It could easily be argued that without The Everly Brothers, the history of rock & roll would be vastly different. When Don’s baritone and Phil’s tenor were combined in their unique, close harmony singing style, it provided an enormous influence on the vocals of Lennon and McCartney, Simon and Garfunkel, and countless others. Don’s open-G guitar tuning inspired no less a musical dignitary than Keith Richards, among others.
Their talents translated to the Billboard charts as well. “Wake Up Little Susie,” released in 1957, ascended to #1 on the Country, Pop, R&B, and Canadian charts, as well as #2 on the UK charts. Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, the Cadence Records songwriting team, wrote the track while the brothers were on the Nashville-based label. In the late ’50s, under the stewardship of music publishing house Acuff-Rose, the brothers would enjoy chart success with more Bryant-penned hits on Cadence like “Bird Dog,” “All I Have To Do Is Dream,” and “Devoted To You.”
However, feeling stifled by Rose’s demands, the brothers left for what they thought were greener pastures at Warner Bros. in 1960. Although they were no longer privy to Bryant compositions, Don’s composition “Cathy’s Clown,” released in 1960, reached #1. The brothers would enjoy success in the UK through the early part of the decade, but their appearances on US charts began to diminish. One-digit chart hits turned to three-digit ones and soon ceased altogether. By the time the Beatles were breaking chart records in 1964, the Everlys’ biggest successes were behind them, with the exception of their #2 UK hit “The Price of Love” in 1965.
The singles-based musical economy of the time meant that radio and incessant touring were part of the daily grind; this had begun to take its toll not long after the brothers left Cadence for Warner Bros. Drug addictions, suicide attempts, nervous breakdowns, broken marriages, and estranged children eventually dampened much of the youthful exuberance of the Everlys, who had been performing music nearly since birth, under the tutelage of their father, Ike. (The senior Everly had his own radio show in Iowa—on which his sons appeared—and his fingerpicking guitar style fostered a big influence of its own.)
Tensions escalated to a boiling point, culminating in a notorious alcohol-fueled spat during a 1973 Knott’s Berry Farm concert in which an enraged Phil smashed his guitar and stormed offstage, leaving a shattered Don to sober up and finish the set solo. It would be ten years before the brothers would even speak to each other, much less record or play together. They eventually made up, playing a reunion show at the Royal Albert Hall in 1983 and releasing two critically acclaimed albums later that decade, even continuing to tour together throughout the next two decades. Though their relationship remained cordial and at times, strained, the incandescence of their musical partnership has never dimmed.
Now to the present day, and a different pair of singers and musicians: Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie “Prince” Billy (a.k.a. Will Oldham). The duo, who have performed together and separately, enlisted the help of an impressive array of their own former collaborators as well as much-respected Nashville session musicians to create What The Brothers Sang, a tribute album to the Everly Brothers.
Unlike most tribute albums, McCarthy and Billy didn’t rely on the greatest hits, but have instead selected a variety of tunes which showcase the many facets of what made the Everly Brothers such a significant and indelible chapter to the history of American music. Listening to What The Brothers Sang is not only a trip through the Everly Brothers’ past, but also a look at the history of great American songwriters.
The album opens with “Breakdown,” a Kris Kristofferson song that appeared on his second solo album, 1971’s The Silver Tongued Devil and I (which also happens to be the album Robert DeNiro buys for Cybill Shepherd in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver). It’s a beautiful tune, notable for Kristofferson’s blunt, observational lyrics. McCarthy and Billy’s cover is also beautiful and pretty faithful to the Everlys’ wonderful interpretation, which was released on 1971’s Stories We Tell album.
“Empty Boxes,” written by Ron Elliott of the Beau Brummels, was on The New Album, a 1977 UK-only disc containing previously unreleased tracks that the brothers had recorded for Warner Brothers in the ’60s. It’s a spare, lovely song and this new version adds some mandolin and flute to give it an even more pensive quality.
No doubt the inclusion of “Milk Train” will be a delight to fans of the Everly version. Written by Tony Romeo—responsible for hits like The Cowsills’ “Indian Lake” and “I Think I Love You” by The Partridge Family—its somewhat sad lyrics are belied by the sprightly music. It didn’t chart high in 1968 and was eventually included on the 1994 Heartaches and Harmonies compilation album. On What The Brothers Sang, the added accordion imparts a zydeco quality that is most enjoyable.
The 1958 Art Harris/Fred Jay “What Am I Living For” has been covered by many, including Conway Twitty, The Animals, Ray Charles, The Band, and Van Morrison. The Everlys’ version is quite bluesy, with a harmonica and piano, while McCarthy and Billy’s take includes fiddle, Hammond organ, and a wah wah guitar solo that combine to sound authentically country.
