It makes a funny sort of sense that singer/songwriter Will Oldham would be an Everly Brothers fan. If we’re going to play the obvious critical connect-the-dots, both Oldham and Don Everly were born in Kentucky. Don and his brother, Phil, grew up as performers, playing music with their parents as part of a family musical act before becoming post-pubescent pop stars. Oldham was a working teenage actor who won some sizeable film roles before turning to music full-time in his 20s. But there are also unsuspected connections that Oldham makes on his new album with Faun Fables’ Dawn McCarthy, What the Brothers Sang (Drag City).
See, most people who might say they love the Everly Brothers probably only know the string of hits the duo launched in the mid-’50s, country-tinged close-harmony marvels like the music-box ballad “Devoted to You,” which Oldham and fellow singer/songwriter McCarthy warble their way through here. But Don and Phil ran out their string of smashes by the early ’60s, victims of career disruptions and changing musical fashions. By the time the Beatles (big Everlys fans) hit the JFK tarmac, the brothers were successful mid-20s has-beens. They kept making music, though with far fewer folks paying attention, and that’s the period Oldham and McCarthy dwell on here. It’s a rich stretch of the brothers’ art that many won’t know, though fans of Oldham’s oeuvre will find themselves on surprisingly familiar ground.
“The clubs are all closed and the people are leaving,” McCarthy sings solo to start the opening track, “There’s nobody nobody knows on the street.” After a startling key modulation, Oldham and the full band join in; the lyrics obliquely weigh the minor fame of being a weeknight headliner with all that you lose by living on the road. The Everlys sang an existential touring ballad? They did—Kris Kristofferson’s “Breakdown,” included on their 1972 album Stories We Can Tell, the cover of which features the brothers parked in a graffitied backroom somewhere, Don sporting a leather trench coat and a giant furry Russian-style hat. These are not the Brylcreemed, safe-as-milk moppets we knew. Kristofferson’s song isn’t particularly debauched, but it is weary, fatalistic. It’s a song for grownups to sing.
Many of the songs on What the Brothers Sang are covers of covers, versions of songs written by other people that the Everlys cut at some point during the ’60s and ’70s. But whether written by others or written by Don Everly, the duo’s primary creative force, the songs Oldham and McCarthy sing here paint a likeness of someone taking a look back at life, ruminating on heartaches and disappeared times and what life has to offer from here.
There is a Baroque courtliness to several of these tunes, no doubt fallout from the Beatles’ mid-career experiments (Don was a fan, too), in the vaguely longing lyrics and flute melody of “Empty Boxes” (written by Ron Elliot) or the less coy longing and flute melody of “My Little Yellow Bird” (written by Don under a pseudonym). There is nostalgia for a rural way of life past, as spelled out in Tony Romeo’s upbeat guitar-pop tune “Milk Train,” but also smuggled desire for a certain female passenger. The nostalgia in John Denver’s “Prayers, Poems and Promises” is overt, as the singer deems “it’s been a good life all in all” as he and his buddies sit around the fire “and pass the pipe around” and ruminate on the alliterative topics of the title.
And in “Omaha,” a Don Everly song from his 1971 solo debut, you can hear artistic ambition and the kind of musical sweep that’s rare in callow young artists, all housed in a multi-movement ode to finding love and contentment in the middle of the map. Listening to “Omaha” as it builds and shifts amid layered harmonies and disparate lyrical sections, you can hear the sound of a talented man who would have loved the chance to be taken as seriously as Lennon/McCartney or Ray Davies. But most likely Oldham and McCarthy’s recording will be the first time most have ever heard it.
These sort of rueful, indistinct emotional states are Oldham’s métier; the small-combo pop/country hybrid arrangements don’t stray far from the Everlys’ originals, nor would they sound out of place somewhere along the continuum of Oldham’s recordings. By digging into the Everlys stuff that they respond to, Oldham and McCarthy present an entirely different Everlys than the duo we commonly know, and present a cogent album of their own.
They can’t approximate the brothers’ genetic-level harmonies, and so their duets are more two distinct personalities sharing a line than a more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts blend. But there are places on What the Brothers Sang where what the brothers sang fades into the background. Phil sang lead on the original 1965 single “It’s All Over,” a heartbreak ballad penned by Don and festooned with a harpsichord accompaniment. McCarthy and Oldham deliver Don’s spare lyrics of deadpan romantic doom together, but somehow slightly apart, which only makes it sadder. “I just stopped living/ When you said goodbye” comes off more devastating when you don’t sound like a beaming teen.