Sir Barry Gibb has a new number one album at the age of 74. He talks to Tim Roxborogh about the power of dreams, love and loss.
"You can't make dreams come true unless you try," says Sir Barry Gibb, sole surviving member of the Bee Gees.
He's been in the habit of making dreams come true ever since he and his brothers began performing together as kids, some 63 years ago in 1958.
Now his new album, Greenfields - The Gibb Brothers Songbook Vol.1 is another dream come true. This Nashville-recorded project of superstar country duets - his first solo number one LP in a remarkable, record-shattering career – has topped the UK album charts (having already reached the summit of Amazon's international best-sellers list on pre-orders alone).
On the phone from the waterfront Miami-mansion (next door neighbour, just casually, is 80s rockstar Phil Collins) that he's shared during Covid with his small tribe of five children, eight grandchildren, and Linda - his wife of 50 years - Gibb confesses to having his "mind blown by the success of this album". He "just can't figure it out", and he deflects credit to his label Capitol Records, as well as to the famous friends who've lent their voices to Greenfields.
And what friends they are. Keith Urban and Olivia Newton-John, modern Americana heavyweights like Jason Isbell and Brandi Carlile and A-listers like Dolly Parton, Sheryl Crow and Alison Krauss. Across 12 tracks, Gibb and his pals have reimagined classics from the vast catalogue of Barry, Robin and Maurice.
It's now 18 years since Maurice's death, at 53, drew an abrupt curtain on the incredible multi-decade phenomenon of the Bee Gees. As Gibb told me in 2012, "losing Maurice was a real shock because we lost him in two days. From being perfectly fine, no sign of illness, nothing."
His death devastated Gibb and Robin to such an extent they became estranged for a time, reconciling around 2009. When Robin then succumbed to colorectal cancer at 62 in 2012, Gibb was in the incomprehensible position of outliving all three of his younger brothers. The baby of the family, one-time teen idol Andy, died of a heart condition in 1988 just five days after his 30th birthday.
Those months after Robin's death were arguably the toughest period of Gibb's life, but he was ultimately saved from the depths of unshakeable grief by the woman who's been at his side almost from the beginning.
Just after Robin died, Gibb described Linda as "a tower of strength" who had "seen everything", the brothers went through; every high and every low. A former Miss Edinburgh, she's been with him since 1967 when they met on the set of Top Of The Pops, marrying in 1970. Without her love, he says, he doesn't know how he would have got through. "She will say, 'You know you've gotta get yourself together, you've gotta pull yourself out of this, you've gotta get into your music and you've gotta get back into what you were doing, no matter what.'"
The tragedies of the Gibb family can sometimes detract from the triumphs that saw them pen more than 20 songs that topped either the US or UK charts out of a total library estimated at well in excess of 1000. And though Gibb insists that "nobody really knows how many records we sold", the figure of 220 million units is the one most bandied about. That could well be conservative.
None of that - not the fame, nor the scarcely believable statistics like being the only songwriters to have five songs simultaneously in the US top 10 - really matters to him now. What matters most is that those songs live on, long after the last Gibb is no longer standing.
As he told me during a 2016 interview: "When all my brothers were gone, I started having very vivid dreams of all three of them with me, which was extremely rare [to all be together]. But they looked great! And at the end of my dream I'm thinking, 'You guys look great!' Cos that happens in dreams, I don't know what it is, but you think about everyone at a certain age".
With his siblings forever locked in time in reality and in his dreams, Gibb "can never come to terms" with the fact that he - the eldest - is the only brother remaining. It's for this reason he can't bring himself to see the highly acclaimed new documentary about the Bee Gees, How Can You Mend A Broken Heart?
"No, I can never watch that. I've seen bits of it in the very early stages. I honestly can't watch it with the idea that everyone in my family is gone, it's just not gonna happen for me… I lived through it, you know?"
He says he can still feel the presence of his brothers when he's on stage, a place he's longing to return to once Covid subsides. And he knows they'd all be so proud of the countrified reinvigoration of their songs on Greenfields.
Gibb describes himself as "a country freak", is something that may surprise fans who pigeonhole the Bee Gees in the late 70s disco era. But diehard Bee Gees-ologists know the Gibb brothers dabbled in everything from R&B, funk, soul, rock, blues, orchestral pop, and adult-contemporary balladry to Americana, folk, and yes, country.
This is, after all, the songwriting team behind the most-played country-crossover hit of all time, 1983's Islands In Stream by Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton. And 37 years later, Parton was only too happy repay the favour, helping Gibb out on Greenfields with a tender reworking of 1968's Words.
