Most of the obituaries for Phil Everly, who died on Jan. 3 at the age of 74, didn’t mention Knoxville. The fact that Phil and his older brother, Don, lived here in the mid 1950s, while they were high-school students, has generally been overlooked in their biographies. There’s good reason for that, mostly—their childhood experience touring the Midwest as part of the Everly Family, an old-time country-music act, and their time in Nashville, where they started their recording careers in 1956, were far more significant to their art and legacy. Nevertheless, the Everly Brothers’ Knoxville years were formative for them, even of there’s not much documentary evidence from the period, and instrumental in setting them on the path to becoming one of the great groups of the first generation of rock ’n’ roll.
The Everlys moved to Knoxville in 1953, and the Everly Family immediately showed up on Cas Walker’s show on radio station WROL. Don and Phil enrolled at West High School, got girlfriends, listened to pop and country records, and went to dances. Then, in 1954, some big developments: The brothers struck up a relationship with Chet Atkins, who was already in Nashville; Don’s song, “Thous Shalt Not Steal,” was recorded by Kitty Wells; and the brothers heard rock ’n’ roll. (It was around that time that Don started dating a fellow West student named Catherine Coe, whose name would inspire the title of one of the Everlys’ most famous songs, the 1960 hit “Cathy’s Clown.”)
“Phillip and I were singing country stuff on the radio show, but as we were teenagers, we’re going to be influenced by what was happening in the music scene at that point,” Don Everly said in Lee Gardner’s exhaustive 1995 Metro Pulse story about the brothers’ Knoxville years. “I’d been exposed to rhythm and blues, because my father played rhythm and blues. And then right up from the Campus Barber Shop was a record store. I went in there and listened to Bo Diddley, and my life wasn’t the same after that.”
The new sound found its way into the Everly Family’s music on WROL, much to the chagrin of the notoriously cantankerous Walker. He fired the group in 1955, the year Don graduated from West. After Phil graduated a year later, the brothers headed to Nashville, where the story becomes more familiar: Chet, Cadence Records, Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, “Bye Bye Love.” The Everly Brothers turned out to be one of the most influential groups of the ’50s, their tight fraternal harmonies and countryfied roots rock ’n’ roll directly inspiring Buddy Holly, the Beatles, Roy Orbison, Gram Parsons, Neil Young, Gene Clark, and Simon and Garfunkel and shaping the course of American music. (The duo’s ’60s recordings on Warner Bros., while less well known than the classic ’50s sides, add up to one of the most consistently rewarding big catalogs of the classic rock ’n’ roll period.)
“I knew they were good singers, and I knew they were trying awful hard at it, but I don’t guess any of us thought that Don and Phil would go as far as they did,” a former West classmate, Gene Easterday, told Gardner in 1995. “They did, though. They did. That was probably what allowed them to do it, ’cause they knew. They knew in their own minds that, buddy, they were going to make it. And I think that’s why they did make it, because they worked really hard—they sure did.”