Skip to main content

Musicians on Musicians: Barry Gibb & Jason Isbell

One of today’s most gifted songwriters talks to the Bee Gees legend about lyrics and the joy of making music with family: "I’ve known your music my whole life"
Alysse Gafkjen for Rolling Stone; Rose Marie Cromwell for Rolling Stone

L ast year, Jason Isbell came home to his wife and bandmate, Amanda Shires, and played her a duet he’d just recorded with Barry Gibb. “She said, ‘That’s the best I’ve heard you sing,'” Isbell says. “I said, ‘Well, I was singing with Barry Gibb. I had to do my absolute best.'”

Isbell may be a rootsy songwriter from Alabama, but he’s been a Bee Gees fan his entire life. The song he and Gibb recorded, “Words of a Fool,” appears on Gibb’s upcoming album, Greenfields: The Gibb Brothers Songbook, which features rerecordings of his catalog with artists including Brandi Carlile, Dolly Parton, and Alison Krauss. “I’ve always been a real freak on old country music,” Gibb says. “After the Bee Gees no longer existed, I drifted into my own bliss, which is this kind of music.”

“I was nervous, Barry,” Isbell says of their duet.

“My jaw was on the floor,” Gibb tells him. “You guys didn’t need to do this. The fact that you cared about those songs means everything to me.”

Isbell: I think you got your star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame a couple months after I was born, so I’ve known your music my whole life.

Gibb: Wow. I need to give you a little bit of input about our roots. We were an immigrant family who moved to Australia in 1958, and from then onwards, we heard so many records from America. Roy Orbison and Elvis…these were country stars, but they were also rock stars. George Jones, Dolly…these people had a radical influence on us.

Isbell: I have a question about that. The fact that you guys didn’t spend your formative years in England, do you think that made for a different mix? I don’t hear as much skiffle in what you were doing. It sounds like country music.

Gibb: We were inundated with American country music, and don’t forget: We went through that whole folk era as well.

Isbell: Totally. Songs like “Massachusetts” could be a country song.

Gibb: To us, they were. But we were just kids. We were still figuring out who we should be, what kind of music we loved the most. We loved every kind of music, so that’s why there are so many different styles, so many different insights in the songs that we wrote. Not that we knew that then. More than anything, I miss the romanticism. I miss beauty in a song.

Isbell: I think you guys were way ahead of your time, because you were making music that affected people in the same way that black R&B records did, but you didn’t sound like you were ripping off black artists. You sounded like yourselves. There’s something about that that I think a lot of people miss now. They try to make R&B music, or what they would call soul music, and they wind up sounding like a caricature of the music that they love. You guys didn’t do that. You sounded unique.

Gibb: It might have been perceived that way by certain people. But the truth is, the falsetto comes from the Delfonics and the Stylistics. It comes from all the different records where the falsetto was a feature. Brian Wilson, Frankie Valli. It became something that we didn’t fear anymore. I discovered it. I didn’t even know I could do that.

When it was time for change, Ahmet Ertegun rejected about three songs off the Main Course album in 1975. They were going to drop us, and he said, “You’ve got to kick it up. We can’t use these songs, they’re too sad.” So that’s where the change came, and [Atlantic Records producer] Arif Mardin, bless his heart, he was there at the time when we needed a man with his kind of insight. Fantastic influence on us. Arif taught me that music is something you see in your mind and in your heart, it’s not just something on the radio.

Isbell: Something I’ve noticed about your songs that I never had until the country album is the connection between the melodies that you write and the melodies that somebody like Jimmy Webb writes. Honestly, that’s the only other person that I could really compare you to melodically, because there’s a way that you do tension and release that I don’t understand it. I couldn’t do it if I tried.

Gibb: Some of our songs seemed simple, but they really weren’t. There was a lot of complexity.

Isbell: They were not. When you try to play them, they are not simple.

“The only other person that I could really compare you to melodically is Jimmy Webb,” says Isbell. “There’s a way that you do tension and release that I don’t understand. I couldn’t do it if I tried.”

Gibb: We had songs that didn’t work as well as songs that did, and we had to learn to keep our heads up even if things didn’t work out. “Boy, this one stiffed, back to the studio.”

Isbell: I know there was a period of time in the Seventies when you had to go back to playing smaller clubs before the second wave. How did you keep your head up? How did you stay busy and keep from letting it get the better of you?

Gibb: In a way, we knew we could sustain by just continuing to work and developing and not worrying about the moment that we were in. “Bad news, this record didn’t work out.” One of us might have said, “Well, I didn’t think it should be a single anyway.” Don’t forget, it’s three brothers — or four brothers if you like — and we never agreed on everything. So it was a great disappointment for some of us when things didn’t work out, and it was a great joy when things did. But then we all started having kids, we started raising families and that became more important than anything else. You can make music all your life, but you can’t be alone all your life.

