I saw the late Phil Everly perform only once, a warm, affecting, and often funny show with his brother Don at the Tennessee Theatre in the ’90s. I can’t add a whole lot to the national eulogy. All the critics seem to agree the Everly Brothers had a seismic impact on popular music, both country and rock ’n’ roll, that may be hard to explain to those who didn’t encounter it growing up. A pop fan who has learned popular music strictly based on what has been new in the last 50 years might not get the Everlys, right away, beyond the fact that maybe their harmonies sound like the early Beatles, or maybe Simon and Garfunkel.
There is, of course, a reason for that.
Their family was from Western Kentucky, Phil was born in Chicago, and they spent most of their youth in the small town of Shenandoah, Iowa, near the Missouri border. It’s almost 900 miles from Knoxville, and it’s proud to be the hometown of the Everly Brothers. (That remarkable little town that’s about one-tenth the size of Farragut is also home to the Charlie Haden, a contemporary of the Everlys, and one of the greatest living jazz bassists.)
Does Knoxville have any purchase on the Everlys? A certain cynical friend of mine dismisses Knoxville’s claim to the Everlys legend, considering they lived here for only two years.
Most of those glowing obituaries would seem to agree. Few of their thumbnail biographical sketches mention Knoxville. The Los Angeles Times obit did, just as the place they left to go to Nashville.
Yes, they were here for just two years. But some two years make all the difference.
When they arrived, Don was 16; Phil was just 14. They were half of a mom, pop, and the kids family act, a format old-fashioned even in its time, and singing only country and gospel. When they left Knoxville, they were a teenage duo of singer-guitarists, writing and performing rock ’n’ roll, with some published songs and an important friend encouraging them.
What happened here? They didn’t perform here much, except in radio studios and at occasional parties. As far as I can tell, they didn’t ever play a concert here during their chart-topping years. Knoxville lacked a good auditorium in the 1950s, and except for the occasional Bill Haley show at a high-school gym, or R&B star Lloyd Price at Chilhowee Park, we missed a lot of interesting stuff.
What happened here was personal. There are interesting stories about the Everlys, one of the best being the one about Phil’s pompadour and West High’s basketball coach and the hairnet, told in the daily a few days ago.
There was their musical rebellion, and Cas Walker’s firing of them from his show on WROL, if that’s exactly what happened. That shocking early setback, enhanced by the fact that there’s some mystery about it, seems made for the Everly Brothers movie, which will never be made. (There have been biopics about a dozen early rockers, but Hollywood doesn’t make many movies about brothers.)
There was another cinematic scene, meeting a legend through the fence at Chilhowee Park. Chet Atkins, the greatest guitarist in the world and a former WROL regular himself, knew how Cas Walker could be, and offered some sympathy and crucial help.
And there was Cumberland Avenue.
Father Ike Everly, finally obliged to learn a trade, as most talented musicians do, went to a local barber college. (If you want to read something surreal, having to do with the Everlys and barbering, Google maverick musician Jim White’s reputedly true story, “The Bottom.” Walter, the longtime proprietor of that barber college/shop at 113 South Central, encountered by musicians Jim White and David Byrne during a tour in 1997, becomes the heretofore unspeculated link between Cormac McCarthy’s fictional character Suttree and the Everly family.)
Once he got his barbering degree, Ike Everly got work at the Varsity Barber Shop on Cumberland. Cumberland Avenue was already the Everly Brothers’ favorite street in Knoxville. Don once remarked it was like the 1950s represented on Happy Days. There was Sam & Andy’s deli, Ballis’ pool hall, the soda fountain, Dad’s barber shop, and the Campus Record Store. It even had a small movie theater, the Booth.
Certainly, the UT student crowd was a big part of what made it hum, but almost as big was the Fulton plant at the bottom of the hill, then known as Robertshaw. It employed thousands, who after a shift would gravitate to Cumberland, too, for a beer or a sandwich or a pool game. Then there was Fort Sanders, a more age- and class-diverse neighborhood than it became later.
The Campus Record Store, up the sidewalk from Ike Everly’s barber chair, was familiarly known as “Dugout Doug’s.” The proprietor was a talented eccentric named Douglas Dunlap, an Army veteran captured after he bailed out of his B-17 over Germany. He had a reputation as being smart and energetic, but a little wild. He maintained a liberal selection of the latest 78s. Don Everly recalled later that when visiting his father at the barber shop, he’d wander up the sidewalk to the record store. There, he explained later, he discovered rock ’n’ roll, mainly by way of the latest work of a new sort of artist named Bo Diddley.
Some of this week’s obituaries talked about the obvious Bo Diddley influence on some of the Everlys’ best work.
The building is still there, at the top of the hill, on the town side of 17th Street, the mid-century brick building, nondescript except for that arcade-style walkway that led back to Dugout Doug’s. Reportedly the subject of a recent purchase by the university, it appears, for the first time in my memory, to be empty, in some sort of transition.
I’m bringing it up not because I think the place where the Everly Brothers discovered Bo Diddley deserves a plaque, although I do, but because we’re reconsidering Cumberland Avenue. We should aspire to make Cumberland Avenue the place that foments a phenomenon like the Everly Brothers, a street with a variety of attractions to inspire a footloose teenager or, for that matter, an old guy like me.