Bill and Sue-On Hillman: A 50-Year Musical Odyssey  ::  Rock Roots and Influences

Part 4
Central City, KY - September 1, 2001
"This will be the last concert for Don and me"
Rockabilly Hall of Fame Review
CENTRAL CITY, KY -- The Everly Brothers, who soared to the top of the pop field (1957-62) with what can best be called hybrid-rockabilly, their own unique blend of country harmony and r&b-based rock 'n' roll, performed in concert for what could be the last time here September 1, on a beautiful late summer evening which was as soft as their 1958 love song "Devoted to You."

Though the years have taken a toll on their voices -- especially evident on Don's high-tenor solo parts -- the brothers gave it their all for the crowd of 4,500, many of whom were not even born when Don and Phil first woke up little Susie, and were probably there because of the contemporary acts that followed: Australian c&w heart-throb Keith Urban and the hard-working, Dixie-fried rock band Sawyer Brown.

"This will be the last concert for Don and me," said Phil in an interview before their one-hour, 17-song performance which included a dozen of their best-known hits. "We will do some extended hotel dates, like (Las) Vegas and Atlantic City. But no more one nighters."

The occasion for this "farewell" was the 14th annual Everly Brothers Homecoming, an outdoor festival which has raised enough money to establish a perpetual $100,000 trust to fund college scholarships, as well as purchase 83 acres of land where a local community college has been built. The event has become a Labor Day weekend fixture in Muhlenberg County, the coal-mining, guitar thumb-picking and economically struggling heart of western Kentucky, where their ancestral roots run deep. The "original" Everly Brothers -- their father Ike and their two uncles -- began singing here in the 1930s.

"The show will go on and on and on without us," Phil continued. "They don't need us. They've got the young talent moving forward. My wife was outside the hotel, walking our dog and a man who was doing some gardening there asked her if she was here for the concert. She said yes and asked if he were going. He said 'Well-ll ... you know ... I don't care much for those brothers, but I do like Sawyer Brown.'"

Laughing at himself, Phil added "It's not like we won't be back. This will always be home. I'll probably be here next year ... backstage eating a hamburger ... just not performing. It's time for us to slow it down to a crawl."

Don Everly was born here in 1937 (in the crossroads community of Brownie, which you will no longer find on a road sign, much less in Rand McNally). Phil was born two years later in Chicago, where the family had moved for a better-paying job. But eventually Ike returned to his home county, settling in Drakesboro, the town which also produced guitar legends Merle Travis and Mose Rager, whose thumb-picking styles influenced Chet Atkins, who in turn played a big supporting role in Don and Phil's early success (he played on "Bye "Bye Love" and "All I Have to Do Is Dream" among many; and it was Chet's instrumental version of "Let It Be Me" that inspired the Everlys to record what Don calls "our favorite ballad").

For two guys in their 60s who have travelled a long and winding road for almost 50 years, Don and Phil looked pretty darn good. They both have full heads of hair (mostly silver), not a lot of wrinkles, walk with a quick step and play with youthful enthusiasm. While quite a bit heavier, neither is fat. Befitting their age, they dressed conservatively: Phil, the taller of the two, wore a powder blue jacket-shirt with matching pants; Don went two-tone with a beige jacket-shirt and dark brown pants.

They probably would have sounded better in an intimate, acoustic setting. Unfortunately, big, outdoor concerts demand a bigger sound, and they often had to strain to get their vocals in front of their five-piece backing band (John Hartford's son Jamie on lead guitar; Nashville veteran Buddy Emmons on pedal steel; Brits Phil Cranham on bass and Tony Newman on drums; and newcomer Bob Patin on keyboard). For the same reason, their own twin Gibsons were sometimes inaudible.