Isbell: You got 50 years [married] coming up soon, don’t you?

Gibb: Last week. Go figure that one.

Isbell: How do you do that, being a rock star and a professional musician? What’s the secret to that?

Gibb: I don’t know. But I do think it’s humor and the ability to laugh at everything that makes things work out. We have five grownup children and eight grandchildren. What happens is that whatever you’re doing that works or doesn’t work, life is okay.

Isbell: You still go home to your family.

Gibb: I did a lot of that during the so-called backlash situation after Saturday Night Fever. Disappointing, there’s no question about that. There was pain. But you’ve got to pick yourself up and dust yourself off, and we learned how to do that.

Isbell: You guys made the blueprint for that. That was the first time that I know of that a group had gotten huge and then gotten blamed for it, for no good reason whatsoever.

“We started raising families and that became more important than anything else,” says Gibb. “You can make music all your life, but you can’t be alone all your life.”

Gibb: I never understood it. I’ve always had a problem criticizing anything that was a Number One record. Then people started putting us down, and I couldn’t say that about any artist that had six Number One records in a row. So we’d always go back into the studio and take another shot, take another shot. Then we got into programming, which was relatively boring. Then I fell back in love with real people playing real music.

Isbell: Things like loops and samples, I don’t think people realize how big the Bee Gees were for the way a lot of popular production is happening now. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack had the first loop I know of.

Gibb: “More Than a Woman” is the same drum loop as “Stayin’ Alive.” “Woman in Love,” same drum loop. We used it on different records, but I think there was some kind of obsession with accuracy. The groove had to be dead-on.

Isbell: There’s entire records and whole careers made with a drum loop that didn’t exist before you guys did it.

Gibb: I don’t know if you ever did this, but do you remember cutting a song and then towards the end of the song, you speed it up? We did that a lot.

Isbell: I miss those kinds of recording tricks. I read somewhere that on a couple albums, the Rolling Stones would bury the lead vocal, so people would have to go out and buy the songbooks to see what Mick was saying.

Lazy loaded image
The Bee Gees on the cover of the July 14th, 1977 issue of Rolling Stone. Photograph by Francesco Scavullo

Gibb: I miss the creativity that the Beatles gave to us. The idea that you can write about any subject whatsoever and make it work. You didn’t have to just write about love. They were playing with our heads and they were being incredibly creative, which is what triggered it all. It doesn’t surprise me that they only lasted 10 years. “Yellow Submarine,” come on. Where does that come from and why did it work?

Isbell: It still works. Every time I listen to it, my five-year-old daughter loves it just as much as I do.

Gibb: Never figured it out, but got to salute them. A group like that. It will never be them again.

Isbell: I wanted to ask you about your guitar playing style, because I had been a little familiar with it before we went in the studio together. The closest I could come to was Richie Hayward. Do you remember Richie Hayward?

Gibb: He sat in my house and played all night. 1968 maybe.

Isbell: There’s something about your guitar playing that reminds me of his, or the other way around.

Gibb: It’s a bigger sound.

Isbell: Fills in a lot of space. I know that obviously Joni Mitchell had a lot of her own tunings that she made up as she was going, and Stephen Stills did that. My friend David Crosby does it all the time, he’s still coming up with new tunes.

Gibb: I love them all. They were in the studio with us when we were doing the vocals to [1976’s] Children of the World. They just sat along the wall of the studio. In those days, there was no like, “You can’t come in here.” Everybody visited everybody. If you’re in a building with six studios, we had Lynyrd Skynyrd next door, we had the Eagles on the other side of the building, all making their own records, but nobody was restricted. You could go to any of those other studios and just sit and listen. You don’t see that anymore.

You guys both worked on extremely successful soundtracks to blockbuster movies, with Saturday Night Fever and A Star Is Born. What were those experiences like for you?

Isbell: Dave Cobb, again, put me in a situation that I was really lucky to be in. He was working with Mark Ronson and with Gaga and Lukas Nelson, and they were working on the music for that movie. Dave came to me and said, “I need you to write a song for this character, he needs a hit.” I said, “I’ve never written a hit before in my life, you’ve come to the wrong guy.” But then he explained the character and it wasn’t exactly the same as the Streisand/Kristofferson version, it was a little different. This guy was more of a folk singer.

So I took a song that I’d been working on for a while and I changed it up a little bit. Bradley Cooper sang it in the movie and I was worried, because nobody had ever heard Bradley sing before. He sent me his recording of it and I was just about to get on a flight, and I thought, “I don’t want to listen to this right now. If this is bad, I don’t want to have to call Bradley Cooper back, who is directing the movie and starring in it, and say, ‘Yeah, sorry. This is not going to work for me.’”

