“You’ve got to keep the bluegrass music pure.” Thus spake Bill Monroe, or words to that effect. It was late in his career when he said this, no doubt; late enough that bluegrass was already considered a more or less distinct genre of music, and Monroe had become known as its “father”; late enough that he’d finished fiddling with electric guitars and pianos on some of his recordings, so that the style had become codified as string band music played by guitar, bass, banjo, fiddle, and Monroe’s instrument, mandolin (although some bands would include dobro, an instrument Monroe hated, but which became more or less the semi-official sixth bluegrass instrument thanks mostly to Flatt and Scruggs, whom Monroe for a long time also hated). The message was clear: bluegrass was, and is, a fundamentally conservative style of music. Unlike Jazz, where innovation is often privileged, bluegrass is a genre that must be maintained as it is, and innovation is often tantamount to corruption. Never mind the aforementioned guitars and pianos (and, once, even seagulls); even though most of the first generation of bluegrass musicians even recorded with drums once in a while, today they are banned from the stage of most bluegrass festivals. Not just frowned on—literally banned.
When Monroe started playing the music that became known as bluegrass, of course, there was in fact a whole lot of innovation going on. In 1945, Monroe’s band, the Blue Grass Boys, consisted of Lester Flatt on guitar and vocals, Chubby Wise on fiddle, Cedric Rainwater on bass, and the man usually recognized as the first bluegrass banjo player, Earl Scruggs. The sound that band created became retrospectively known, probably some time in the 1950s, as “bluegrass music.” Bluegrass incorporated elements of jazz, blues, pop, and even, according to Monroe, Schottisch (a slower variant of Polka) in a repertoire consisting of old mountain ballads, covers of then-contemporary Country songs, and lots of original songs about home, mother, death and lost love.
In fact, about the only conservative thing about early bluegrass was the lyrics; almost every single song expressed some kind of nostalgia, probably because when Monroe started writing them he was an urban factory worker lamenting the loss of his rural mountain home life. The music was fast and exciting, due at least partly to its birth in the city; the conservatism of the lyrics, far from contradicting the freshness of the music, also conveyed the mood of city life, albeit indirectly through a melancholy reflection on another life that was lost. Bluegrass music is about the experience of being uprooted, cast out, left, and lost; in that sense, the lyrics and the often frenetic tempos are of a piece. Bluegrass is not the music of slow-talking, slow-moving and slow-thinking hayseeds, a stereotype Monroe resisted by insisting that his bands wear well-pressed suits. No overalls were seen on bluegrass album covers until the 1960s, when the stereotype began to sell, and even then they were rare.
In light of all this, it may seem that, as many have pointed out, Monroe was a hypocrite in insisting that bluegrass be kept pure, and I suppose, in some way, he was. But he was also right, at least if the aesthetic history of bluegrass is any indication. The electric guitar was mostly a mistake, the piano isn’t worth mentioning, and drums, mostly, do not work. But it’s not just the instrumentation that resists tinkering—bluegrass has proven the bane of many a songwriter, and for that matter many an adapter of other people’s songs, who has tried to put his (mostly “his”) own stamp on the genre. In the 65-year history of bluegrass, after the first few bands put their twist on Monroe’s sound and helped develop it into a genre, most innovative approaches to bluegrass have somewhat diluted the feel of the music, which is often to swallow for someone enraptured by the original blast of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
And that is because, whether this has been good or bad for the subsequent life of the genre, Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Reno and Smiley, Mac Martin, Jim and Jesse, The Lonesome Pine Fiddlers, Jimmy Martin, the Stanley Brothers and others considered bluegrass’ first generation made music that was, in fact, perfect. Traditional bluegrass music is soulful, exciting, and intensely moving, and allows for far more variety in mood, tempo, and tone than most people not steeped in the genre seem to realize. But when something is perfect it can often lose something when it’s tinkered with. This is not to say that later bluegrass artists didn’t put their own stamp on the genre, but they mostly did so by maintaining a certain recognizable fidelity to the energy, mood, and tropes that had already been established by the first generation. Larry Sparks sings with more blues inflections than most first generation artists, and his lead guitar playing doesn’t sound like anything else in bluegrass. Dave Evans writes songs influenced by soul music and ‘70s rock and roll, songs that don’t sound like anything else in bluegrass. Dan Paisley’s vocals madly swoop, dive, and hover around a melody in a way that doesn’t sound like anything else in bluegrass, or in any other style of music, for that matter. The Vern Williams Band and Red Allen both made bluegrass that was so hardcore that it almost went beyond anything done by the first generation. These artists were indeed innovative, but in the manner of variations on an established theme.