After opening with a tribute triology to their home state (including bluegrass standard "Kentucky" and their own final Top 40 hit "Bowling Green"), Don and Phil launched into their personal hit parade: "So Sad"..."Claudette"..."Crying in the Rain"..."When Will I Be Loved" ... "Bye Bye Love" ... "All I Have to Do Is Dream" ... "Til I Kissed You" ... "Cathy's Clown" ... "Wake Up Little Susie" ... "Lucille" ... "Let It Be Me" ... and "Walk Right Back. A pair of country standards -- the Delmore Brothers' 1949 chart-topper "Blues Stay Away From Me" and Jimmie Rodgers' 1928 hit "T For Texas" -- rounded out the program.         Don acknowledged their love of r&b before doing "Lucille," a real crowd pleaser and one of five Little Richard classics they recorded in excellent fashion while in their prime (the others: "Rip It Up," "Good Golly Miss Molly," "The Girl Can't Help It" and "Keep a Knockin'"). Next to their father Ike, Mose Rager and Chet Atkins, r&b legend Bo Diddley probably had the greatest influence on their guitar style.

But, vocally, their influence was pure hillbilly harmony.  "We grew up listening to the Bailes Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, the Louvin Brothers, the York Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys... people like that," said Phil. "But I'd say the greatest influence was probably our dad and our Uncle Charlie and Uncle Leonard.

"Music is like a river, part of the flow of life. And we're just part of that flow. I've always said the two best harmony singers are probably two guys working at a gas station somewhere. And in between pumping gas they sing... and people drive in and fill up when they don't have to, just to hear 'em. For us to be able to do what we've done, I'd say I've been as lucky as a man can get."

Phil also acknowledged Rager, the unheralded thumb-picker, as a big presence in their formative years. "We'd see Mose in his barbershop whenever we'd come back home. It's one of the great memories of a lifetime, Mose still cutting hair in Drakesboro. He'd cut our hair and after the haircut he and dad would pick up their guitars and play. He played so well he could've shaved my head just for the chance to listen."

Asked if they had any plans to record in the future, Phil responded with a laugh:  "No, I don't think so. There are so many records that you didn't buy that are still out there. I don't think there's a need for any more." He cited the 1960 move from Archie Bleyer's independent Cadence Records to the conglomorate Warner Brothers label as something which proved to be a negative turning point.

"On the positive side, there was the money," said Phil, referring to the $50,000-a-year for 10 years deal, reportedly the biggest contract in pop music history at that time. "But there was a negative side, because it cost us the loss of the (Boudleaux and Felice) Bryant songs and led to our split with Acuff-Rose (publishing). It was just two years later that I quit looking at the charts."

With good humor, he added, "I haven't looked at the charts in over 30 years. There's no use looking when you're not there."

Although they still go their separate ways offstage, Don and Phil seem to have put their well-documented brotherly feud (they didn't speak to each other from 1973 to 1983) behind them for the most part. The cause of their separation is easy to see as their personalties are as different as night and day. While the leader on-stage, Don is tightly wound, temperamental, serious, short-spoken and hurried (he side-stepped the planned interview and photo/autograph session with fans, some of whom had traveled from England and Australia). Phil, on the other hand, is the leader offstage. He is laid-back, good-natured, self-effacing and accessible, giving full, thoughtful answers to questions, signing autographs and posing for pictures for as long as they were sought.

Both, however, have given time, talent and effort to improving educational opportunities in the hard-luck county they call home. Perhaps that will be their greatest legacy: they never forgot where they came from.

Which is why one more Everly Brothers album might be fitting: a Kentucky bluegrass CD, on which their beautiful harmonies are joined by some of the fine fiddlers, mandolin players and banjo pickers who abound in their home state. After all, a few miles east of here, just across the Green River from Muhlenberg County lies Ohio County, home to the late Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass.

I'll even suggest a song. If you have a copy of The Browns' "The Three Bells" in your collection, turn it over and play the flip side: "Heaven Fell Last Night," written by John D. Loudermilk (who penned "Ebony Eyes" for the brothers). It seems a perfect fit for Don & Phil.