The haunting, magical “My Little Yellow Bird” was written by Don and appeared as the B-side to their “Carolina in My Mind” single. It would be difficult to improve upon what is already an outstanding song, but the What The Brothers Sang version does an impressive job, and the added flute adds a noticeable wistfulness.
One of the few big hits to appear on What The Brothers Sang is “Devoted To You,” a Bryant composition from 1958, a B-side (to the also-huge hit “Bird Dog”) that still managed to crack the Top Ten in the US and Canada (not to mention #25 in Australia). The Everly original is pure ’50s single sweetness, epitomizing what made music fans fall in love with the brothers in the first place. Yet McCarthy and Billy have approached the song from a different angle, with that ever-present flute, some pedal steel, and violin, even slowing things down and modernizing the song considerably in a loving homage to the charming naiveté of the original.
“Somebody Help Me,” the Jackie Edwards-penned 1966 #1 hit for the Spencer Davis Group, was included on the Everlys’ 1966 album Two Yanks In England, and unfortunately failed to chart, despite the inclusion of some contemporaneous fuzz guitar and rousing vocals. Again, McCarthy and Billy’s interpretation is delightful, sounding as akin to The Continental Drifters as to the Everly Brothers.
Another stunning Don Everly-written tune, “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad)” from It’s Everly Time, was a 1960 single that charted at #7 in the US. This cover slows things down, punctuating the song with pedal steel and allowing its country origins to shine.
Don Everly also wrote the should’ve-been-a-hit “Omaha,” which unfortunately only appeared on ’77’s The New Album and Don’s self-titled 1970 album. McCarthy and Billy wisely refrain from changing much, and the result is breathtaking.
Perhaps the most exquisite of all the songs that appear on What The Brothers Sang is “It’s All Over.” The original featured a rare lead vocal from Phil as well as harpsichord. As close to perfect as one could hope to attain in song form, it was included on In Our Image from 1966. Remarkably, McCarthy and Billy have included orchestral instruments (cello, violin) and pedal steel, which render their version almost as striking as the original, only adding in one more repeat of the “it’s all over” line at the end to maximize what is already a devastating rumination on heartbreak.
John Denver started releasing music in 1966, but saw his first hit with “Take Me Home, Country Roads” in 1971, the same year that produced “Poems, Prayers, and Promises,” which showed up on the Everlys’ much-loved Heartaches and Harmonies compilation. While their version is just vocals and guitar, What The Brothers Sang includes some mandolin and subtle accordion, but still retains the feeling of a fond look at the past and hopes for the future that the Everlys conveyed so well.
The Everlys performed and released dozens of songs in their career, and performed the compositions of many hit making songwriters, but their version of “You’re Just What I Was Looking For Today” by Gerry Goffin and Carole King is one of my favorites represented on this album. Their original includes prominent bass lines, a Hammond organ, and amazing delayed harmonies that are almost Beatle-esque in their beauty. Why this song wasn’t a hit is mind-boggling, since it could have easily stood its own against what The Cowsills were doing around the same time. Here, McCarthy and Billy take down the tempo but preserve the insanely lush harmonies so that it sounds more like a ballad.
What The Brothers Sang ends with a nod to the Kentucky origins of Don and Phil Everly with “Kentucky,” the most traditionally Country song on the album, written by Karl Davis, a prominent figure in Country during the ’30s and ’40s. The brothers’ restrained 1958 version had little instrumentation and relied mostly on their harmonies, but on What The Brothers Sang, the track includes some accordion and subtle guitar and is the better for it.
For those who haven’t yet discovered the joys of the Everly Brothers, What The Brothers Sang is a revelation. Dawn McCarthy, Bonnie “Prince” Billy, and the accomplished musicians who appear on the album have created a magnificent and respectful, yet fresh and invigorating, peek inside the Everly Brothers’ massive catalogue of music. Although at times McCarthy is remarkably adept at channeling Phil Everly’s tenor, neither she nor Billy sound particularly similar to either of the brothers, but this is a gift and not a liability. For those who would like to listen to something that nods towards early rock & roll, folk, country, and roots rock, What The Brothers Sang receives my highest and most sincere recommendation.
What The Brothers Sang is out today from Drag City and is available to order from the label’s website. Dawn McCarthy can be found online through Faun Fables while Bonnie “Prince” Billy has his own website. To find out more on the Everly Brothers, please check out their family-run official website.