Most pop concerts kick off with something fast and fun. But when The Everly Brothers opened their historic return to the Ryman Auditorium last Wednesday night with the sweet, supple harmonies of “Kentucky,” it made perfect sense. For the brothers, whose roots are in the coal-mining region of the Bluegrass State, the concert was about home and heritage. It was about revisiting where they were from, where they had started, and, ultimately, who they were.
The night included several reunions: with Chet Atkins, the famous guitarist and producer who discovered them; with the stage that first promoted them; and with the songs that introduced them to the world. Even if Don’s voice is no longer as stout and pure as it once was, and even if the harmonies don’t soar quite as high as they once did, it was still nostalgia of the most satisfying sort.
The event marked the first time in four decades that the Everlys had combined their breathtaking harmonies on the Ryman stage. Even today, the blend of those two voices remains achingly beautiful and stands as one of the greatest sounds in American popular music. It was a night to remember, both for the fans who were there and especially for the two men at center stage. “Nothing’s gonna top this,” Don said at one point. “This is a real milestone for us.”
Fronting a fantastic band of old prosguitarist Albert Lee, steel guitarist Buddy Emmons, keyboardist Pete Wingate, drummer Tony Newman, bassist Phil Cranshawthe Everlys proved both professional and emotional in presenting the songs that made them famous. The night began, appropriately enough, with an introduction by Chet Atkins, who discovered the brothers at a Knoxville fair in 1954, when Don was 17 and Phil was 15. By then, the two had already been performing regularly for more than nine years, including a long-running stint on a radio station in Shenandoah, Iowa, with their parents Ike and Margaret Everly. (Ike was one of Atkins’ idols; the Everly father had taught his unusual thumb-picking technique to Merle Travis, who in turn was a major influence on Atkins.) It was Atkins who persuaded the Everly family to move to Nashville in 1955, the year Don graduated from high school.
Later in the show, Don Everly explained how he and Phil used to stand outside the stage door in the alley behind the Ryman Auditorium, playing songs to the rhinestoned Grand Ole Opry stars as they passed in and out. “Then we were allowed to come up those stairs,” Don said solemnly, gesturing to a backstage entrance. Phil leaned in and cracked, “Then they threw us out.” But Don, undeterred, corrected him. “No, we were legitimately asked to play the Opry, and it was the biggest thing that ever happened to us.”
The elder Everly brother also hinted at how unusual the invitation was: The two were young and sported longish hair, and their accents weren’t quite as rural and Southern as those of the Opry cast. But Atkins carried a lot of sway, as did the Everlys’ music publisher, Wesley Rose of Acuff-Rose Publishing. So the two teens, who eventually gained their fame in rock ’n’ roll, joined the most influential and important of all the country radio shows of the late ’50s.
By the time they joined the Opry, however, “Bye Bye Love” had been a No. 1 hit. Within a year, “Wake Up Little Susie” and the exquisite “All I Have to Do Is Dream” had also become No. 1 hits. By that point, the Everlys no longer had time for Opry performances; they were members of the rock ’n’ roll caravan, traveling a decidedly different concert circuit.
But last Wednesday, they stood on the stage where they started, this time looking backward instead of forward. They began with a trio of songs celebrating their native state: “Kentucky,” which included a snippet of another homebound hit, “Green River,” then slid without interruption into “Bowling Green,” the group’s last Top 40 pop hit, released in 1967.
The rest of the show concentrated on the group’s landmark hits, all recorded between 1957 and 1962. The duo bypassed many outstanding songs from later in their career, choosing instead the songs for which they’ll always be remembered. Indeed, the concert reinforced the Everlys’ role as one of the cornerstones of rock ’n’ roll music; without a doubt, their music was as influential and as important as that of Chuck Berry, James Brown, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, and the famed Sun Records crew. Their harmonies, and their combination of sweetly tempered sad songs with peppy, dynamic tunes proved immeasurably influential on a horde of groundbreaking performers in the ’60s and ’70s.
“Before the Beatles, there was The Everly Brothers,” Atkins said in his stage introduction. He wasn’t overstating the point: Prior to forming The Beatles, John Lennon and Paul McCartney played Everlys songs in a street-busking duo known as The Nurk Twins. And, as critics and historians have stated for decades, the Everlys’ joyous harmonies were one of the primary components of The Beatles’ sound, which also drew on Holly’s buoyant rhythms, Berry’s ringingly melodic lead guitar work, and soul music’s ecstatic sense of release.
That influence carried through the decades. It could be heard during the British Invasion, especially in groups like The Searchers, Herman’s Hermits, and The Hollies (whose leaders, Allan Clarke and Graham Nash, also began by doing Everlys covers as a duo). Of course, all the permutations of the West Coast country-rock movementfrom The Byrds to Crosby, Stills & Nash to The Eagles to Poco to Rank ’n’ Fileowed a direct debt to the harmonies of the Everlys.
Beyond their musical influence, though, The Everly Brothers also gave rock ’n’ roll a sense of tender and anguished innocence. While most rockers frightened parents with their sexuality, flamboyance, and danger, the Everlys captured the angst of youth. Whether fretting over staying out too late (“Wake Up Little Susie”) or expressing the suffering that comes from being timid and misunderstood (“When Will I Be Loved,” “Problems,” “Love Hurts”), the Everlys conveyed just how intensely teens experience psychological pain.
Of course, the question in 1998 is, how does that youthful sound hold up coming from men who are now 61 and 59 years old? Remarkably well, it turns out. The two singers deflected the teen-centric messages of their uptempo tunes by concentrating on the exhilarating dynamics of the music. On the ballads, meanwhile, the beauty of the voices and the tasteful restraint of the arrangements carried the songs. The most memorable selections of the night“Devoted to You,” “So Sad (To Watch Good Love Go Bad),” “Crying in the Rain,” and the exquisite “Let It Be Me”carried a timeless message about the values of a strong bond and the difficulty of letting love slip away.
In the end, the Ryman concert again raised one of popular music’s most puzzling questions: Why are we so fast to shove aside our greatest talents in favor of someone new? The Everlys scored 15 Top 10 songs between 1957 and 1962, every one of them a true classic. Then, as the British Invasion started, the hits just stopped. The good music didn’tthe brothers continued to make credible records through the 1960s and into the 1970s, before their legendary fights and bad blood finally ended in an onstage breakup. But once the band era entered, the brothers never again got the attention they deserved, probably because so many rock fans tied them to the innocence of a previous age.
“It’s a shame in this country that we don’t take better care of our own,” Atkins said somewhat cryptically in his introduction. In concert, though, The Everly Brothers proved that they deserve everything they’ve been givenand more.
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