To further complicate matters, the outside influences that do make their way into bluegrass often make a pretty bad fit. The worst aesthetic postures of post-1960s mainstream country, a pretty (and increasingly) dismal scene in its own right, seem to continually seep into bluegrass, with largely unpleasant effects. While bluegrass rarely notices rock and roll music that was made after the 1950s, when it does, the results are dismaying (Dave Evans being an interesting exception, which makes it all the more amusing that I once heard him jokingly apologize for playing a rock and roll song at a bluegrass festival before singing “Johnny B. Goode”). And the influence of hippies on the genre has in many ways been unfortunate, since for some reason bluegrass is to this day considered hippie music by many casual fans (and also by haters). “Jamgrass” at its most musically adventurous is often music made by musicians for other musicians, and at worst sloppy nonsense; concision has always been one of the cardinal virtues of a traditional bluegrass solo (to the point where the musicians often split the already short breaks), and those who color outside the lines often seem to lose in impact what they gain in expressive range.
It all seems obvious now, though. In order to revivify the genre and produce strikingly original yet viscerally affecting bluegrass music, all it takes is to be more innovative and more conservative than the competition. If this seems obvious, it is because the Earl Brothers came along in 2004 and did what nobody since the Stanley Brothers had been able to do: play music that is unmistakably a milestone in its inimitable singularity and freshness, but at the same time largely circumscribed by conventions not of their own making.
When my roommate handed me the first album by the Earl Brothers some time in 2004, I was quite skeptical about what I was about to hear. First of all, the album is called Whiskey, Women & Death, which sounds more like hipster alt-country than the title of a proper bluegrass album. And indeed the album is not a proper bluegrass album, which, as I’ve explained above, is often not a good sign.
The Earl Brothers sound like nothing else, but they are, unmistakably, a bluegrass band. That the music they are playing is bluegrass is evident from the first notes of the banjo on the opening number on WW&D, a slow and dirty roll that is unmistakably bluegrass banjo, even though it does not sound like any other bluegrass banjo. Robert Earl Davis (who has no brothers in the band, and presumably his real brothers don’t have the same middle name, but anyway) plays an archtop banjo, just as Ralph Stanley does. But his banjo doesn’t sound like Ralph’s does. Most archtop players, Ralph included, tighten the drum head on their banjo almost to the breaking point, producing a distinctly bright tone that is in marked contrast to the darker sound of the adherents of the style of Earl Scruggs, the other, first, and by far most influential progenitor of bluegrass banjo. Davis keeps the head of his banjo loose, which produces a dark but concentrated tone that is instantly recognizable. His style on the instrument is very basic, almost primitive, which is a fair description of the Earl Brothers’ sound in general. And for anyone familiar with the band’s music, after only a few notes it is impossible to think that you’re listening to any other banjo player.
After the banjo intro, the vocals come in, and they are also highly distinctive. In a high, raspy voice that is somewhat reminiscent of Bob Dylan, John McKelvy sings:
Turned up the radio so I could clear my head
Pulled into a corner store, picked up a bottle of red
Lost it all in ’94…
I been sittin’ here drinking, gonna drink a little more
It’s not that bluegrass songs don’t talk about drinking, but the attitude here is all wrong for bluegrass. If the drinking songs the Earl Brothers write often disguise themselves as cautionary tales, it’s never quite believable for some reason; even when the song is called “Don’t Drink From A Whiskey Bottle,” the music is more likely to make you want to drink, if you have a taste for the stuff.
Unlike most bluegrass music, which is usually a highly concentrated dose of energy even on the slow songs, the Earl Brothers sound is slinky and trancelike. Although the banjo and mandolin are recognizably lead instruments playing in the bluegrass idiom, there’s nothing on an Earl Brothers album that I would feel comfortable calling a solo. On “Been Sittin’ Here Drinking” the mandolin slides in on top of the banjo at the end of each break, playing basically the same thing every time through, creating a texture and a mood rather than expressing musical variations on a theme. This approach allows the Earl Brothers to employ the highly effective device of inserting a musical break between the verse and chorus of many of their songs. Whereas a full-blown solo would break the mood of the song, an Earl Brothers break heightens the tension that runs through most of their songs and creates an atmosphere that increases the impact of the chorus when it comes in.
