The Earl Brothers,
The Earl Brothers
(independent, 2010)

To the casual listener, the San Francisco-based Earl Brothers -- this is their fourth album -- sound like a hyper-traditional bluegrass band, with the high-atmospheric sound of the first Stanley Brothers records. In other words, before anybody had thought to call mid-century commercial Appalachian music "bluegrass." The Earls, however, manage to confound more experienced bluegrass listeners, who sense that something else is going on here.

That something else, presumably, is an extraordinarily bleak -- and deeply modern -- sense of life, only expressed (pitch-perfectly, one might add) in the voice of what Greil Marcus famously called the Old, Weird America. Last time I reviewed an Earl Brothers CD (Moonshine in this space on 24 May 2008), I noted that "they don't do gospel songs. No bluegrass band ... does not do gospel songs." To the contrary, the band's repertoire -- consisting almost entirely of founder, banjo player, mainstay and namesake Robert Earl Davis's songs -- was relentlessly gothic, populated to an almost suffocating extent with criminal sociopaths and drunken losers (sometimes both at once). Such characters are not hard to find in Southern folk music and classic honkytonk, but so are the comic and the devout.

After my last review was posted, Davis wrote me to point out that he'd just written a gospel song and planned to put it on the next release. Well, here's the new one, self-titled, and there's "Walk in the Light," "light" not being a shade heretofore detectable in the Earls's world. It's a fine in-the-tradition hillbilly gospel tune, and it is not the only change. Their three previous discs featured dark covers and stark abstract art. Except for the words "The Earl Brothers" in black, this cover is pure white and bare. As with their music, the Earls are not ones to waste words; they say what they intend to say, and then they exit the stage.

Which raises the question of what the Earls intend to say this time around. Let us start by observing that, after a fair amount of personnel turmoil, the band has a lineup that's lasted intact over two recordings, and now it's added a fiddler, Tom Lucas, bringing the outfit for the first time to five members. Educated (no surprise) in the old-time school, Lucas is a most welcome addition to the sound, which he helps fill out while underscoring the Earls' debt to the profound tradition. Guitarist/tenor-vocalist Danny Morris writes and sings another powerful gospel number, "Sweet Bye & Bye" (not to be confused with the venerable hymn of the same title).

Davis himself startles immediately with the opening cut, "Going Back Home," on a theme familiar, hoarily so, in bluegrass and its antecedents: the longing for one's Southern mountain roots. (A good chunk of the Carter Family catalogue visits precisely that theme.) There is no irony, mockery or deeper meaning here; Davis appears entirely sincere and convincing, which brings to mind the strange thought that maybe the Earls aren't making some profound existential statement; maybe they do just like old Ralph & Carter Stanley records.

On the other hand, fans of the old Earls will be happy to learn that gloomy rumination, alcohol consumption, criminal behavior and premature death haven't abandoned the band to unaccustomed sunlight. Titles like "Troubles," "Cold & Lonesome" and "Cruel Lovers Game" alone ought to reassure anyone whom the above paragraphs may have rendered nervous. Of course, they're all good songs, and like all good Earl Brothers songs, they'll mess with your head. Perhaps for the sake of the world's peace of mind, it is a good thing that there is only one Earl Brothers. On the other hand, it is a good thing that there is an Earl Brothers. After all, nobody does the Earl Brothers better.

review by
Jerome Clark

8 May 2010

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