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Harmony, Kentucky Style
Reflections on Don and Phil Everly and 1968's Roots
I remember when Phil Everly passed at the beginning of 2014 that any reporter who decided to come calling on Art Garfunkel to get a comment was subjected to a test. Garfunkel held up a photo of Don and Phil. Only those able to properly identify each of the Everly Brothers would be able to get a quote from the singer.
The Everlys were among a select group of musicians from the first rock-and-roll explosion of the 1950s whose influence, reach and legacy are beyond question. With Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Sam Cooke and Ray Charles, they collectively fused elements of country, folk, blues and gospel to create something entirely new that remains ever fresh, bold and exciting.
And now with the news of Don Everly’s death on August 21, only Jerry Lee remains.
Among the music I was raised on was the sounds of the Everly Brothers. Songs like ‘Problems,’ ‘Bird Dog,’ ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ and ‘All I Have to Do is Dream’ wafted out of my father’s turntable and into my heart and soul. That I have been a lifelong lover of harmony is at least partly because of hearing those records at a young age.
The fusing of Don and Phil’s voices—Don taking the lower harmony, Phil on top—made the two sound like one. Even so, there were still two individuals at play here. Perhaps that was the point that Garfunkel, who knows a thing or two about musical duos, was making: that in our mythologizing of the Everly Brothers, who was Don and who was Phil, who was singing what, even how we place one name before another became immaterial and it isn’t.
From the breakout success of ‘Bye, Bye Love’ in 1957 until ‘That’s Old Fashioned (That’s the Way Love Should Be)’ in 1962, the Everlys were a dominant force. Then, like many of their contemporaries, they found their place in the musical pecking order superseded by the avalanche started by the Beatles, who were among the countless musicians indebted to Don and Phil.
As the sixties progressed, the Everlys’ music rarely made the charts anymore—they had their last visit to the top 40 with 1967’s ‘Bowling Green,’ a wonderful piece of almost-baroque pop saluting Kentucky (Native son Don born in Muhlenberg County. Phil in Chicago.)—but it remained interesting and memorable. A chief example is 1968’s Roots on Warner Bros. Records.
An album that both looks back as well as forward, Roots intersperses snippets of their father Ike Everly’s radio show, in which dad, mom (Margaret) and young sons appeared as the Everly Family in the forties and early-fifties. These flashbacks contrast with the album’s feel of baroque pop, flashes of psychedelia and the beginnings of the fusion of country and rock.
Roots was recorded during a very fertile time in the history of Warner Bros. Records in which the label was churning out some of the most innovative pop music in the marketplace, an opportunity afforded at least in part by the label’s signing of the Everlys in 1960, which helped establish Warner Bros. as a major player in the record market. Lenny Waronker produced. Ron Elliott of the Beau Brummels served as co-arranger with Don and Phil and contributed two songs with Randy Newman contributing one.
After travelling back to 1952 for the first of several of radio flashbacks, we are immediately cast into 1968 with a driving version of Merle Haggard’s ‘Mama Tried.’ Like Haggard’s legendary recording, the dobro (likely played by James Burton as it is on Haggard’s version) plays a lead role but the Everlys’ version favours a far more insistent beat as well as a prominent role for steel guitar, which seems to approximate the sorrow when an offspring realizes he or she has failed to live up to the hopes and examples of the parent.
The vocal by Don and Phil shows the impact that time and wisdom has imparted to them. Their sound is no longer as bright and youthful as it was. It’s quieter, softer, wistful even. This approach also elevates the following track, Glen Campbell’s ‘Less of Me,’ from merely a song into a prayer or psalm. Here, the harmonic blend that Don and Phil achieve is way closer than their usual approach—some have suggested that it is a nod to another pioneering effort in country-rock, the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
An ever more direct contrast to illustrate the Everly Brothers’ evolution is in their re-recording of ‘I Wonder If I Care as Much’ which they wrote and initially recorded as the B-side to their breakout single ‘Bye, Bye Love.’ Segued directly from their hopped-up cover of Jimmie Rodgers’ foundational ‘T for Texas,’ the first sound heard is a psychedelic-twinged fuzz guitar that sets up Don and Phil to slowly and intimately sing the song’s first verse. After another fuzz guitar break, the Everlys continue to sing behind a finger-picked acoustic guitar, a strummed electric bass and vague colourations from the fuzz guitar which all slowly fade into silence. It feels like a funeral wake in the midst of a psychedelic light show and light years removed from the dancing waltz of the original version.