In some ways this makes the music sound more like what is sometimes rather vaguely called “old-time” than bluegrass. A player or singer never asserts his ego; as unique as the playing and singing is, like the lyrics, it all seems to come from a certain distance. The band doesn’t relate thoughts, emotions and experiences to the listener so much as it brings the listener into a world that is at once very familiar and strikingly original. In fact, the Earl Brothers’ remarkable originality doesn’t consist in presenting something entirely new, but in making the old new through recombination and reinterpretation. The lyrics owe a lot to tradition, although at times it isn’t the bluegrass tradition that is invoked so much as the blues and mountain folk traditions. As I’ve said, the Earl Brothers aren’t the first bluegrass band to sing about drinking, but they don’t sing about it the way a bluegrass band generally does. Floating verses are imported from old songs, hackneyed bluegrass lyrics are pasted in, and familiar musical idioms are employed, but all in a way that sounds like nothing else you’ve ever heard.
The second song on Whiskey, Women and Death is an instrumental, and like all Earl Brothers instrumentals the intent seems to be to present the sound and feel of the band more than to express any new musical ideas. What is so astounding about the originality of the band is that they never sound like they’re trying to be original; they are never afraid to recycle ideas, both other people’s and their own. “Mountain Rumpus” does manage to raise a bit of a rumpus, although the band sounds hypnotic even on their (relatively) fast songs. A reworking of the traditional “Cluck Ol’ Hen” follows, and it’s the only non-original the band has ever recorded, although even this is rearranged and lyrically supplemented to such an extent that the band probably could have claimed a songwriting credit. The banjo oozes out a slow and repetitive mantra and the bass swoops in at the beginning of each bar, creating a dark and chilling feel that sets off the absurd, non sequitor lyrics:
My old hen, she cackles a lot
She cackles when it’s cold, she cackles when it’s hot
McKelvy could be singing about the end of the world, and the effect would scarcely be more creepy.
McKelvy’s “Broken Motor,” the only song on the album besides “Cluck Ol’ Hen” for which Davis doesn’t receive a writing credit, introduces a brighter feel, and probably would have made a perfect album opener if there were anywhere else to put “Been Sittin’ Here Drinking.” “Broken Motor” is also the best song on the album to this point; it’s one of those songs that is simple and catchy without being cloying. The lyrics to the chorus are almost moronically simple, and sit flat and lifeless on the page:
In the morning and late in the night
Everything’ll be all right, everything’ll be all right
As sung, however, the chorus is an irresistible climax, and this is a typical characteristic of the band’s lyrics—nobody is going to anthologize them in a volume of poetry, but more often than not they come off just exactly right for the song.
On the next song, Robert Earl Davis’ lead vocals sneak onto the album, five songs in. Although his voice is less immediately striking than McKelvy’s, his singing is just as unique and memorable. Whereas McKelvy’s piercing voice rides on top of the music, Davis’ baritone whine settles right down in with the band, just as insistent and trancelike as the music, and just as mesmerizing. And like Davis’ voice, “Good Thing Gone Wrong” eases in and eases out, not announcing itself loudly but rather saying a few simple things exactly as they should be said. It’s such an unassuming song, in fact, that it takes a few listens to sink in, not because there’s so much to it, but because there is so little. “Good Thing Gone Wrong” sounds like an attempt to write a song that does not do one single thing it doesn’t need to do, either musically or lyrically. As a songwriter, Robert Earl Davis never says more then he needs to, and he never comes up with a new lyric or a new lick when an old one will do. It’s a dangerous way to make music, because the risk is always there that the songs will become tiresome or redundant, but remarkably, after four albums they haven’t yet.
Each song on the album, to this point, seems to reveal a little more of what the Earl Brothers can do than the last, while at the same time maintaining a certain stylistic univocity. It’s as if they are all parts of the same machine, viewed one at a time. The next song, “Bender,” exploits the trance-like side of the band to its fullest, with a circular, winding structure and a repeated mandolin and banjo tandem inserted each time between the verse and the chorus.
Play me a song, cool and tender
Strum on that old Fender
Pour me a drink, boys
Let’s all have us a bender.
A ” Fender” in a bluegrass song? Monroe banished them long ago, but here one shows up in the lyrics, if not in the flesh. Very strange.
