The awesomeness of this release has a definite air of inevitability. If Don Gibson wrote it, and Mandy Barnett and Alison Krauss sing it, it’s pretty hard to imagine it not being great.
Though Gibson’s 1958 hit version of the song belied the melancholy lyric with a brisk tempo and toe-tapping arrangement, Barnett recasts the song as gentle, brooding ballad. It’s a move that succeeds as a creative exercise as well as an effective treatment of a beautifully written song. Barnett puts a distinctly personal spin on the classic tune, making it a beautiful centerpiece to her must-have new album I Can’t Stop Loving You: Songs of Don Gibson.
The sparse, vintage-style arrangement is an ideal setting to showcase Barnett’s depth, control, and inimitable sense of presence as a vocalist. Alison Krauss’s background vocal imbues an added layer of longing to the performance, reaffirming her status as one of Nashville’s most reliable harmony singers.
The writer of several timeless country standards, Don Gibson put down his pen often enough to maintain a remarkable, decades-long career as a singer and performer.
His childhood was fraught with adversity. His railroad worker father died when he was just two years old, and his mother remarried a sharecropper. Gibson loathed the farm life, but also school, which he dropped out of after the second grade. Paralyzed with shyness and hindered by a speech impediment, his escapism was the music he heard on the radio.
As a teen, he learned guitar and modeled himself after other performers, paying the bills by hustling pool. His growing instrumental talent blossomed into a band. Formed in 1948, Sons of the Soil garnered enough attention to earn a spot on a popular radio show. It was there that Gibson’s individual talent shone through.
A Mercury Records producer heard them and issued four sides for them, but the band split up in 1949. After another stint in a band called the King Cotton Kinfolks, Gibson pursued a solo career. A deal with Columbia resulted in promising records, but no commercial success. Gibson focused on his songwriting, and honing his craft earned him a publishing deal with Acuff-Rose. He insisted in an accompanying recording contract, which he received from MGM Records.
After a long wait, the hits came fast. Over the course of the next few years, he wrote and recorded songs that are now synonymous with country music. “Sweet Dreams” was his first top ten hit, and later was immortalized by Patsy Cline. “Oh Lonesome Me” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” were a powerful two-sided hit on both the country and pop charts. While the former became Gibson’s signature song, the latter is now considered a Ray Charles classic. Meanwhile, “Just One Time” was a #2 hit two times. Gibson took it near the top in 1960, and Connie Smith revived it in 1971.
The hits slowed in the sixties and seventies, but still remained constant. He had a series of successful duets with Dottie West, most notably the #2 hit “Ring of Gold.” In 1972, he returned to #1 for the first time in fourteen years with “Woman (Sensuous Woman),” later covered by Mark Chesnutt. He spent much of the seventies collaborating with Sue Thompson, charting eleven songs together from 1971 to 1976.
From the eighties up until his death in 2003, Gibson remained an Opry performer and elder statesman of the genre. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2003, a nice bookend to his Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame induction back in 1971.
Rosanne Cash previews her collection of classic popular songs with a spin on the Don Gibson classic “Sea of Heartbreak.” The impact of Cash’s music usually depends on her incisive songwriting, but she’s had success in the past with well-chosen covers.
Her take on “Sea of Heartbreak” works because of her restrained delivery, with the light and floaty arrangement suggesting that these are calm waters. The undercurrent of grief reveals itself through the guest appearance of Bruce Springsteen. His ragged vocal provides a strong contrast to Cash’s sweet delivery.
The resulting record turns a song that all of us have heard countless times before into something new. That’s always the challenge that needs to be met when covering a standard, so this is a promising preview of Cash’s upcoming set.