The Earl Brothers, the San Francisco-based hardcore bluegrass outfit fronted for a decade by Robert Earl Davis, return this month with their fifth platter of bone-chilling mountain sounds.
It is no secret I've been a fan since the first time I played their startling debut, "Whiskey, Women, & Death" in 2004. That was and is a powerhouse album, one of the strongest non-mainstream bluegrass debuts I've experienced. Shortly after hearing that first album, I wrote "their music is bare-bones bluegrass, without even the hint of anything more modern than 1965! These guys are very talented musicians, vocalists, and songwriters, but their sound is raw like the Stanley Brothers were real. There are no pretensions with The Earl Brothers."
If you've never heard or heard of The Earl Brothers, I do hope you adjust the way you've been listening to bluegrass music. It is hard to describe their music, though I've tried in countless pieces over the years. Maybe the best way is to just list some of their song titles: Train of Sorrow; Hard Times and Heartbreaks; Rattlesnake Poison; Been Sitting Here Drinkin'; Bad Road of Regret; I Won't Be Coming Home; Life Full of Trouble; Dreadful Day. Starting to get the picture?
Upon the occasion of their second album "Troubles to Blame" I wrote: "reinvigorating bluegrass with the shadows and dust of punk and mountain country music, The Earl Brothers have made another stunning lo-fi album with songs of whiskey, women, and death; prominent 5-string and mandolin share the lead position with hard scrabble vocals." "Troubles to Blame" wasn't markedly different from the debut, and was all the better for it.
That album was the last to feature John McKelvy and his presence was missed. Still, Robert Earl Davis regrouped the band and they came back as strong as ever with "Moonshine" in 2008. With Dailey & Vincent's debut in mind, I called the album " the complete antithesis of the prevalent slick, high-browed bluegrass" that was being released. "Original in sound, attitude, and material, the Earl Brothers' third album finds the four-piece moving forward while retaining all the elements...fans have come to appreciate. The Earl Brothers' approach to bluegrass is so fresh and natural and their sound so identifiable, listeners are likely to either love or hate this California-based band."
True, that final comment. When we booked the band for a 2006 Waskasoo Bluegrass concert, we had our most divisive feedback ever- one regular patron loved the band, effusive in his praise of "our best concert ever! That's the real deal." Others left at intermission, not sure what to make of the band but knowing it wasn't for them. Years later, board members would question me about bands we were booking and use the Earl Brothers as a yardstick to compare others. And not always positively.
Still, I remained a strong supporter of the group. I found that their music just got better over the years, the new albums each stronger than what came before, the vintage releases aging well with (very) repeated listening.
Chris Jones, bluegrass broadcaster, singer, writer, bandleader, and all-around tall drink of water- so I've heard the ladies suggest- recently wrote about enunciation in bluegrass, and he may have considered singers like Davis had he delved a little more into non-examples of clear enunciation. Unlike some singers, where the slurring of words sounds lazy or simply as an affectation, with Davis it is just what he does- it is how he sings, and has consistently sung over the course of five albums.
A couple years on, when a revamped edition of The Earl Brothers released their eponymous album in 2010, I suggested: "Like The Steeldrivers, The Earl Brothers present a dramatic, unique shade of bluegrass. Whereas the Steeldrivers emphasize the hard-lived blues ancestry of bluegrass, The Earl Brothers favour twisted, hillbilly gothic experiences that peel flesh from bone. In adding Tom Lucas's fiddle to the mix, the band has confidently moved toward the bluegrass mainstream, using the instrument much the way Bill Monroe did- to reveal and emphasize the tempered emotions of a song as the voice simply can't alone. Davis' chosen subject matter hasn't changed; like a successful novelist, Davis knows that his audience expects certain traits within his work. Most of his protagonists are rounders, ramblers, and broken-hearted fools fessin' up to messin' up with hard women and raw whiskey. The resulting troubles are almost too much to endure."
