The Everly Brothers, a Merle Haggard country hit and the emergence of country rock
Last week’s Chain Gang brought us The Secret Sisters ‘Late Bloomer’ which is a modern version of a sound that goes back beyond recorded music, the family duet. It is inconceivable that The Secret Sisters would sound the way they do without the example of The Everly Brothers. The Everly Brothers took their Appalachian heritage and family harmonies to the bank in the ‘50s as one of the lynchpins of the first generation of rock’n’rollers. Their sound had an influence on subsequent generations of performers with everyone from the Beatles, Searchers, Keith Richards, The Hollies, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkel, Crosby Stills & Nash, Gram Parsons, Dave Edmunds, Nick Lowe and The Cactus Blossoms owing them a huge debt.
While the general view of The Everly Brothers is of a ‘50s rock’n’roll act, they continued to make music into the ‘70s, and even reformed as primarily a live act in the ‘80s performing until 2006. The music they recorded after the ’50s was not simply a rehash of their early signature sound for the emerging oldies market but included genuine pop classics which continue to influence today’s musicians. What is not always recognised is that as part of their developing ‘60s sound, which creatively had its successes but saw them gradually lose their audience, they produced one of the first country-rock albums with 1968’s ‘Roots’. The album was recorded for Warner Brothers Records using the best West Coast musicians including James Burton, Van Dyke Parks and Jim Gordon and included songs by Jimmie Rodgers, George Jones, Merle Haggard, The Beau Brummels, Randy Newman and The Everly Brothers themselves. Lenny Waronker helped develop the concept for the album and produced it with the Beau Brummel’s Ron Elliott as arranger just after he recorded that other early country-rock masterpiece, ’Bradley’s Barn’ by the Beau Brummels. The record was well received by the critics including Rolling Stone and Robert Christgau, but this new sound of the Everly Brothers did not halt their commercial decline despite its influence on subsequent country rock musicians.
Merle Haggard’s ‘Mama Tried’ is one of two Haggard tunes on the album and is a highlight among highlights. While the tune has now achieved the status of an absolute country classic, and won a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 1999, and has been covered by everyone from the Grateful Dead, David Allan Coe, The Seldom Scene, Willie Nelson, Greensky Bluegrass and is a live favourite of Ray LaMontagne, in 1968 it was a brand new song. It was the lead single from Merle Haggard’s ‘Mama Tried’ album and was inspired by the distress his mother felt when he was sent to San Quentin in 1957 for robbery. So enjoy this classic song in a great version by The Everly Brothers that not only shows the roots of country rock but also the power of family harmony singing. For those of you who are tempted to explore this part of The Everly Brothers legacy a bit deeper, RPM Records have recently released the box set ‘Down In The Bottom: The Country Rock Sessions 1966 – 1968’.