When Phil Everly passed away earlier this year, his legacy was celebrated by both those who knew him and those who were influenced by him. Chanteuse Norah Jones commented, “The high harmonies Phil sang were so fluid and beautiful and always sound effortless in a way that just washes over the listener.” Jones’ partner on the tribute album Foreverly, Billie Joe Armstrong, wrote, “Those harmonies will live on forever.” Iggy Pop observed, “The Everlys were the real deal when it comes to American music.” Brother Don eloquently stated, “I loved my brother very much. The world might be mourning an Everly Brother, but I’m mourning my brother Phil Everly.” Don and Phil’s contribution to American popular song can’t be underestimated. With hits like “Bye Bye Love,” “Wake Up, Little Susie” and “When Will I Be Loved,” they merged classic country and rock-and-roll into an inspirational whole, while their longing, ethereal vocal blend on “All I Have to Do is Dream” established them as timeless balladeers. At the beating heart of The Everly Brothers’ sound was their deep respect for the music of the land, the rough-and-tumble, hardscrabble, homespun ballads they had learned as children in the Midwest. Their 1958 album Songs Our Daddy Taught us was a concept album at a time when only Frank Sinatra was turning them out with regularity, and was Americana before the phrase was in vogue. It wasn’t their most popular album, but may well be their most personal and most important. It’s just been reissued by Varese Vintage in an expanded compact disc edition with six previously unheard bonus tracks (Varese 302 067 253-8, 2014), and as a limited-edition vinyl replica sans bonus tracks for Record Store Day.
In August 1958, the goofy novelty “Bird Dog” was ascending the pop charts, but far from repeating the formula, Don and Phil had something completely different and far more somber in mind. They entered RCA’s Nashville studios armed with just two guitars and their own vocal instruments plus producer/Cadence Records owner Archie Bleyer and bassist Floyd T. “Lightnin’” Chance. Rock and roll was not on their minds. Instead, they looked to assemble a collection primarily of traditional, often tragic, folk ballads, all rendered in seamlessly tight harmony. The album, to be titled Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, was rounded out with a few non-traditional cuts. These songs fit right into the low-key, acoustic tone of the album, including one co-written by the Singing Cowboy, Gene Autry (“That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine”), and another by Memphis songwriter Bob Miller (“Rockin’ Alone in My Old Rockin’ Chair”). The duo also revived Tex Ritter’s 1946 hit “Long Time Gone.” Everly patriarch Ike was credited with the arrangements for two of the tracks, “Barbara Allen” and “Put My Little Shoes Away.”
Don and Phil (aged just 21 and 19, respectively) connected with this material on a deep level. No matter that the songs were about gambling, cold-blooded murder, incarceration and mortality. The angelic harmonies of The Everlys were never more chillingly deployed than on the Appalachian murder ballad “Down in the Willow Garden,” which was first written in the nineteenth century, first professionally recorded in 1927, and popularized by Charlie Monroe in 1947. (Monroe gets the writing credit for The Everlys’ version.) In the song, the narrator poisons his lover, stabs her and finally throws her into the river. Reissue co-producer Andrew Sandoval’s fine liner notes reveal a quip from Phil on the session tapes: “Two easy lessons to slay your pregnant girlfriend is what this story is about!” Levity was likely needed behind-the-scenes to create the note-perfect, beautiful yet utterly haunting rendition here. The same goes for “Put My Little Shoes Away” which also confronts the specter of death head-on. Compared to the darkness of “Willow Garden” and even “Shoes,” the traditional country-and-western kiss-off of “Long Time Gone” (“You’re gonna be sad, you’re gonna be weeping/You’re gonna be blue and all alone...”) seems positively benign. Another quintessential C&W song is “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” with a light, almost ironic bounce applied to its woeful tale. It even scored the brothers a minor hit single in its edited version.
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A strong current of melancholy runs through these Songs. Bradley Kincaid’s “Lightning Express” is almost unspeakably sad, yet the deliberate, earnest and authentic reading by the Everlys keeps it from becoming as maudlin as it would have been in lesser hands. At nearly five minutes in length, it’s also far longer than the pop material the Brothers rode to fame recording. (It, too, was edited for single release.) The seventeenth century tragic ballad “Barbara Allen” is one of the most-recorded songs in the folk canon; The Everlys’ recording predated versions by Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Jean Ritchie, Art Garfunkel and others.
Naturally, no collection of Songs Our Daddy Taught Us would have been completed without a tribute to “dear old daddy.” Gene Autry and Jimmy Long’s “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine” is both affectionate and sad (“If I could erase those lines from your face/And bring back the gold in your hair/If God would grant me the power just to turn back the pages of time/I’d give all I own if I could but atone/To that silver-haired daddy of mine...”) and even today strikes a universal chord. So does another sobering reflection on the cruelty of old age sung by these two young men, Bob Miller’s “Rockin’ Alone in My Old Rocking Chair.”
There’s a pure and unvarnished simplicity to “Who’s Gonna Shoe Your Pretty Little Feet,” Frankie Bailes’ ballad of unrequited love, “Oh So Many Years,” and Henry Prichard’s sweet ode to Don’s birthplace of “Kentucky” (“When I die, I want to rest upon your graceful mountains so free/For that is where God will look for me...”) The stripped-down approach places the brothers’ voices, and by extension, the lyrics, front and center of every track.
Andrew Sandoval continues his long association with the Everlys’ catalogue with this release, which he co-produced with Cary Mansfield. Steve Massie has remastered, and Bill Pitzonka has nicely designed the package right down to the recreation of the Cadence label on the CD. Six bonus tracks have been added to this edition: Take 1 of “Roving Gambler,” Takes 1 and 2 of “Willow Garden,” Takes 1 and 2 of “Barbara Allen” and Take 1 of “Put My Little Shoes Away.” (Still more outtakes have been released on Bear Family’s Everly Brothers release entitled, simply, The Outtakes.) The “Roving Gambler” has a bit more edge (rock and roll creeping in?) than the released version, and the “Willow Gardens” are particularly fascinating as the Everlys and producer Bleyer experimented with plugging in. The choice to go all-acoustic was the right one, but these early takes are fascinating, nonetheless. Some brief session chatter has also been included. (An interesting companion to this release is Bear Family's recent reissue of Songs with a bonus disc entitled Songs Our Daddy Learned featuring the album's tracks as performed by Gene Autry, Merle Travis, Eddy Arnold and others.)
In recording the twelve tracks on Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, Don and Phil Everly certainly drank from the well of despair. But there’s also a quiet loveliness and purity to these recordings that makes them an essential cornerstone of not only The Everly Brothers’ catalogue but of the entire country-rock genre in which the brothers were so inspirational. Don and Phil revisited their family history time and again, notably on the 1968 release Roots, which embraced country music and featured songs from George Jones and Merle Haggard alongside Randy Newman, Glen Campbell and Beau Brummel Ron Elliott. But that was an altogether different animal than Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, bringing the classic country sound into a contemporary setting complete with string arrangements. Songs, then, is the unplugged Everly Brothers, singing their hearts out on songs they felt deeply. And you will, too. Like the songs themselves, this album is worthy of being passed down from generation to generation.