“Bender” is the most unique song on the album; unlike most other Earl Brothers songs, it presents something both original and not immediately recognizable. It’s hard to say what the musical antecedents of “Bender” are, beyond the way the instruments are picked; it comes out of the blue, while at the same time fitting in with the rest of the material comfortably. But the real strength of the Earl Brothers is to play music that is constructed out of familiar idioms and yet sounds cohesive and original, and if “Bender” is the most interesting song on the album, it’s probably the least likeable. Davis, who took his time getting in front of the microphone, sings half of the remaining songs, and with repeated listenings, the material on the tail end of the album proves to be the strongest. In listening to WW&D a second or third time, Davis’ songs begin to stand out as the foundation of the Earl Brothers’ sound, providing a sort of anchor that also makes McKelvy’s songs sound better, although this becomes apparent only gradually because of the way the album is programmed.
Many of the lyrics on the album are an odd blend of the old and the outlandish, or anyway, outlandish for bluegrass. On “Bad Road of Regret,” the opening lines are a floating verse that has appeared, in similar or identical form, in a constellation of closely-related, similar, or identical songs under titles like “I’ve Always Been a Rambler,” “The Girl I Left Behind,” “My Parents Treated Me Tenderly,” and a myriad other names:
I’ve always been a rambler, my life has been quite hard
I’ve always chased the women, drank whiskey, and played cards
It’s not hard to imagine Ralph Stanley, Mac Martin, or Ron Thomason singing these lines—or at least it shouldn’t be hard, because all of them have. But it’s downright impossible to picture any of them singing the chorus:
Get out your razor
blades, get out your guns
Come on boys let’s have a little fun
Running fast and playing hard
Where’ll you be when they deal your card
It’s not that bluegrassers don’t sing about toting guns and razors—they do, sometimes, although most often when they’re covering the older, less sentimental mountain songs, the sort of material that provides the opening lines of “Bad Road of Regret.” But they don’t sound so pleased about it.
More typical is the note of warning sounded in “Don’t Drink From a Whiskey Bottle”:
Come on, boys, gather ‘round if whiskey rules your life
Stay out of bars and old pool halls, marry you a wife
“Come on, boys” is a recognizable “come all ye”-type folk beginning, kind of like ancient poets invoking the muse. With words like these, the audience is drawn in and made to understand they are about to hear a cautionary tale; often the invocation is gendered, so that we know we’re about to be warned about the other gender (and it goes either way) in the old songs, but here it’s whiskey that we’re going to be warned about. And “marry you a wife” is likewise a typical admonition; you’re supposed to live the other way; it’s too late for me, but maybe not for you. But “Don’t Drink” is not likely to send anyone scurrying to the altar, or to Alcoholics Anonymous, for that matter. It’s the form of a cautionary song that we’re supposed to appreciate here; the song rings some old changes in a new way and its recognizability, rather than its sincerity, is what makes it so effective .
On the other hand, this shouldn’t imply that the Earl Brothers sound particularly self-conscious or insincere. Like the best material by the Ramones, an Earl Brothers song is as much a comment on the style of music it invokes as an iteration of that style. And also like the Ramones,this isn’t so much an artifice as a perfectly realized statement of the way the artist thinks music should sound. If the comparison with the Ramones seems to be out of the blue, it is perhaps worth noting that the Earl Brothers list two influences on their Myspace page: the Stanley Brothers and the Ramones. The first-named requires little comment. But while the Earl Brothers sound nothing like the Ramones, their approach to music is in many ways similar; each of these bands, at times, takes a genre and breaks it down into modular units, discards the unnecessary or extravagant material, rearranges what’s left, and produces a distilled version of the music that manages, in being less than its antecedents, to also be somewhat more. Indeed, the Earl Brothers’ blend of conservatism and innovation is arguably a fair description of punk in general, and the Ramones in particular.
Whiskey, Women and Death is not less than an astonishing album, and deserves to be heard more widely, but it’s hard to say who the wider audience would be. The Earl Brothers occupy a small niche in a genre, and a subculture, that they’re not really made for; they have little historical heft because they don’t really fit into any recognizable history, which saps their music of some of the impact it might otherwise have. It’s hard to imagine anyone not steeped in bluegrass fully understanding them, but it’s also hard to imagine any great plurality of bluegrass fans fully appreciating them, either. For one thing, even though bluegrass music is part of a larger musical tradition that includes rural folk music and what is today usually called old-time, bluegrass listeners often neglect old-time music, and old-time fans and musicians are often downright hostile to bluegrass. For another thing, as we’ve seen, the Earl Brothers’ sound, lyrics and attitude are rather dissonant with their genre.