I got on the flight and I responded to him about four hours later, after I’d flown across the country. He did a lot of work, he took vocal lessons. He did a good job singing that song. I didn’t find out until the movie came out that was the moment that made him the most nervous. Somebody asked him in a panel, like, “What was the hardest part about making this movie?” He said, “Well, I sent Jason a copy of the song when I recorded it and he didn’t respond to me for like four hours, and I was sweating bullets the whole time.”

Gibb: It’s a great film and a great song. You should be proud.

Isbell: Well, thank you.

Gibb: Our story is we recorded those songs in Hérouville, outside Paris. The company was picking places for us to play where the taxes wouldn’t affect the company. So we were outside Paris in the Château — the Elton John album Honky Château, same place. It used to be an old brothel, believe it or not. It was a totally rundown building. The studio was amazing, but that was totally rundown too.

So we were in the worst possible circumstances, especially for making records. Then one of our drummer’s parents got very sick, so we didn’t have a drummer. So that’s where the desire for something that sounded like drums came from. So “Night Fever,” “More Than a Woman,” “Stayin’ Alive,” “If I Can’t Have You,” were written on the stairs of that building in the dark. “If I Can’t Have You” was really more about ABBA than us. We just wanted to write an ABBA song.

So that’s how those songs came about, we never saw the script. Nobody knew it was going to do what it did, nobody. Especially Robert [Stigwood], so I think it was a shock for all of us at the moment. A million copies a week.

Isbell: Wow. That was the biggest selling record of all time up until Thriller, right?

Gibb: As a soundtrack, but ultimately, we never knew how many records we sold. We didn’t know how to copyright a song. So it was really just, “Get on with the music.” God, I wish it was like that now.

Isbell: I wish so too, because I have to know all that shit all of the time.

Gibb: Now we’re living in a period where we can’t find a stage to play on.

Isbell: What have you been doing since the pandemic hit?

Gibb: Watching Netflix. Always watching Down from the Mountain. I watch it over and over again. I love the PBS stuff, the moments that were the Fifties and different periods of time.

Isbell: I do a lot of that too. I sit and play the guitar all day. If I have to, I’ll drag a Marshall [amp] to the front yard and play for the neighborhood, I’m getting there. I’m close to that point now.

Gibb: If I play, I’m playing for myself. If I like the song, I’ll applaud.

Isbell: It’s been reminding me more of the reason I started making music in the first place.

Gibb: Do you know the first gig we ever played publicly was a speedway? We talked the people there into letting us sing in the middle of the oval, between the races. We were on the back of a lorry with a microphone. The people threw coins onto the track. That was our first real audience.

Isbell: That sounds like something that very easily could have happened in Alabama, where I grew up.

Gibb: Once you have any kind of success, then it becomes a competition. I think it’s hard for groups. If you’re a family, you can make it last. If you’re not a family, things can fragment pretty quickly.

Isbell: I’ve definitely seen that. I was in a band for a long time where we had three songwriters and three singers, and it was tough. Ever since then, I feel like I do my best when I’m either being told what to do or if I’m making the decisions. But anything in between, I haven’t been all that good at.

Gibb: I’ve always written songs or recorded songs to please somebody, and I don’t know if that’s the same thing for you. I very rarely would write a song just to please myself.

Isbell: I think we all have that. Even if it’s some sort of amalgamation of different people in your life. My wife is the first person to see my songs. She’s got a master’s in poetry; she’s a great songwriter herself. So it’s a little scary. I don’t want to send her one until I think it’s pretty solid. It’s helpful, because she’ll come to me and she’ll say, “I think you could say this better. This is a cliché. That doesn’t rhyme exactly.” It’s hard. I will fight back. I’ll defend to the death some of my stupid lines, but it helps.

Gibb: Happens to me. If I’m sitting alone in a room and Linda walks through, she might make some offhanded comment like, “I think you can do better than that.”

Isbell: I think that’s the thing that impresses me about you the most: the fact that you are so committed to being a good human being. You have a family you’re close to, and you’ve not allowed your abilities to give you an excuse to act like a bad person. I appreciate that.

Gibb: You learn as you go. My feet never really left the ground. Once you’ve had a couple of failures, you realize that failure is always just around the corner. Success is a bit like walking on a sponge. You start to sink. Nothing lasts, no matter what you do. It doesn’t matter who you are. So you prepare yourself for the time when it’s fine to just watch TV or read. But I’m at that point in life where I’d love to be able to walk on another stage.

Isbell: Hopefully, one of these days we can go out and do that song together live.

Gibb: I’d love that, man.