The Everly Brothers brought harmony to rock and roll. They also brought sensitivity, the result of their having been weaned on old-time country music. They were the end of one line and beginning of another. They were also hugely influential, and everything they gave to rock was positive.
In the Sixties, the Everly Brothers lost touch with their audience and with their art, recording a dozen listless albums for Warner Bros. They were descending inevitably to the level of self-parody, and they finally became little more than a stale, lifeless night club act. Then, in 1968, under the sensitive guidance of producer Andy Wickham, Don and Phil made a surprising and complete return to their former artistic prowess, making Roots, their best album. The Everlies chose to turn to their pre-rock and roll backgrounds, and the perspective this gave them refurbished their skills. They became sharp on-stage again, and they began to overhaul and update themselves. Stories We Could Tell is the first recorded attempt at modernization; although it’s only partially successful, it demonstrates clearly that Don and Phil are not forever trapped in their own pasts.
Their brilliance comes across most audibly on Kris Kristofferson’s “Breakdown,” a lovely, melancholy song they do in pure oldfashioned country style. The title song, though not quite as good a song as “Breakdown,” is done just as simply and just as well by the Everly Brothers and a small, unobtrusive backing group. The understated country feeling is carried through on two well written songs by Dennis Linde, “Christmas Eve Can Kill You” and “Ridin’ High,” and on Don’s autobiographical “I’m Tired of Singing My Song in Las Vegas.”
Those five songs are the album. The other seven fail to do justice to the Everlies, and the failures fall into three categories. First, the weak songs: “Three-Armed, Poker-Playin’ River Rat,” “Del Rio Dan,” “Up in Mabel’s Room,” and “Green River”, these last two written by the Everlies. “… River Rat,” another Linde song, and “Del Rio Dan” were strange choices, both without substance and sounding like filler cuts. It’s harder to fault the inclusion of their own material, but still it doesn’t come off. “Mabel’s Room” is silly and trite, and “Green River,” with a basic formlessness but rather nice sentimental lyrics, is given an oddly splayed out, altogether senseless treatment by producer Paul Rothschild.
“Green River’s” staccato bottleneck and pedal steel parts, and its overtracked howling “aaaahhhh” chorus indicate the second problem spot, that of inappropriate production. Not only “Green River,” but also Delaney & Bonnie’s “All We Really Want to Do” and Rod Stewart’s “Mandolin Wind” fall prey to flawed treatments. It might have seemed like a good idea at the time to have the Everlies and Delaney & Bonnie singing together, but D&B wind up getting in the way and obscuring the nuances of the Everlies’ magnificently complete two-part harmonies. All those busy electric and slide guitars serve to distort the focus, and the general sweetening, which becomes evident after listening to the flatly recorded title song, sounds all the more phony because it’s so unnecessary.
But the most disheartening failure of all is the failure of Don and Phil to interpret “Mandolin Wind” and Jesse Winchester’s lovely “Brand New Tennessee Waltz” with the sensitivity that is their most noteworthy quality. The Stewart song, a gently exuberant love song in its original state, has its delicate charms steamrollered by the Everlies, who seem strangely unaware of its basic tenderness. But this lapse is nothing compared to the Everlies’ treatment of “Brand New Tennessee Waltz,” seemingly an ideal choice for them. They miss its balance of joyousness and longing, turning the song into a dirge. The choruses don’t soar, as they must if the song is to achieve its choking emotional peak.
Those two songs in particular make this a disappointing comeback album. But they’ve made it clear that they’re still serious about making music, and that they’re in the primes of their musical lives. I suggest you spend your money on Roots while you can still find it — Warner Bros, has just deleted it from their catalog — and hold out for the Everly Brothers’ next one. I’m sure there’s still plenty more to come.