Indeed, the Earl Brothers did finally come to the attention of Bluegrass Unlimited in 2008, only to have their third album, Moonshine, panned by a reviewer who did not merely dislike the album, but was clearly annoyed by it:
The first sharp notes of the banjo indicate an inflexible approach to a highly nuanced music. That they don’t get it is obvious in the lack of depth in the vocals. Lyrics such as Billy was found by the side of the road/He wasn’t looking too good/Legs all bent from a bad accident/No one to call him there [sic] own or I was a rounder/That’s all I’ll ever be/You know that I will be lucky if I make 23… fill the songs that sound like something you’ve heard before, but upon close listening are nothing like what you may have heard before. Parodies? No. Rip-offs? Maybe. They plagiarize older songs and themes in deadpan vocals that catch the sound without the soul of old-time mountain singing. "Hell On The Highway" is a direct lift of Ralph Stanley’s "Kitten And The Cat" down to lyric cadence and banjo break.
The specific claim about “Hell on the Highway” should probably be addressed; it’s simply inaccurate. The banjo break on “Kitten and the Cat” repeats over a I-IV-V sequence, whereas “Hell on the Highway” goes I-V-I, although the chords of the chorus (but not the verse) are the same. And while the melody is similar, the lyric cadence is in fact quite different. But more importantly, the feel of the song is completely different; while Davis does break out his most Stanley-esque forward roll—indeed, the song is one of the most straightahead bluegrass numbers the Earls have recorded—in a genre where 90% of the chord changes are a variant of I-IV-V, a slightly different feel can equal a world of difference. The chorus doesmention a cat, though.
But bluegrass musicians have never been shy about recycling their own, and other people’s, chord changes, melodies, and even lyrics. The Earl Brothers are certainly no exception; “Whiskey Bound” from the first album is musically identical to the Stanleys’ “Stone Walls and Steel Bars,” and Davis even recycles “Hell on the Highway” with different lyrics and one different chord in the chorus on the Earls’ next album. And the reviewer even seems to recognize that the Earl Brothers are working in a broader tradition than bluegrass. In light of that, it’s astounding that he invokes old-time mountain singing and plagiarism in the same review; it imposes a modern standard of authorship on a tradition that has long thrived on borrowing, repetition, and thematic reiteration.
In fact, there is something impersonal about Davis’ lyrics and delivery that should not be mistaken for lack of soul. In the best folk tradition, when Davis sings there is a distance between the singer and the song that invokes universality rather than detachment. It’s not that you get the sense that he doesn’t feel what he’s singing; rather, he feels it no more and no less than you do, and you feel it. The lyrics themselves often function in same way. Consider “Heartbreak Game,” the second song on Moonshine:
I know I can’t win
Our love has died
I know that I drank
Whiskey and wine
Can’t remember your name
We’ve lost it this time
Hurting so blue
Thinking about you
Can’t remember your name
It’s a heartbreak game
Thinking of you
I’m hurting inside
Lonely and blue
I know we both tried
Time has moved on
Don’t feel the same
Say our goodbyes
It’s a heartbreak game
On the face of it, these aren’t so much lyrics as a string of clichés. But the song exploits the power of cliché; it could even be said that it’s a song about the power of cliché.
The song is, in fact, about a game, as the title suggests, although not in the sense of anything trivial or frivolous. A game has rules, and a standard, prearranged set of actions that get set into motion according to a recognizable pattern. But that doesn’t mean that those who play the game don’t stake their happiness and their peace of mind on it. The song is about recognizable feelings and intentions that everyone can identify. Even the quirkiness of the plot—he recalls a lot of drinking, but not the name of the woman—serves to create a distance between the song and the singer that reduces the distance between the song and the listener; features that identify the song as being about the personal experiences of one Robert Earl Davis are downplayed, and as a result the lyrics round themselves into a whole that encompasses an entire sphere of experience.
