Remembering Don Everly

A look at his solo records reveals a couple of winners

NDIM Staff

Don and Phil Everly were two kids from Kentucky , who played Gibson hollow body guitars and sang together in close harmony that became influential in the rock and roll era. They themselves were influenced by a line of sibling duet groups like The Collins Kids and, most famously, the Louvin Brothers. The Everlys were able to have the pop music career that the Louvins had enjoyed until they were guilted into returning to the gospel music of their youth.

The Everlys paid for their pop success by being cut loose from country music, the very sound that had nurtured them. They were cut from the roster of the Grand Old Opry partly because their constant touring schedule made it difficult for them to participate in the Opry’s regular broadcasts, but part of it was also because they signed a recording contract with new label Warner Brothers.

They were part of a pop music landscape that was still near its peak yet which was about to be rapidly rearranged with the arrival of The Beatles. At first their music fit right in, and was even competitive with records like ‘Hard Days Night’ and the early Beach Boys. But as the sixties moved along it became clear that Phil and Don were less popular than they used to be. Their records still  charted but didn’t reach the heights they once had.

As the seventies beckoned, the duo was increasingly tired of the constant touring–they were still popular in the UK and Europe–and releasing records that didn’t sell very well. They were also tired of each other. The two had grown apart and had significantly different lives and different outlooks. Phil was conservative while Don was more relaxed and liberal. “I don’t see Phil that much now” Don told Alan Cacket in a 1978 interview for Country Music People. “We were so close for so long I feel it wasn’t healthy, we were almost like Siamese twins for something like twenty-five years”

Brother acts in rock and roll have a long track record of relationships that go up and down, often spilling over both on record and on stage. Ray and Dave Davies. The Gallagher Brothers. The Robinson Brothers. The Louvins. Phil and Don Everly grew up together as performers, learning to sing those close harmonies. To think as one, to breathe as one. But one day they were no longer adolescents but men who had grown in different directions. In addition, they fought with their management and as a result lost the services of the songwriters that had penned some of their biggest hits. 

They still were capable of making great music together, it’s just that no one was listening. Their 1968 album Roots has come to be considered a classic piece of the origins of country rock, right alongside The Fabulous Burrito Brothers and The Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo. In 1970 they were the summer replacement for the Johnny Cash Show, and though Warner Brothers dropped them, they signed with RCA and recorded two excellent albums, Stories We Could Tell and Pass The Chicken and Listen. These records were sadly neglected and in 1973 things came to a head at a show at Knotts Berry Farm, with Phil smashing his guitar and walking offstage, leaving Don to finish the show.

Don already had one solo album under his belt. 1970’s self-titled album was a strangely stilted affair. Split between country western standards and original songs by Don, it featured a band that included Ry Cooder, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Jim Keltner, Chris Ethridge, and Spooner Oldham. It’s a album with its own charms recorded while The Everly Brothers were still a going concern, but as Cackett says, “taken out of context, some of Don’s songs were quite good, but really most of them didn’t really make it on any individual level, but I feel the album would have been more tolerable if Don had proven himself a more subtle and inventive singer.” On the other hand, the tropicalism of ‘Safari’ has much the same energy as Talking Heads’ “Nothing But Flowers,” and a social message to boot.

In 1974 Don continued his solo career as the Everlys came to an end at a time when they were recording some of the best music of their careers. Guitarist Albert Lee and his band Heads, Hands, and Feet worked with Don on his album Sunset Towers, and the result is an excellent record, though I agree with Cacket’s assertion that one must clear one’s head of any association of Don Everly with the Everly Brothers. In other words, listen to this as though it were by a new artist and you’ll hear some pretty cool stuff. 

Phil Everly/Sunset Towers–Complete album

Most of the songs were composed by the team of Ray Smith and Tony Coulton, and they have a sometimes psychedelic, space cowboy feel that suits Don’s vocal qualities well. Unlike his first solo record, Don Everly doesn’t sound constrained to fit into a country bag. While this music sounds little like the Everly Brothers, it does skirt that territory between pop/rock & roll and country/folk. Standout tracks include “Did It Rain,” “Melody Train,” and “Helpless When You’re Gone,” one of two tracks that Everly wrote for the album (the other is “Evelyn Swing,” which is a slight song, but a charming one).

 Smith and Coulton are good songwriters, and they give Everly something to sink his teeth into here, with a diverse group of styles all designed to showcase Don’s vocals and his iconic presence. But the record made no impression whatsoever, and Don moved on from Ode Records and in a more decisively countrified direction, judging that it was an audience that was closest to the traditional audiences that Don and his brother Phil had drawn. These were maybe the kids that had grown up on Everly Brothers records and were parents themselves now. 

Brother Jukebox was recorded in Nashville and produced by Wesley Rose. The songs are good ones by some big Nashville songwriters. Paul Craft wrote the title track, and though Don’s recording of it reached #96 on the country music singles charts, it was recorded by Keith Whitley and also by Mark Chesnutt, for whom it was a number one hit. Sanger Shafer would go on to write songs like “All My Exes Live in Texas” but in the mid-seventies he was signed to an exclusive contract with Acuff-Rose Music. He wrote “Yesterday Just Passed My Way Again” and Don’s recording is perfect, his singing as strong as it ever was.

Don Everly will always be remembered for the hit records he and Phil recorded, but Don’s solo records are well worth checking out as we remember him. For those who enjoy rock, Sunset Towers is well worth checking out, while those who prefer a country sound will definitely enjoy Brother Jukebox.

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