings – underlines the regard the Gibb brothers are held in by their fellow musicians, which is a never a bad thing. If the Bee Gees’ critical stock is higher than it was a couple of decades ago (when the Guardian’s response to the death of Maurice Gibb included, unbelievably, a piece by Rod Liddle about how terrible the Bee Gees were) it still isn’t as high as it should be.
Saying they’re among the greatest songwriters of their era is factually accurate but still feels weirdly transgressive, as if you’re defying perceived wisdom. You never see Odessa or Main Course or the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in lists of the 100 best albums ever, which is where they belong. It’s a state of affairs not much helped by the fact that recent covers of their work tend come from the naff end of the pop spectrum, suggesting that the naff end of the pop spectrum is where the Bee Gees’ influence has most purchase: it is more edifying to hear their work essayed by Brandi Carlile or Dolly Parton, whose breathy, quavering vocal on Words is a highlight, than Steps, Boyzone or – dear God – Paris Hilton.
There’s a value to recontextualising their biggest hits, which can’t help but be dulled by familiarity. If a take on Jive Talkin’ featuring Miranda Lambert and Jay Buchanan (frontman of regular Dave Cobb clients Rival Sons) doesn’t really work – the slowed tempo robbing the song of its euphoria – Krauss’s beautiful, stripped back version of Too Much Heaven is a perfect example, casting the song’s melodic richness in new light. Likewise, the reworking of Run to Me, which boasts a vocal by Carlile that’s far tougher and more assertive than Barry and Robin Gibb’s fragile 1972 delivery: it underlines the fact that only in a catalogue as thick with hits as the Bee Gees would a ballad this strong be relatively overlooked.
These versions could have strayed even further from the originals. In the past, Bee Gees songs have proved capable of travelling a vast distance intact – 1967’s To Love Somebody is presumably the only song in history to have been covered by Nina Simone, Tom Jones, Joe Strummer, Gram Parsons and Lee “Scratch” Perry. The arrangements here are subtly done and often beautiful, led by piano or acoustic guitar, the orchestrations muted; the pedal-steel-heavy Words of a Fool aside, they’re closer to country-inflected pop than country per se. You wonder about the results had Gibb and Cobb stripped them back even more, or hauled them into grittier Americana territory.
Keith Urban’s version of I’ve Gotta Get a Message to You is fine, but with its lyric about a convicted murderer facing his death sentence, lest we forget, it’s a song that would suit stark outlaw country. As mentioned, Butterfly is a far better song than its previous obscurity suggested – proof that Gibb’s songwriting ability was remarkably formed before he hopped on the boat back to Britain – and the Gillian Welch and David Rawlings-assisted take is great, but it’s intriguing to contemplate a version in the more austere style of the duo’s recent albums. Titling this album Volume 1 suggests Greenfields represents more than a one-off experiment: for all its strengths, there’s scope for Barry Gibb to develop this unlikely late-period diversion further.
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Another lockdown seems an appropriate time to revisit Nigerian singer Teni’s Quarantine Playlist EP: its opening track – weaving Auto-Tuned melodies, gentle rhythms and acoustic guitar – a sliver of spirit-lifting sunlight.