Why the Everly Brothers Still Matter

The first thought that came to mind when word got out that Phil Everly had passed away Friday was just how long it's been since the Everly Brothers' harmonies topped the charts -- more than half a century now. The second was just how easy it is to spot their influence in a wealth of music right here in the 21st century. The more you learn about the duo's immense legacy, the more it feels like peeling an onion: an especially sweet onion, but one that could easily bring on a few tears.

The Kentucky-bred Everlys' most important innovation is simple, and just as profound: before Phil and his older brother Don (who survives him) hit it big in 1957 with "Bye Bye Love," rock and roll was dominated by solo acts: Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Elvis. Although the Everlys' close fraternal harmonies were commonplace in country music and bluegrass back then, they were unprecedented in rock and roll. But not for much longer: four of their most devoted disciples, one duo in New York City and another in Liverpool, were Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel and John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

"The Everly Brothers were the Beatles' Beatles," VH1's Bill Flanagan said yesterday on CBS Sunday Morning, explaining that even the late Dick Clark had once dismissed the Fab Four as mere Everly wannabes.

But the Everlys' success had bigger ramifications for the music business than just their musical influence. Like Elvis did when he left Sun for RCA, their decision to leave the small Nashville label Cadence records for Warner Bros. helped the latter gain a crucial foothold in the rock and roll market, and establish itself as something more than an outlet for movie soundtracks. Ironically, their success on Cadence also helped jump-start Nashville's fortunes as a music-business mecca as country struggled to hold onto its market in the face of rock and roll.

At the same time, Don and Phil were also helping break down the barriers between the two kinds of music, or at least consolidating the two into what quickly became known as country-rock. Both the Byrds and the Beach Boys employed intricate Everlyesque harmonies, while Gram Parsons reached back to 1961's A Date With the Everly Brothers for "Love Hurts" on 1974's Grievous Angel, an album that remains a cornerstone of "alternative country" (whatever that means). Linda Ronstadt had a major hit in 1975 with "When Will I Be Loved," reaching No. 1 country and No. 2 on the pop charts.

The brothers, who were among the first ten acts inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's inaugural class of 1986, were also among the first acts of the rock era to enjoy considerable success overseas (especially the UK) after their fortunes faded stateside. At the behest of their British fans, chiefly musician and bandleader Albert Lee, they chose London's Royal Albert Hall as the venue for their successful 1983 reunion, which was also among the first of its kind for early rock and roll acts. They originally went their separate ways in 1973, but afterward continued recording until 1989's Some Hearts and performing sporadically until the mid-2000s, including selected dates on Simon & Garfunkel's "Old Friends" reunion tour.

Besides the Beatles, the Hollies backed the duo on their 1966 album Two Yanks in England; Dire Straits mastermind Mark Knopfler was also a big fan, backing Phil on his solo 1983 LP Phil Everly. Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, two men revered by roots-rockers for their production talents as well as their brilliant power-pop (both solo and with their short-lived band Rockpile) cut a 1980 EP of four Everlys songs.

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More recently, Robert Plant and Allison Krauss' multiplatinum collaboration Raising Sand, which won the 2008 Grammy for Album of the Year, includes the Everlys' 1964 hit "Gone Gone Gone." When Tom Petty re-formed his pre-Heartbreakers band, Mudcrutch, about five years ago, the song that opens their eponymous "debut" album is "Shady Grove," an 18th-century folk song the Everlys covered on their acclaimed 1968 album Roots. (The version Don and Phil most likely knew best was either fellow Kentuckian Bill Monroe or the Darlings from The Andy Griffith Show.)

And not three months ago, Green Day's Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones -- two more Grammy winners who can claim two of the biggest-selling albums of the past decade and change in American Idiot and Come Away With Me, respectively -- released the tribute album Foreverly. A track by track cover of the brothers' 1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, it's full of gritty folk songs like "I'm Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail" and the ancient murder ballad "Barbara Allen." Released scarcely six months after the brothers became superstars with "Bye Bye Love" and "Wake Up, Little Susie," the album showed that pop idols could make decisions that confounded both critics and fans long before Justin Bieber peed in a bucket.

Though for much different reasons, obviously. Pa Everly, Ike, was a well-respected guitarist around Kentucky and Tennessee in the mid-1900s who associated with Mother Maybelle Carter and Chet Atkins, and had Phil and Don singing on his Iowa radio program as small children. Unsettling as such sweet-sounding voices may sound singing of murder and betrayal, those songs were by then second nature to the two brothers, who were then in their late teens and early twenties. Even then, they recognized the tradition they were upholding.

"Those songs go back quite a bit," Phil Everly told The New York Times shortly before Foreverly was released back in November. "They're real live songs about real things that were going on in people's lives."


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