Despite recording fairly prolifically (36 sides cut for Mercury between 1946 and 1949) in the years immediately following World War II, Art Gibson is not widely remembered these days among the fans of vintage country music. Among hard-core collectors of the music of the 1940s-50s, however, he is highly revered, his recordings ardently collected , and celebrated as one of the most individual and infectious honky-tonk performers of the era. He’s cut mostly for Mercury (1946-49), and two single sessions later, one for the small Replica label in 1954, the other for Sunny during the 60s.
The high quality of his output aside, it isn’t surprising that Gibson is not better remembered these days for he kept a surprisingly low profile for most of his career. Other than a mid-40s photograph in the music mag The Mountain Broadcast and Prairie recorder, and a handful of very brief mentions in other music press of the era, he seems to have mostly operated under the radar, not courting much publicity, playing clubs and letting his music speak for itself. This low-key approach accounts, at least in part, for the fact that he didn’t become a bigger star, as it has proved a frustrating roadblock for any researcher hoping to build a fuller picture of his activities in his recording heyday and beyond. Much about Art Gibson’s career remains a mystery, and internet is mute about him. What is certain, however, is that he was a fine honky-tonk singer and songwriter, and that he left a compelling recorded legacy that deserves to be more widely heard.
He was born Chester Arthur Gibson in Langlade County in Northern Wisconsin to parents who hailed from Sandy Hook, Kentucky, an area that produced a lot of country music talent, including Keith Whitley. A brother, Orbie (later Arbie), who would also have a significant country music career – though even less in the limelight than Art – followed two years later. Their father Davy drowned in a hunting accident when Orbie was a baby, leaving mother Mary to raise the boys alone. Although she later remarried, the older boys never quite recovered and Art in particular struggled. He was, his son Bobby recalls, « a rowdy teen » and he wound up in reform school in Chilicothe, Ohio. « There, « Bobby continues, »Chester (as he was still known) made his own guitar and began to sing and make music. When he left the reformatory he changed his name to Art Gibson. Around the same time (during the Great Depression), Arbie also left home. He jumped rail cars all the way to Kentucky to stay with an uncle, and got to know some singing hobos along the way…and found his life’s calling in music. By the time Art was released from Chilicothe, brother Arbie was already active in the song writing business. »
Both brothers headed to what was then arguably the mecca of country music at the time, Chicago, home of the WLS National Barn Dance. While both would have ties to the Barn Dance in various ways over the years, they were at heart night-club performers rather than Barn Dance acts. But Arbie became close with Red Foley and others at WLS and in the early ’40s hit the jackpot via an association with Curt Massey of WLS’s popular Westerners. Not as big a name as his sister Louise was at this point, the multi-talented Curt – who played trumpet and was an influential western swing fiddler in addition to being an excellent vocalist – was propelled to stardom with the two sided hit, « The honey song » and « The gal’s don’t mean a thing », two songs co-written with Arbie. Arbie would later co-write many of Rex Allens early recordings and would co-write the classic « Letter have no arms » with Ernest Tubb. Not a recording artist, he would also become Chicago’s leading country music record retailer. It may have been Arbie’s association with Mercury records via Rex Allen, the Hometowners and others that brought his brother Art to the attention of the label.
Gibson cut his first session for the label around March 1946, with the approach and instrumentation setting the pattern for almost all the dates that followed. Gibson’s straightforward vocals backed by a small band that featured steel guitar and piano. Except for a 1947 session that featured a full band and may have been cut in North Dakota – the sound’s quality was far inferior to Gibson’s other sessions for the label – the steel, piano and rhythm backing was used on all subsequent Mercury sessions. Gibson wrote many of the songs he cut and also cut Artie’s « The wages of sin », which comprised half of his coupling with « I’m chekin’ out », a song originally cut by the Sunshine Boys in 1941 and credited to Jimmy Thomason, though Gibson got composer credit on this version. He would pen a follow-up, in 1949 (Thomason wrote his own follow-up in ’42 as wel, « Don’t check out on me »). There were ocasional love ballads, but far more rowdier, jukebox-friendly honky-tonkers like « I’m lookin’ high and low for my baby », from Gibson’s second session around June 1946 and « I ‘m a truck driving man » and « Honky tonk mama » from a Nashville session from 1947. This first Nashville date, from around the summer of ’47, featured Jerry Byrd on steel, long before the latter became a fixture on the Mercury sessions of Rex Allen and signed by the label himself. Gibson’s final marathon session of 1947 also features Byrd. The Nashville association also gave Gibson contacts for new material and he picked up a lot of stuff from Wally Fowler and others like « I‘m walking and talking to myself » and « Who’s that blonde ». One highlight of the final ’47 date before the Musician’s Union recording ban that would last all of 1948 was Gibson’s self-penned commentary « No more records ».
I’m lookin’ high and low for my baby download
Honky-tonk mama download
I’m a truck driving man download
Though Mercury would continue to mine earlier sessions for releases well after the ban ended, the label wasted no time in getting one of its most consistent acts back into the studio twice in the first few months of 1949. The steel is Byrd-like again, but so was much of the steel work heard on country records at the time. The quality of material and performance remained consistent, but sales must not have justified renewing Gibson’s contract and Mercury dropped him. Two sides from the small Replica label from 1954 that sound as if they were cut in Nashville, perhaps with Byrd again and Hank Garland on guitar, plus two sides on the equally small Sunny label, cut during the ’60s, do complete Gibson’s output.
Though he toured as far as Texas, Art Gibson was based in North Dakota for a substantial period and this relative isolation may explain why he didn’t become better known. But he also worked in Chicago for extended periods, where he owned several clubs, including The Cracked Barrel (in addition to owning Gibson Music in downtown Chicago, Arbie also owned his own Ringside Club). Married twice, he had ten children, including one from a relationship between marriages. However as son Bobby Turner recalls, « Hard-living, working, and drinking got the best of a wonderful, talented man on June 5, 1971. He died in a Chicago hospital of liver disease. » Art Gibson was only 59. He was buried where he’d come into the world, in Langlade county in Northern Wisconsin. Younger brother Arbie died in 1997.
I’m checkin’in download
Who’s that blonde download
Road of regret (Replica) download
Checking out (Sunny) download
No more records (Mercury 6375) download
from the notes of Kevin Coffey to BACM CD 289 « Art Gibson featuring the Mountain Melody Boys » (25 tracks). Courtesy David Barnes.
All sounds (Mercury, Replica) from Ronald Keppner’s collection. The Sunny sides do come from Allan Turner. A big thank you to them.