To my ears, Ron Elliott’s ‘Ventura Boulevard’ is one of the most evocative songs ever written that recalls the particular melancholia that marks the end of summer. Using the tropes of baroque pop and an aching string arrangement by Nick DeCaro, another musician whose fingerprints are all over the late-sixties Warner Bros. sound, Don and Phil’s vocal latches directly onto the mood that the song lyrics create, capturing the nostalgic reflection of a summer date that included a dime ice cream where “she had the good time she wanted.” It is one of the unquestioned highlights of Roots.
’Shady Grove’’s dancing two-step rhythm which evolves into another travel back into time to father Ike’s radio show ends side one. Turn the record over and you are greeted by the sound of Randy Newman’s piano ushering in his ‘Illinois.’ As an Everly Brothers fan as well as one of Randy Newman’s, the fact that a song exists in which they collaborate with each other is cause for rejoicing. That it’s pretty marvellous is icing on the cake. Newman provides sensitive accompaniment to Don and Phil’s vocal. There’s true simpatico between the three.
Don Everly alone sings ‘Living Too Close to the Ground,’ which includes quirky sonic textures such as what appears like an accordian as well as heavily processed steel guitar and deeply ethereal backing vocals. The haze of the tune abruptly shifts to another visit to the Everlys’ radio past and then ‘You Done Me Wrong,’ an country tune jointly credited to George Jones and Ray Price and recorded by both. The version here retains the song’s waltz time in a rather demented fashion including carnival sounds, woozy brass and harmonica. Honky tonk, 1968 style.
‘Turn Around’ returns the Everly Brothers to the pen of Ron Elliott and the emerging world of country-rock. Where Elliott’s ‘Ventura Boulevard’ implicitly evokes the end of summer, ‘Turn Around’ is explicit. It features an arrangement tailor made for the Everlys and an earworm-quality hook in which the band drops out and all that is left is Nick DeCaro’s strings as Don and Phil stretch out the last word of the chorus. Compare this version to the one Elliott recorded on the Beau Brummels’ Bradley’s Barn. The Brummels’ lead singer Sal Valentino, as great as he is, simply does not dig into the song the way the Everlys do.
As much as the Everly Brothers look ahead with Roots, the album did not permit them to leave the halcyon days and songs of the late-fifties or early-sixties behind. The past remained and as Roots heads to its conclusion, that past brings us back to where it all began for Don and Phil. Home. Kentucky.
But first, we must travel to get there. For the Death Row prisoner in Merle Haggard’s ‘Sing Me Back Home,’ which receives a powerful, mournful cover by the Everlys, it means being sung a song of home before he meets his inevitable end. That song may well be the spiritual ‘The Old Rugged Cross,’ which father Ike and mother Margaret get ready to sing in the radio clip that introduces the song.
Once ‘Sing Me Back Home’ concludes, we have a final montage: one more radio clip, a reprise of ‘Shady Grove’ that feels almost like a hallucination before we finally reach home in Kentucky.
As I pulled out Roots to listen on the morning after Don Everly passed, I was deeply struck by the chorus of ‘Sing Me Back Home.’ It seemed as me that as Don was singing it with Phil, he was reaching through the years to offer a final wish.
“Sing me back home, the song my mama sang
Make my old memories come alive
Take me away and turn back the years
Sing me back home before I die”
The history of the Everly Brothers was full of the many trials that can beset brothers, whether or not they work together, make music together or are separated by miles upon miles—either physical, mental or both. For ten years, Don and Phil did not speak to each other. A reunion did not fully heal all the wounds. And now both Everly Brothers are gone.
Their music will endure—that is certain—but the sentiment feels trite when processing the loss that is incurred when another of our heroes has passed on (and just this lunch hour came the news of Charlie Watts’ death). But the music helps. I hear Don and Phil in my mind singing the chorus of ‘Bowling Green’ and it feels sad to me but it seems to sums up why the Everlys are important.
“Kentucky sunshine makes the heart unfold
It warms the body and I know it touches the soul
Bluegrass is fine
Kentucky owns my mind”
Thank you Don. Thank you Phil.