After 2006’s Troubles to Blame, the Earls’ weirdest, and relatively weakest, album (emphasis on relatively—you should still buy it immediately), John McKelvy left the band and Davis took over as sole (pretty much) lead singer. The ensuing album, Moonshine, was the most bluegrassy album to date, and the changes seemed to leave the Earls in fine shape. McKelvy’s tenor vocals were as central to the Earl Brothers as his leads, but his replacement, Danny Morris, managed to recreate his distinctive harmonies, and the overall feel of the band changed little. But there were subtle changes, aside from the change in personnel; the music became a bit less sinuous and more driving, while retaining the elements of trance music that made the first two albums so hypnotic.
One new element on Moonshine does stand out, however; the last track, a one-chord drone with lyrics called “Life of Trouble,” features a fiddle player. This didn’t fail to escape the notice of Bluegrass Unlimited’s reviewer, who weighed in with the following: “The last cut is a clear lift of ‘Wild Bill Jones’ for ‘regional color’ one might guess. There is fiddle added to this track that is technically correct, but it’s not what mountain fiddling is all about.” This time, the specific claim is even more off-base than the last; “Life of Trouble” sounds nothing like any version of “Wild Bill Jones” I’ve ever heard, which makes it not so clear that it’s a lift.
More importantly, however, what the reviewer fails to appreciate, but no Earl Brothers fan could miss, is that the fiddle fits in perfectly with the band’s sound. It brings out a shuffle that was always there, and seems to have always suggested a fiddle, although it had never been felt as a lack. Indeed, years before Moonshine was recorded I heard members of the band express skepticism about adding a fiddle to the mix, but after three albums, it was time for the Earl Brothers to tinker with the sound. So for the next album, they brought fiddler Tom Lucas on board and became, at least on paper, a classic bluegrass five-piece.
I will doubtless be accused of hyperbole, but nevertheless I will insist that the resulting album, 2010’s The Earl Brothers, is nothing short of a masterpiece. This is not least, but also not solely, due to Tom Lucas’ fiddling. He has a bluesy scrape and shuffle reminiscent of the greatest bluegrass fiddler of them all, Curly Ray Cline, although with more of an old-time feel, including slightly inaccurate intonation that helps give this album a much rawer sound than the previous three. Lucas is the perfect fiddler for the Earl Brothers; he helps make The Earl Brothers even more of a classically bluegrass album than Moonshine, but, not being a typical bluegrass fiddler, simultaneously takes the band in a more old-time direction.
The Earl Brothers, as our Bluegrass Unlimited reviewer will perhaps notice, certainly do not get bluegrass right on this album; instead, they do something even better. If many of Davis’ earlier songs present mountain folk themes—complete with floating verses, well-worn tropes, and repetitive droning on the instruments—through a bluegrass lens, The Earl Brothers sets bluegrass itself back into the tradition, taking bluegrass lyrics and melodies as the building blocks and creating a more monolithic, impersonal, and epic musical statement that feels like its actually older than the original material it reframes. On their previous albums, the Earls were playing bluegrass while looking back through it at the sources from which it sprang (and at some it tried to overlook); this time, they turn squarely and face bluegrass, sweeping it up and taking it back into the mythical past, seemingly forgetting that the genre’s inception was as recent as 1945. Mother, the old home place, and even Jesus make their appearance on The Earl Brothers, not as particularly pressing concerns so much as inevitable touchstones that contribute to a brilliant meditation on the genre that has always been the Earl Brothers’ home, however uncomfortable a fit it may be.
The initial blast of off-key fiddle and banjo that kicks off the album is all wrong; it sounds more like a parking lot jam than a polished bluegrass performance. And the choice of opening number is just as odd and seemingly off the cuff; a ¾ time variation on the most hackneyed bluegrass theme imaginable, leaving mother back home in the mountains to go wander the wide wicked world. Musically and lyrically, there is absolutely nothing new going on in “Going Back Home”; I even had to check the label for the title before typing it, it’s so generic.
