The Earl Brothers,
(independent, 2008)

On Moonshine, their third album, the San Francisco-based Earl Brothers stick to the sound and sensibility of Whiskey, Women & Death (2004) and Troubles to Blame (2006). (I reviewed the latter in this space on 17 March 2006.) Some writers have called it "gothic bluegrass." Gothic it surely is; whether it's bluegrass, however, is not so clear.

Certainly, bluegrass elements -- in the vocal harmonies and the Scruggs-style banjo -- are there. Beyond that, though, the Earls give the impression of the kind of band one might have encountered deep in the Southern mountains just prior to the emergence of bluegrass in the mid-1940s. They're half old-time and half hard-core honkytonk. The sound is rough, far removed from the smoothness and slickness associated with more conventional bluegrass sounds. The Earls are not here to dazzle with cascades of notes, and like mountain string bands and unlike bluegrass outfits, they usually play all at once, as if to suggest that solo excursions -- standard practice in the genre Bill Monroe invented -- are fit only for show-boaters. Wasting not a lick, the Earls hold to the less-is-more philosophy that you tell the story and then you get off the stage.

Remarkably, they don't do gospel songs. No bluegrass band, let us be clear, does not do gospel songs. Even citified bands consisting of pickers who haven't darkened a church door in many's the long year make a point to insert a few sacred numbers into the program. The audiences, more devout by some considerable margin than the pop and rock crowd, expect -- and accept -- no less. If in the Southern evangelical mind life and music pit God vs. the devil, the Earls clearly find the latter more intriguing, at least as a subject for songs. As, one might add, did Robert Johnson, who if he'd lived and formed a string band might have gotten to this particular crossroads before the Earls.

Of the original Earls, who have always been four, only one member remains. That's banjoist and lead singer (and presumed band namesake) Robert Earl Davis, who also writes nearly all of the songs, on occasion in collaboration with another Earl. Here, "Train of Sorrow" and "Dark Days" are co-writes with guitarist/tenor-vocalist Danny Morris, "Going Walking" with mandolinist Larry Hughes, the only other member to carry over from Troubles to Blame. Between that album and this, guitarist/vocalist and Earls co-founder John McKelvy left the band loudly and acrimoniously, citing profound artistic differences. One has the impression, perhaps unfairly, that unless things stabilize the one constant will be that the Earls are Davis and three other guys.

Broadly speaking, the Earls resemble the very early Stanley Brothers, but unlike Ralph and Carter, who featured comic, romantic and religious material along with the dark Appalachian ballads of murder, drunkenness, betrayal and heartbreak, the Earls' world is unfailingly clouded and even dangerous, as even a casual perusal of titles reveals. Besides "Train" and "Days" mentioned above, titles include "Hell on the Highway," "Heartbreak Game" and "Life Full of Trouble." "By the Side of the Road" relates a tale so grim as to border on unbearable, but in a surprising twist delivers a happy ending in the very last line. Happy endings are hard to come by in an Earls ballad.

So much of what passes for bluegrass these days manages to be slick and listless, sterile perfection and empty energy. More and more, it echoes today's mainstream Nashville music, only on acoustic instruments. No one will ever say that of the Earls. They're a gloomy bunch, but they've got heart, soul and intensity, and they speak truth in a plain, and very spooky, language. Whether what they do is bluegrass or something else -- maybe something drawn out of a sinister corner of a lost or secret America -- it hits hard, and it is a pure art.

review by
Jerome Clark

24 May 2008

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