It's an obvious thrill to be working with Parton again, especially given Greenfields was recorded in the RCA studios in Nashville where so many pillars of American music made history. Gibb name-checks not just Parton but Elvis Presley, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.
"You know that when we were standing at that microphone, Dolly said to me, 'do you know where I'm standing is where I sang I Will Always Love You and where I did Jolene in one afternoon?' She said, 'I'm standing in exactly the same spot'. Wow! So it's that stuff that hits me; the atmosphere in that place".
How Gibb came to be in "that place" can be traced back a couple of years to when his eldest son Stephen presented him with an iPhone and a command to "listen to this, dad!" According to Stephen, a musician in his own right who's played guitar onstage with Gibb for years, he made his father listen to modern country and Americana songs by Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile and Sturgill Simpson. The impression this had on Gibb was not insignificant, to say the least.
"I just freaked out, I thought, that's amazing. And I said to Stephen, 'who's made these records? Who's producing these records?' And he said, 'Dave Cobb'."
With 47-year old, six-time Grammy-winning producer Cobb the connecting thread, an idea was born and Gibb despatched Stephen to Nashville to see which artists might be available for a collaboration project. According to Gibb, "gathering all these artists together was not easy, but it became easy. People just said yes". And from that initial iPhone listening session, Carlile and Isbell were recruited, Cobb was signed up as producer and the RCA studios were booked.
Once he landed in Nashville himself, Gibb made the point that, "nobody was asked to sing a certain song", preferring to let the artists choose works they naturally gravitated towards out of a broad list of possibles he'd given them. When it came to New Zealand-born Keith Urban, the song he felt most drawn to was the Bee Gees 1968 UK number one about a man on death row, I've Gotta' Get A Message To You.
"[Keith] grew up in Caboolture, not too far from Redcliffe, in Queensland [where the Gibbs lived]. So we have a lot in common; we grew up in the same environment. He's an amazing artist and an amazing guitarist. I didn't think I could get him but he said yes and even nicer than that, and more wonderful than that is that he brought Nicole with him. That was just mind-blowing for all of us because she'd just done Big Little Lies, so that was overwhelming having both of them there".
Given Urban has recently described this particular experience as trying to "act all cool around you, but good God, man! You're Barry Gibb!", the feeling was clearly mutual.
Australian artist Olivia Newton-John delivers a wonderfully lived-in vocal on Rest Your Love On Me. It's a piece of music she knows well having sung it with the youngest Gibb brother, Andy, in 1980. Gibb confesses to having "a really special spot in my heart" for Newton-John, "but then every guy I meet has the same spot!"
"She sailed to Australia on the Fairstar when she was 5 years old. We sailed to Australia on the Fairsea, the sister ship. We came back on the Fairsky and I think she flew back to England. I congratulated her yesterday on our album being number one and she sent a lovely text back. My text was 'we're alumni. We come from the same place, we made the same journeys, we made the same decisions, and we did not give up. We did not let anyone push us back'."
It's that relentless drive that's also spurring Gibb to work with artists half his age on Greenfields, like Grammy darlings Isbell and Carlile. Carlile's ethereal vocal on Run To Me has Gibb certain that "this lady is going to be legendary - I've never heard any lady sing quite like that".
But it's the album closer that brings things full circle. Alongside Words Of A Fool, Butterfly is Greenfields' deepest cut and is sung by Gibb with Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. Importantly, Butterfly's first line gives Greenfields its title: "Green fields where we used to wonder / purple valleys near my home".
"It was a quite a surprise to me when Gillian said, 'well we really want to do that song because we're purists and we're not keen on doing songs that are very famous; we'd rather do something that is basically unknown'. And it really did feel like the three of us singing, like the brothers. It was an incredible feeling."
Written when Barry, Robin and Maurice were still teenagers in Australia before they returned to England to conquer the world in 1967, the "green fields" of Butterfly have always represented a childhood in Queensland, but perhaps now they represent something else as well for Gibb; the bittersweet memories of shared youthful dreams that, despite the personal heartache, all came true.
As he says at the end of the How Can You Mend A Broken Heart documentary: "When I think about it now, I think about how it all sort of started. We just had this dream. And we thought, 'well, what do we want to be famous for?' It turns out it was the songwriting. And I think everything we set out to do, we did, against all odds."
Greenfields is intended to be the first volume in a trilogy of Bee Gees songs as recorded by country, folk and Americana artists. The documentary How Can You Mend A Broken Heart is currently streaming on Apple TV in New Zealand.