Always It’s You: Why the Everly Brothers Still Matter

Dawn Mccarthy and Bonnie Prince Billy
What the Brothers Sang

This year sees the release of two albums that pay tribute to The Everly Brothers, an act that has long rested comfortably on the line between country and rock ‘n’ roll, and has proved to be one of the most influential acts in American music for over half a century, now. Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie “Prince” Billy pay tribute to the Everlys with What the Brothers Sang and The Chapin Sisters with A Date With the Everly Brothers, both of which brim with familiar––and sometimes less familiar––songs from Don and Phil. It seems like a fitting time for a new generation to meet the Everlys, a duo that is as easily important and influential as the Louvin Brothers.

The Everlys first performed with their parents as the Everly Family, which eventually brought them to the attention of Chet Atkins. The guitar legend helped land them their first recording contract––a brief and unprofitable stay at Columbia. The relationship soured fast but the still teenaged brothers landed on their feet––they found a publishing deal with Acuff-Rose and in short order a recording contract with Cadence Records. There, they heard “Bye Bye Love”––written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant––which they believed was a hit, no matter that a number of artists had already passed over the song. It quickly became a No.2 hit for the Everlys.

Not only was it the first of many hits the pair would have but the first of many they would record that had been written by either Felice and Boudleaux (1957’s “Wake Up Little Susie”, 1958’s “Bird Dog”) or by Boudleaux on his own (1960’s “Love Hurts”). By 1960 the Everlys had moved to Warner Bros. and pursued a sound that could increasingly be described as pop, although their close vocal harmonies and penchant for writing or performing well-crafted ballads meant that those country roots were never too far from anyone’s mind.

Their popularity was also at a peak in the UK, and by the time the Beatles arrived on these shores, Don and Phil had scored nearly 20 hit singles across the pond. But by that point their popularity had pretty much run its course in the US. They became embroiled in legal battles with their publisher and management and, as so often happens in the realm of pop music, they watched many of the bands they had influenced––including The Beatles––supplant them in the public’s interest.

The 1966 album Two Yanks In England saw them backed by The Hollies and even recording a batch of tunes that the younger group had composed. Some saw this as a cash-in on the British Invasion while others didn’t see it at all. The record stiffed on both sides of the pond despite it being an artistic success––an imaginative pairing that accentuated the duo’s vocal nuances and the writing talents of Graham Nash and Co. There had also been flirtations with soul (Rock ‘N Soul and Beat & Soul, both 1965) and blues (their take on Jimmy Reed’s “Ain’t That Lovin’ You Baby”), which demonstrated that the Everlys could not easily be pigeonholed.

Within two years of Two Yanks Don and Phil released Roots, a return to theirs in country and the first in a series of albums they would release over the next five years that saw them yo-yo between greatness and fading glory.

Roots opens with a 1952 recording of the Everly Family and for roughly one half hour we’re treated to those superb voices working their way through material by writers such as Randy Newman (“Illinois”), Merle Haggard (“Mama Tried”, “Sing Me Back Home”), and Jimmie Rodgers (“Blue Yodel No.1 (T For Texas)”). Not only do these seem like songs tailor made for the Brothers, but also the performances are also superb reminders––once more––of their unmistakable harmonies and their honesty. Even in their darkest moments one can never accuse the Everlys of sounding disingenuous or detached.

As good as Roots was, lightning didn’t strike twice––1972’s Stories We Could Tell is the sound of an act struggling with the contemporary. The material is hit and miss––Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind” is remarkable, Delaney and Bonnie’s “All We Really Want to Do” is less so. The real victories of the record, though, are the originals––“Green River” from Phil and Don and Phil’s co-write with Terry Slater “Up in Mabel’s Room”. Producer Paul Rothchild, who’d previously worked with the Doors, seems at odds with the country environment and his production often adds broad strokes where smaller, more delicate ones would do.

A second attempt to revitalize their roots, Pass the Chicken & Listen (also 1972) saw them unite with their old friend and mentor Chet Atkins and find material they seemed more naturally suited for––Mickey Newbury’s “Sweet Memories”, Roger Miller’s “Husbands and Wives”, Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” and, finally, John Prine’s “Paradise”, they simply own. But not even artistic redemption could prevent the inevitable––worn out from years of touring, battles with drug addiction, and continued commercial decline, the Everlys called it a day in 1973.

In their absence a number of artists began recording songs associated with the Everlys. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band covered “All I Have to Do Is Dream” in the mid-1970s, Carly Simon and James Taylor revamped the 1958 hit “Devoted to You”, and Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons were among the many who took on “Love Hurts”. Their inspiration could be heard in original works by a younger generation as well––“New Kid in Town”, a 1976 hit for the Eagles, could have easily been a Don and Phil song. There was an innocence to the lyrics and a melancholy in the melody that belonged to an era that could not have birthed the jaundiced views heard elsewhere on Hotel California.

After a decade apart the Everlys reunited at the urging of guitarist Albert Lee. That was followed by a live album which led to the studio record EB ‘84 which featured a track penned by Paul McCartney and production from Dave Edmunds. The Brothers also sang on Paul Simon’s Graceland––fitting as Simon was never shy about mentioning the influence the Brothers had on he and Art Garfunkel. There were a series of moderately received studio albums for the remainder of that decade but nothing since that has served as an Everlys renaissance.

What the Brothers Sang from Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie “Prince” Billy seems bound to introduce a new generation of listeners to the Brothers or, at the very least, send that generation into deeper listening. McCarthy and her partner have chosen the material wisely. By selecting deeper cuts––and a few of these require some mining––the pair have circumnavigated immediate comparisons to the Phil and Don. The unique approach on their record––the pairing of male and female voice rather than familial harmony––might not have withstood “Love Hurts” or “Wake Up Little Susie”.

They’ve also revealed just how many fine songs the Brothers sang.

“Milk Train” seems ephemeral at first listen but there’s a sweetness and a sentiment that places it on par with tracks such as “What Am I Living For?”, which initially appeared on Beat and Soul, and the emotionally complex “Omaha”, which Don recorded for his self-titled 1970 solo album for the Ode label. It, like, “Empty Boxes”, another highlight from the McCarthy/BPB record, also appeared on the 1977 compilation The New Album, one of many superior songs that didn’t make it to a proper album or capture a wide audience.

There are nods to the importance of family ties, namely John Denver’s “Poems, Prayers and Promises” which joined “Milk Train” on the 1994 Rhino box set Heartaches and Harmonies––itself a real treasure for anyone seeking to know the Brothers better. McCarthy and her partner also take on the Goffin/King tune “Just What I Was Looking For Today”, which sounds like a pre-country rock Byrds number and an acknowledgment of the many diverse settings Phil and Don found themselves in. The 1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is represented via “Kentucky”, which could first be heard alongside “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet?” and “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”.

The Chapin Sisters––Abigail and Lily––have selected some of the more familiar for their album A Date With the Everly Brothers but their record is no less rich, no less interesting for it. Their harmonies render “Sleepless Nights” and “Love Hurts” all the more haunting. Their versions of “Cathy’s Clown” and “When Will I Be Loved” are both faithful and refreshing and “Dream” and Some Sweet Day” sound positively new. More than that it’s good to hear songs express subjects in the simple and pure terms that “Till I Kissed You” and many of the others songs on A Date do.

And maybe that’s the real joy of the Everlys––not the many phases the duo went through, not the many hits or misses they had, and not the image of them together in eternal fraternal harmonies but, instead, the idea that there was still innocence, purity, and closeness in the world. Illusion or not it gave and gives us something with which we can light our dark nights with over and over as long as the music remains alive.