Listen now on:
I’ve been a true-blue Everly Brothers fan nearly all my life, but I didn’t discover Roots until I was full grown, and that’s just about right. Roots is a full-grown LP, mature and knowing and pitched from a perspective of bittersweet experience. It also happens to be a lost masterpiece of Americana, one of the finest syntheses of traditional tunes and next-step pop since Elvis strapped on a guitar and grinned through the glass of Sun Studio. Made in 1968, it’s often cited as a country-rock jump starter, and while that’s true, it’s not at all the whole story, because one of the best things about Roots is the way it casts off genre in favor of the big picture.
It’s a concept album, really, a carefully curated, thoughtfully plotted declaration of the pair’s place in pop and the world, at a moment when both were drastically changing. Each individual song has its meaning, but taken together, they point not just to the heritage to which the title refers—where the Everlys came from, who they listened to—but to the fact that Don and Phil themselves were the roots of the music they were hearing all around them even as their own popularity waned. Before The Everly Brothers arrived on the scene, no one sounded quite like them; afterwards, nearly everyone did, at least a little.
It opens on voices from beyond, a 1952 snippet of the Everly family radio show, and bits of the program—starring Mom, Dad, 15-year-old Don, and “baby boy Phil”—beam in and out as the album progresses. The effect is ghostly, like coming upon a late-night transmission from a long-gone station, and it gives the entire enterprise a dreamy sense of sifting past and present. And place—this is a record that travels, from the dusty Bakersfield twang of Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” to the mellow canyon warble of “Ventura Blvd.,” to the “Shady Grove” of bluegrass Appalachia, circa 1700s. There are songs that very literally reference their lives—Jimmie Rodgers’ “T for Texas” (“T for Tennessee”) and Randy Newman’s “Illinois” are nods to each brother’s birthplace—alongside subtler signs of where the boys have been and on whom they’ve left their marks. Not too subtle: if, for instance, the pair appear to aim their take on Glen Campbell’s “Less of Me” directly at The Byrds, who can really blame them? And if Roots rings ever so slightly with an “I know where you got that” rebuke to all the bands building on the foundation they laid down, it’s never at the expense of the music.
That said, we can talk about influence and meaning and the fact that the Everly roots reach right up into the new millennium (witness, for instance, 2013’s debt payer Foreverly from Norah Jones and Billie Joe Armstrong), but in the end and above all, this record is about the surpassing beauty of making music, most specifically the sort that’s seasoned and burnished by time and togetherness. Perhaps the most telling example is the Everly composition “I Wonder if I Care as Much.” There are other songs on Roots that the Everlys had previously recorded, but this is the only remake of a hit, and it’s a stunner. Where the ’57 original was an ambling country waltz, this version changes up the time signature to an eight count that both moves along and stretches out the lyrics and melody into an aching meditation on uncertainty and regret. Framed in heartbeat bass and a softly wailing guitar that echoes those haunting broadcasts, the vocals are, in a body of work known for lovely vocals, among the very loveliest, languorous and free yet exactingly matched and metered; when the pair get to the last line, they savor it, lengthening the words and notes until at last they launch the last little bit of harmony into the ether to join the other voices floating there.
It is impossible to listen to later-day Everly Brothers and not think of their troubles—the fall from stardom, the exhaustions of endless touring, and the drug troubles that caused them to turn on the closest thing to them, each other. But it’s just as impossible to listen to Roots and not believe that their purest pleasure had to be channeling history and connection into such moments of magic. When baby boy Phil died just after the 2014 new year, this was the record I went to first. I put it on and cried all the way through.