The Everly Brothers’ Roots at 50
Released in late 1968, Roots was the first Everly Brothers album in ages that suggested a way forward for the duo, a path towards shaking off the image everyone had in their heads of Don and Phil bringing their voices together in exquisite harmony to sing tales of love and frustration.
“I’m through with romance,” they sang on the single that made the world take notice of them, “I’m through with love.” With that they began a string of records—“Wake Up Little Susie,” “Problems,” “Bird Dog,” “Poor Jenny”—that catalogued the various obstacles and indignities faced by record-buying teenagers.
When their voices merged, it was the most exhilarating thing. As playwright Tom Stoppard once said to The New York Times, “Who didn’t love the Everly Brothers?” Resistance seemed impossible. When the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame came into being, they were the only non-solo artists inducted into the inaugural class, and who could argue that they weren’t deserving? Country-tinged harmony in rock ’n’ roll began with them, and the string of records they made at Cadence, mostly written by Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, was as impressive a run of hit singles as any acts of their era.
When Warner Bros. Records signed them, it was, for its time, an astonishing deal: a ten-year contract worth one million dollars. That was an unimaginable commitment: wasn’t rock ’n’ roll going to sputter out any day now? Wasn’t it a fickle youth market that only bought 45s? The WB-EB association got off to a start that made the investment seem reasonable: “Cathy’s Clown” became a number one single in 1960, and there were other top ten hits that year and the next. But the wheels were coming off the wagon. Business complications denied them access to the Bryants’ songs, they served a stint in the Marine reserves—seeing them on TV with their military crewcuts and uniforms was jarring—and then came the British Invasion.
I can’t be the only kid who was listening to pop radio, heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” for the first time, and thought, that reminds me of the Everly Brothers (there was that escalating “I can’t hide! I can’t hide!” in the middle eight). Couldn’t “A World Without Love” (Peter & Gordon), “Needles and Pins” (the Searchers) and “Here I Go Again” (the Hollies) have been done by the Everlys? It was a rough patch for them, the center of the ’60s. The hits stopped, despite some wonderful singles like “The Price of Love” and “Gone, Gone, Gone” and memorable appearances on Shindig, and the albums felt slapped together. With the help of the Hollies, they made Two Yanks in England, which was a clever idea, but didn’t snap the streak of bad luck.
In the biography Walk Right Back, Roger White writes, “The Warner sessions from 1967 until they left the label in 1970 appear haphazard.” And for the most part that’s true; albums like The Everly Brothers Sing and The Hit Sound of the Everly Brothers pretty much define “hit and miss.” For every “Bowling Green,” shimmering and vintage-sounding, there’s a stumble through “A Whiter Shade of Pale.” Hit Sound has fine versions of “(I’d Be a) Legend in My Time” and “I’m Movin’ On,” and less fine takes on “Oh, Boy!” and “Good Golly Miss Molly.” The cover, in serious black and white, tells us “In a time of confusion, two young voices dedicated to singing Truth.” The confusion part is right. Where could they go from there? Was there a place in the late ’60s for the Everly Brothers alongside other Warner-Reprise artists like the Grateful Dead, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, Neil Young and Van Morrison? Rock at Warner Bros. didn’t exist before the Everly Brothers, and now they were relics. Oldies.
There was nothing haphazard about Roots. Nothing stale, or contrived. It flowed in and out of the past like a non-chronological dream. It was reflective and nostalgic, and their voices–which had always been supernaturally tuned to each other–had a new richness. It is considered one of the most important early country-rock albums, which it is, but it isn’t tied to traditional ideas about country. It makes room for Randy Newman alongside Merle Haggard, for poignant string arrangements (by Nick deCaro) on the Ron Elliott (of the Beau Brummels) songs “Turn Around” and “Ventura Boulevard,” for a cosmic-cowboy romp through Jimmie Rodgers’ “T for Texas.”
The concept for Roots came from producer Lenny Waronker, who had albums by the Brummels, Harpers Bizarre, and Van Dyke Parks on his resume, and Andy Wickham. Interspersed throughout the album are excerpts from the Everly family’s radio show, where young Don and Phil sang with their parents, Ike and Margaret. So the 1952 tape of “The Old Rugged Cross” leads into Haggard’s death-row ballad “Sing Me Back Home”: They were embracing their legacy as a way to progress. On an earlier WB album, Beat & Soul, the notes by Stan Cornyn take pains to reinforce the brothers’ rock credentials (“This is the album that takes the Everly Brothers out of the country”). Now, maybe emboldened by groups like the Byrds (Sweetheart of the Rodeo had come out a few months earlier), they lean in to their country side. They had started the whole thing a decade before. It was their property if it was anyone’s.
On Roots’ only Everly composition, they revisit the song that was on the flip side of “Bye Bye Love,” Don’s “I Wonder If I Care as Much.” “Revisit” maybe understates it; they break it down, slow it down (the original is a bit clip-cloppy), ruminate over it, take long pauses. It’s as though they’re haunted by something. And they chuck the final verse. As teenagers, they could get away with lines like “My heart can’t thrive on misery/My life it has no destiny.” Here, they don’t have to get so melodramatic. They let a throbbing bass line (Joe Osborn?) and a flailing guitar (Ron Elliott?) have the last say.
Roots was, in its way, as much of a claim-staking, vitality-proving move as Elvis’s TV special that aired around the same time the Everlys’ LP was hitting record stores. But it tanked commercially, and it was the last studio album they made for Warner Brothers; a double-live set closed the books on that historic decade-long pact. (There are, scattered around various compilations, other tracks from the end of the WB era—“Empty Boxes,” “I’m On My Way Home Again,” “Cuckoo Bird”—that would fit perfectly on a deluxe Roots). As the Everly Brothers struggled before calling it quits, bands that wouldn’t exist without them, like Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Flying Burrito Brothers (wouldn’t the Everlys have been an ideal co-billed act with them at the Fillmores?) took their influence and ran wild with it. You can even blame them for the Eagles.
“Everyone thinks I’ve been gone for too long,” they sing on Elliott’s “Ventura Boulevard. “I only went for a ride.” Roots seemed at the time like the start of a new phase, the way Rick Nelson launched the Stone Canyon Band, or Mike Nesmith with his First National Band, a means to break free from expectations, start anew. But now, although it wasn’t the last Everly Brothers album, it has an elegiac feel, filled with warmth and affection, a lovely summing-up. Who, after all, didn’t love the Everly Brothers?