Listening this evening to select cuts from The Earl Brothers' oeuvre, one can't but notice the changes in the band. True, the subject matter hasn't drifted at all. Some of these changes are subtle- an assurance that comes from experience, an ability to modulate emotional nuance- while others are more dramatic. The fiddle presence of Tom Lucas (The Crooked Jades) has added a significant dimension to the band, upon reflection one that was lacking prior to 2010. "Outlaw Hillbilly" is simply the next step in the steady progression of a band that continues to gain ground within the bluegrass community.
The album is brief- nine songs in 27 minutes- but full of life. And death. My lasting impression of the album, reinforced on tunes including Cheater and the instrumental Rebels Romp, is the power of Davis' banjo playing. One can hear rolls throughout the album, but he has a different type of playing that, from where I'm listening, is entirely his own. There are pieces where it sounds as if he is playing clawhammer-style and then other ones where classic three-finger style seems prevalent. And that can be in the same song. It is all over the place, and that isn't bad.
There is some Cluck Ol' Hen hidden within Bone Down, the album's closing instrumental, but while the influences may be ancient the impact is jarring in its intensity. When listening to some bluegrass music, the ruffians and hard-living fools seem quaint in their error-filled innocence. Not so with those who populate "Outlaw Hillbilly."
Davis' characters can't buy a break, not that they deserve one. For every guy double-crossed by a woman (Hey Hey, Cheater), there is one making even worse decisions, usually with a switchblade in hand (Bad Man, Hard Times Down the Road.)
There is more than that, of course; if the band relied only on colourful characters, the listening experience may become a tad trite. The muted bass playing of Larry Touzal, the only holdover from both "Moonshine" and "The Earl Brothers", on Hard Times Down the Road isn't typically heard within a bluegrass context. It is very atmospheric, quite ideal in establishing the new tone of the song first heard on the debut.
Davis has written many excellent songs over the years, but his new Soldier may be among his strongest. The story of a wounded soldier forgotten on the field of battle, this one is pretty mournful. As he lays dying, he wishes for his compatriots to pass around the bottle and play a sad jukebox song in his memory. It is a different take on a familiar bluegrass theme, but one positively typical of Davis.
Still, Robert Earl Davis may have outdone even himself with his most troubling character yet. "Outlaw Hillbilly's" lead track is a creation so black, with lyrics so troubling, that they could have made both Carter Stanley and Roy Lee Centers hesitate to sing them.
Bluegrass songs don't come darker than Arkansas Line, co-written with guitarist and vocalist Thomas Wille. A man sets out to seek a life across the Missouri border in a land where "you better be ready for what you might find." He meets a "good woman" and establishes "a fine home near the Arkansas line." All good, right? Except, this one ain't going to end with a dog on the porch of a little cabin on the hill.
Nope, Robert Earl Davis has a different view of life. Over a steady, almost hypnotizing banjo roll, the tale unfolds. See, "her family was wicked" and got in his way, so there was only one solution:
"I stabbed her dear brother an' cut off his head." Has there been a decapitation in bluegrass before? Probably, but while he sings, "I regret the bad things that I did on that day," you don't hear any second thoughts in his voice. And it gets worse. Or better, depending on perspective.
"An' I buried him deep so I knew he was dead," just in case there was some doubt. "The rest of her family, I burned them alive. I stirred up their ashes, and no one survived." No kidding.
The denouement? "My wife she has left me. I was sent off to jail. It is a sad end on the Arkansas trail."
Ivan Rosenberg, a resonator player of some renown, having spent time with Chris Stuart & Backcountry and recording his own music while also collaborating with the Foggy Hogtown Boys, recently stated in "Penguin Eggs" magazine that "bluegrass has gone the direction of sounding like disposable modern country music" and has accused the industry of not being concerned about its impact on bluegrass.
I think I need to gift Rosenberg a copy of "Hillbilly Outlaw." Bluegrass doesn't get further than "crappy modern country music" than The Earl Brothers.
If you're bored with much of what you hear on "Bluegrass Junction," you need to give this terrific new album a serious listen.
BTW, I have an extra copy of "The Earl Brothers" album released in 2010. It'll go to someone who takes the time to contact me via e-mail. I'll do a random draw in a week or so. Best, Donald