In Light of Foreverly: Growing Up With the Stark, Sentimental Beauty of the Everly Brothers
The Everly Brothers were my first favorite band, although at the time I first heard them, I had no concept of what a band, or group, or even an orchestra was. I did have a brother, however, and listening to the Everlys made me imagine how much fun it would be to sing with him, to sit around our home strumming guitars and making music together. The voices of the Everlys always sent chills down my spine. When I was young, I didn't know they were singing harmonies, only that the combination of their voices produced a shimmering, visceral effect, one that made me feel things I'd never felt before.
When the Everlys released Songs Our Daddy Taught Us in 1958, I gobbled it up. Looking back over the years, I can see that it was a commercially risky move on their part. Their core audience were young rock 'n' rollers and Daddy was sparse and bare, just two voices and two acoustic guitars, with the occasional sound of a stand-up bass providing a bit of subtle bluegrass bounce. I was already interested in folk music, so I was familiar with the traditional songs on the album. I'd heard "Roving Gambler," "Down in the Willow Garden" and "Barbara Allen" before, but hearing the Everlys sing them was a new experience. The rest of the songs on the album were unfamiliar. Until I read the liner notes, I thought they were folk songs too, but when I saw that Gene Autry had written "Silver Haired Daddy of Mine," I realized that they weren't all traditional songs, even though they sounded like they were.
I was musically omnivorous at the time: I loved every bit of music I heard. The distinctions between folk, country, rock, and pop are something I'm projecting back on the music from my present-day vantage point and years of writing about music. I can tell you that Songs Our Daddy Taught Us became one of my favorite albums from the first time I listened to it, one that I've played at least once a week ever since. I'd never been in love, or had my heart broken, or lost a loved one to old age or death when I first heard it. I didn't know anything about hard work, the inequalities of the justice system, passion, jealousy, love, loss, or longing. I can't say that Songs Our Daddy Taught Us directly taught me anything about those feelings, but they did make me consider things outside of my own experience.
Over the years, my understanding of the songs changed and evolved as my consciousness changed and evolved. One example is "Lightning Express," the story of a young man taking a long train ride to see his dying mother. I listened to it with a shrug when I was young; then, when I was a bit older, I almost laughed at the song's lyrics. They were drenched with an over-the-top sentimentality that almost seemed like a parody of emotion to me.
After a few more years, as my own parents began to age, the song became so poignant I couldn't listen to it without tearing up, and that's how the song affects me to this day. If I even think the words "Lightning Express" the tears start to well up. Like all the songs on Daddy, The Everlys sing "Lightning Express" with an understated emotion that heightens the drama of the song. A young man is on his way home to visit his dying mother, but he's broke, so he sits quietly, hoping the conductor won't ask him for a ticket. When he's asked for his fare, the boy begs the conductor to let him ride for free, promising to pay his fare as soon as he can, then he sings the chorus.
"Please mister conductor, don't put me off of this train. The best friend I have is this world sir, is waiting for me in pain, expecting to die any moment, sir, and may not live through the day. I want to reach home and kiss mother goodbye, before God takes her away."
Written out on the page, you may agree with my younger self, who thought the songs trite and over-sentimental, but the subtle emotion the Everlys bring to the song -- with their close, quiet harmonies -- rips me up. Songs Our Daddy Taught Us has tales of murder and retribution, mortality and salvation, true love, lost love, and hopeless love. Its blend of country, bluegrass, and folk was unheard of at the time. It was a huge risk for the Brothers at the time and although it didn't bomb, it didn't sell nearly as well as the rest of their early albums.
It did, of course, help kick off the folk revival, and it inspired the Beatles, who borrowed the harmonies the Everlys sang when they started writing songs. Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is still one of the most underproduced albums ever released by a major act, perfect in its unassuming beauty and the stark vocals of the Brothers.
When I read the press release that said that Billie Joe Armstrong and Nora Jones were going to do an album called Foreverly, a track-by-track recreation of Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, I was both skeptical and pleased. Skeptical, because you can't recreate a perfect record without it being a disappointment to longtime fans, and pleased, because Foreverly might introduce younger listeners to the Everly Brothers and send people back to Songs Our Daddy Taught Us to discover the beauty of the Everlys' traditional country/folk singing for themselves. On Foreverly, Armstrong and Jones mimic the pitch and tone of the original vocals, rearrange the track listing, add piano, drums, electric bass, fiddle, banjo, and harmonica, write new lyrics to some of the songs and create new laid-back alt-country arrangements for a couple of the tunes. The result is a hybrid recording that combines the best of Daddy with new arrangements that don't really add or subtract much from the originals.
The reviews so far have been mixed. For myself, I believe that anything that calls attention to Songs Our Daddy Taught Us is a good thing. And yet, that album is such a strong part of my own musical DNA that I can't help but be a little put off by their attempts to "modernize" the sound. You can't improve on perfection.