His influence runs deep, far and wide, as a performer and songwriter. His songs have been recorded by legends such as Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Kitty Wells, Emmylou Harris and Roy Orbison. Even Neil Young, an artist rarely associated with cover versions, made Gibson’s Oh Lonesome Me sound like one of his own on the AFTER THE GOLD RUSH album. His music touched on both traditional country and highly-produced country-pop, which is part of the reason he had such a broad audience.
Born in Shelby, North Carolina on April 3, 1928, he was a shy kid from a poor sharecropping family, who dropped out of school in second grade. He began playing guitar in his early teens and when a friend came home from Paris after World War II with records by the jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt, Gibson was captivated, and was experimenting with different styles by his mid-teens.
He began playing local radio stations and dances and in 1946, he became a regular with the Tennessee Barn Dance in Knoxville, but things weren’t what Gibson expected. The fans wanted old-time country, not Gibson’s brand of crooning. He hung on to the radio job but struggled on $30 a week earned playing beer joints. He helped form the Sons of the Soil, performing mainly songs popularised by the Sons of the Pioneers. They built up a regional following via live gigs and radio broadcasts and in 1949 were recording for Mercury.
In 1950, he assumed control of the band, renaming them Don Gibson & His King Cotton Kinfolks and switching their musical direction to honky-tonk. Although their sound was more focused, they remained unsuccessful. Gibson continued to perform on the radio, as well as at Esslinger’s Club in Tennessee. At the nightclub, Acuff-Rose’s Wesley Rose saw Gibson perform and offered him a writing contract. Gibson would only accept the deal if he was allowed to record. Rose managed to get Gibson a contract with Columbia, which proved unsuccessful.
Rose then moved his protégé over to MGM, and in 1956 Don Gibson scored his first hit with Sweet Dreams. The success was again short-lived, but recognising Gibson’s songwriting talent, Rose persisted. Faron Young covered Sweet Dreams, Kitty Wells recorded I Can’t Stop Loving You, resulting in Don being signed to RCA in 1957 by Chet Atkins, who would become his producer for the next seven years.
Working in the studio with Chet Atkins, they produced Oh Lonesome Me, his first pop-country smash of 1958 that became a worldwide success and now a country standard. A year before that big hit Gibson was living in an East Tennessee trailer park when, according to legend, he wrote Oh Lonesome Me and I Can’t Stop Loving You in one afternoon. A repo man had just picked up his vacuum cleaner and television when Don started strumming, exploring a swirl of words and melodies.
‘When I wrote those two songs, I couldn’t have been any closer to the bottom,’ he once said.
Both songs are now considered standards of American popular music, with I Can’t Stop Loving You having sold tens of millions of records from versions by artists including Gibson, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles. Gibson’s 1957 recording of Oh Lonesome Me for RCA was a landmark that helped usher in what became known as the ‘Nashville Sound.’ Gibson and Atkins developed a pop-friendly style which featured rock’n’roll flourishes that brought him to a larger audience.
In the wake of Oh Lonesome Me, Gibson became a member of the Grand Ole Opry. A string of hits followed, including: Don’t Tell Me Your Troubles, Just One Time, Lonesome Number One and Sea of Heartbreak. But Gibson derailed his own career with drug and alcohol problems, troubles that he would later acknowledge in interviews. He was considered something of a manic-depressive, which was reflected very much in the sad-tinged lyrics that he wrote—songs about romantic break-ups, heartbreak, loss, and unrequited love.
An astute musical innovator, Don Gibson experimented with differing styles of music whilst always retaining his country roots. When Ray Charles scored massive pop success with I Can’t Stop Loving You in 1962, and gave country songs an r&b twist on his MODERN SOUNDS IN COUNTRY MUSIC albums, Don Gibson looked at ways of bringing a white soul edge to country music. He pioneered a new country-soul styling with deep-felt, emotional versions of country classics like I Love You Because and Release Me gaining him even more artistic acclaim.
When the pop hits dried up in the early 1960s, he continued to dominate country music with biggies like I Can Mend Your Broken Heart, (Yes) I’m Hurting, Funny, Familiar, Forgotten Feelings, Woman (Sensuous Woman), Touch The Morning, and One Day At A Time right through to the mid-1970s. He teamed up with Dottie West for a series of duet hits, including Rings Of Gold and There’s A Story (Goin’ ’Round). In 1970 he joined Hickory Records (a subsidiary of his long-time publishers Acuff-Rose) and alongside solo hits, joined Sue Thompson on several duets. A shy, and somewhat private and reclusive man, Don Gibson always found it hard to accept the publicity and success of the music business. He could never be considered a dynamic stage performer; he believed that his voice and songs spoke for him. In the 1980s he faded from the scene completely and had hardly been seen in public for years.
Don Gibson passed away on November 17, 2003 at Nashville’s Baptist Hospital. He had been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, and his music has proved to be long lasting with new versions of his songs resurfacing on a regular basis. Sweet Dreams was revived by both Emmylou Harris and Reba McEntire, and then used as the title song for the Patsy Cline biopic in 1985, and has become one of the most performed songs of the past 50 years. The Glaser Brothers’ updated Just One Time, the Kentucky HeadHunters scored with Oh, Lonesome Me, Mandy Barnett cut a version of Give Myself A Party in 1999, and the list goes on and on.
It goes almost without saying that Don Gibson was one of the most popular and influential forces in 1950s and 1960s country music, scoring numerous hit singles as a performer and a songwriter. Had he only been a singer, his work would be well-remembered. Had he only been a songwriter, he would have ranked among Nashville’s most substantial song scribes. Had he only been a recording artist, he would have merited great praise from his own idols, including Eddy Arnold. The title of his 1960 song (I’d Be) A Legend In My Time rings true enough, but his legend should be secure for decades hence.
Don Gibson’s songs used plain language and riveting melodies to communicate strong emotions. He sang in a rich baritone and usually wrote about solitude and sadness involving love, earning him the nickname ‘the sad poet.’ “My songs are simple, and just about all of them are about love,” he once said. “I write about people, not things. I never had a lot of education, and I don’t feel easy with words. Most of the words to my songs are real simple. I just make them up to put to some tune on the guitar I’ve come up with. It’s the sound of the guitar that I’ve always been interested in.”
The Singer - The Songwriter 1946-1960
(Bear Family Box Set 1992)
The Singer - The Songwriter 1961-1966
(Bear Family Box Set 1993)
The Essential Don Gibson (RCA 1996)
Look Who’s Blue (Righteous Records 2011)