Following the death of Phil Everly, a lot of attention has been given to the various people influenced by the Everly Brothers – among them the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel and the Hollies. But no one seems to have thought about who influenced the Everlys.Though they were a pop act, their early influences were pure country. They were based in Nashville during the most successful part of their career and sprang from a country music tradition of brother duets that included the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers and the Stanley Brothers.
The Everlys acknowledged a particular debt to the Louvin brothers, Charles and Ira, whose biggest country hits came out in the mid-1950s. The Encyclopaedia of Country Music says of the Louvins: “Their stratospheric vocal interplay made them probably the most influential harmony duet in country music history, touching everybody from Emmylou Harris to the cowpunk band Rank & File".It’s long been recognised that sibling vocal groups have a special quality. As the ECM puts it: “Similar vocal timbres, common word pronunciations, familiarity with each other’s singing style and shared cultural origins help to explain siblings’ ability to phrase and harmonise so well.” That’s never been more apparent than in the songs of the Louvins and the Everlys, but you can hear it in plenty of other family groups as well, from the Bee Gees to our own Topp Twins.
The Louvins, born Charles and Ira Loudermilk, came from a poverty-stricken farming family in Alabama and were first cousins of the prolific pop songwriter John D Loudermilk (they changed their name to make it easier to pronounce). The mandolin-playing Ira, a classic high, lonesome tenor in the bluegrass tradition, didn’t handle things well when their gospel-influenced style fell from favour in the early 1960s. The two acrimoniously broke up (as the Everlys were to do a decade later) and Ira’s life disintegrated in a classic Nashville story of self-destruction. He developed a serious drinking problem, was shot and seriously injured by his first wife, then died in a car crash with his second wife in 1965. Charles lived till 2011– long enough to enjoy the belated recognition that came his way when a new generation of country stars rediscovered the Louvin brothers’ music.
For an example of the Louvins’ harmonies, try When I Stop Dreaming – a song they wrote themselves, and now a country standard. The similarity to Don and Phil Everly is striking. But that's from the commercial end of the Louvins' repertoire. Arguably more representative of their distinctive style is the traditional Appalachian murder ballad Knoxville Girl, a slice of gothic Americana whose grim theme is bizarrely offset by the Louvins' jaunty, offhand delivery. Classic.