The song is reminiscent of so many bluegrass songs that it would be impossible to think of them all; for both melody and lyrics, “Mother’s Not Dead” immediately springs to mind:
Well I left my old home way back in the mountains
For mother and father had both passed away
We followed our mother up to the graveyard
For mother was called to heaven that day
Or another classic three-quarter time lament, “The Fields Have Turned Brown”:
I left my old home to ramble this country
No thoughts of the day when I would return
Now as I go home, to find no one waiting
The price I have paid to live and to learn
Son, don’t go astray” was what they both told me
Remember that love for God can be found”
But now they’re both gone this letter just told me
For years they’ve been dead, the fields have turned brown
To a melody that is similar to both of these songs, and to many others, Robert Earl Davis sings:
Many years have gone by since I left my old home place
I have no one left that remembers my name
I left my old home way back in Virginia
I left my dear mother, I left her to roam
Now I can’t go back to my home in the mountains
She’s no longer there I’m left all alone
I said my goodbyes when I left my dear mother
I never came back, I left my good home
I’m going back to my home in the mountains
Some little place that I can call home
They’re calling me back where mother is resting
If I can get back I’ll never more roam
The lyrics are a rearrangement of familiar themes, and they even begin to rearrange themselves after a while, as though Davis thinks that they are so good that adding new elements would just upset the balance.
Here, contradictions are no problem: I can’t go back, but I’m going back if I can get back, I’m going to go back home so I can call it home–whatever. Repetition is no problem. Cliché is no problem. In fact, there is no problem, because the song, like all good bluegrass, is perfect. A waltz-time mother song does not usually kick off an album; generally a crunchy 4/4 number or a barnburner is placed first for impact. But this song, whatever the hell it’s called—”I Miss My Home”? “My Old Home”? “Cabin Home On the Hill in the Pines”?—has plenty of impact. It serves as a manifesto for the album, a manifesto that basically just says “this is the Earl Brothers with a fiddle player, and we’re ready to play bluegrass!” Musically, the song is a raw, bleeding slice of bluegrass; if it’s not entirely traditional in its execution, I will say, at the risk of sounding hokey, that it is entirely hardcore. And for that reason, it’s the perfect opening number.
If the lineup is now fully in line with bluegrass protocol, the Earls are too primitivist to exploit it to the fullest; as if they’re embarrassed at the extravagance of a five-piece, often only three or four instruments can be heard on any given song. Davis kicks off “Cold and Lonesome” and takes the first break; the fiddle finally gets to have its say, but Larry Hughes’ mandolin stays in the background, even though there was an open slot for a break. But in the Earl Brothers, nobody takes a break unless they have a reason to. The mandolin would have sounded fine, of course, but the band plays it close to the vest.
So it is that “Won’t Be Around Anymore” features a guitar, bass, and banjo, and the fiddle and mandolin are absent. Davis does so little with his banjo breaks that it’s almost like he didn’t trust the other players to keep it reined in. The song has a bouncy melody that seems to cry out for melodic breaks to hammer the point home. Instead, Davis’ kickoff is droning and non-melodic. In fact, he ignores the melody almost entirely, not because he’s embellishing so much, but because he’s doing so little, just playing through the changes. It’s almost like the song is played as it was written; it’s possible to imagine that Davis sketched out the chords before hitting on the vocal melody, which is somewhat like an upbeat, major-chord rendition of “Little Sadie” with stiff, straight eighths. With melodic picking and some mandolin breaks, the song would have burst off the album with a catchy, bouncing leap; instead, as spare as the arrangement is, it envelops the song in a trance-mad undertow.
The banjo kicks off with a chiming, slightly retarded insistence, then repeats itself before the vocals unexpectedly come in as a variation on the understated theme established in the intro. When Morris tops Davis on the chorus, his tenor is so keening and mournful that it seems to corroborate the restrained argument of the arrangement; nobody should feel too happy about this song, it seems to say, certainly not happy enough to want to hear a mandolin break. After the chorus, Davis’ banjo repeats the exact same line as the intro, and then another verse and chorus, then the same banjo break again, another verse and chorus, and the same banjo break twice again—six times through in all with the same banjo line, the only small variation coming with the increased presence of the bass notes on the guitar that begin to rumble up from below the last time or two through the chords.
The lyrics are typically unconcerned about making a consistent point; like the banjo, they are more about a setting than a meaningful series of propositions:
Hard women and whiskey now I don’t regret
Remember the day that we first met
I don’t mind all the trouble I’m in
Let’s go out and do it again
If I had my life to live over again
Wouldn’t go back to that wild place of sin
Might stick around if you left this town
Won’t be around anymore
Let’s do it again, and I wish I could start my life over so I didn’t have to do it again, but I have no regrets, and so on. But expressions of regret are never entirely believable with the Earl Brothers; it’s not that the singer doesn’t regret it, it’s just that he doesn’t regret regretting it. Regret, pain, and hardship are not to be regretted, nor are they to be celebrated; they are to be sung about so we can all feel the range of suffering that comes with wicked pleasures, and if the thoughts are inconsistent, they are too common not to be true; if the words are too common to be consistent, they are too true to be trite.
As minimalist as the music is, it’s also amazingly rich. The last thing I want to do is give the impression that the Earl Brothers are more to be admired than enjoyed; in fact, they are one of the most riveting bands bluegrass has ever known. Even when the ideas themselves are spare, the effect is a paring away of potential distractions to leave what is most engaging about the music to come through with clarity and power. “When the Loving’s All Over,” like “Don’t Bring Trouble Home” on Whiskey, Women and Death, pushes itself so far toward the minimum ingredients of a bluegrass song that it reaches the commonplace and comes out the other side. A very typical bluegrass structure, in ¾ time, supports a melody that simply states what the chords are doing below, moving with the kicks to the IV and V, but otherwise staying put. When the chorus comes and the expected tenor vocal fails to materialize, the song suddenly gains depth from the omission; the payoff line, “Say our goodbyes, we’re drifting away,” having escaped being swamped by a harmony vocal, gathers the song together and releases it, transfigured, toward the verse. Any deviation from the song’s simplicity would only have reduced it.
Another standout track is “Thinking of You.” Like the first Earl Brothers song with a fiddle, Moonshine’s “Life of Trouble,” “Thinking of You” is basically a vocal number written over a fiddle groove. But whereas on “Life of Trouble” the lyrics almost felt like an excuse for spending three minutes with the shuffling fiddle, here music and vocals come together perfectly; when the tenor vocal belatedly swoops in on the final line of the chorus, and then the fiddle swells up into the break, the sheer perfection of the thing can’t help but make you smile.
If after three albums the Earl Brothers’ style seemed to be closing in a bit, The Earl Brothers sounds like it has opened up a range of future possibilities for the band. For one thing, they could make a far more conventional album and not sound like they’re getting tired; bluegrassier arrangements with a little more room for the mandolin may not be necessary, but they wouldn’t hurt anything either. Not least, that is because Larry Hughes makes use of his opportunities here to make you wonder what more he has to say on his instrument now that the band is not merely playing bluegrass, but actually thinking about it, too. His tremolo introduction to “Walk in the Light” is a case in point; Hughes brings to mind Curley Lambert’s work with the Stanley Brothers on songs like “Angel Band” and “Hills of Roan County,” and I can’t recall thinking that about a mandolin player before. But this is just another example of how bluegrass-literate the album is, so to speak; any reviewer who again accuses the Earl Brothers of trying to play like the Stanley Brothers and failing would not be listening to the album closely enough.
In fact, there seems to be very little room between what the Earl Brothers want to do and what they can do. That’s not because they can do anything; you should buy a Bela Fleck album if that’s what you want, I suppose. It’s just that the Earl Brothers want to, and can, do the right things, even as they themselves, with every album, are setting the standard for what the right things, for them, are. Their music manages to be as good as the best bluegrass because, like the best bluegrass, it achieves a kind of perfection. Even where their limits show—Davis’ weird swoop into a falsetto on “Troubles,” the repetitiveness of the instrumental breaks, Lucas’ intonation—the effect fits the music; the Earl Brothers are a perfect illustration of the oft-repeated point that one’s limitations define one’s style.
To return to the Bluegrass Unlimited review of Moonshine, a reader sent a letter to the editor defending the Earl Brothers which stated, in part: “The Earl Brothers are certainly not the Stanley Brothers of the third millennium, but neither are they musicians ‘who don’t get it.’” My point, however, is precisely that the Earl Brothers are the Stanley Brothers of the third millennium. Like the Stanley Brothers, they are the state of the art of a genre that they did not create, but that they are helping to define. But unlike the Stanley Brothers, the prospects for the Earl Brothers getting widespread recognition, even within the bluegrass genre, are slim; in the end, they may not have any influence or historical significance in bluegrass or acoustic music in general, and their albums may be out of print and impossible to find in ten years’ time. Only someone with a deep knowledge and appreciation of bluegrass music is likely to understand the Earl Brothers’ music, and that is already a small pool of potential fans. And bluegrass afficianadoes have not been flocking to the band. Their music, as engaging, soulful, and thought-provoking as it is, nevertheless, due to the circumstantial quirks of history and genre, is strangely obscure. But it will always be a rare treasure for those who know how to find it.