The Earl Brothers,
Troubles to Blame
(independent, 2006)

On first exposure to the Earl Brothers, you have the impression that you're hearing a band that has picked up on the very first draft of the Stanley Brothers' hard-core mountain-bluegrass sound. Lots of bluegrass performers have carried the Stanley influence, which shows little sign of waning. But a closer listening -- and the Earls, who are not in the background-music business, demand that you listen closer -- starts you to wondering, just what in hell is this? It's something that, as it turns out, is a whole lot more peculiar than casual, initial acquaintance leads you to presume.

Troubles to Blame is the Earls' second CD. The first, Whiskey, Women & Death (2004), bore a near-parodic title that one could imagine at the front of a patented Greil Marcus-style rumination on an invisible republic glimpsed only through its alcohol- and blood-soaked ballads, or maybe -- more prosaically -- in the pages of a Hank Williams biography. WW&D spins its own nightmare world out of, mostly, banjo player and vocalist Robert Earl Davis's compositions or co-compositions, and to a lesser extent guitarist and vocalist John McKelvy's, and out of a performance style so unabashedly rural that only an ignoramus would call it "country."

The four-piece band (rounded out by mandolin and stand-up bass) handles its instruments all right, albeit hardly at the Stanleys' level of excellence, but the sort of at-times prissy precision of the more typical modern bluegrass outfit, with its often more-than-human technical skills, is notably absent. The Earls have all the blunt, anarchic force of an old-time string band, which is what they feel like even if they aren't really, though with every breath they're taking in the thin air of the high atmosphere. They're based in San Francisco, but Davis and McKelvy have Southern roots and prior bluegrass histories, plus, I have no doubt, an encyclopedic knowledge of old American folk music.

The new disc is more of the same, though only Davis and McKelvy are carried over from the previous edition. Larry Hughes is now the mandolinist, Josh Sidman the bassist. Inevitably, the shock of the new ("new" being an adjective applied only relatively here) is gone, along with the sense that -- again relatively -- the songs aren't quite so striking or startling as they were last time around. Then, in fairness, how does anyone get again to the ferocious perfection of "Broken Motor," "Bender" and "Hard Times Down the Road," or to the sensation of hearing them for the first time?

To be clear: There is nothing, absolutely nothing, wrong with the writing here, nothing close to a mediocre composition or performance, and at least one song deserves to live on as a deep-bluegrass classic: Davis's "Oh Death is Calling Me." If you want to understand why the Earls are not, obvious shared elements apart, at heart just another hard-core bluegrass band, you could do worse than immerse yourself in this track, the 12th and last on the disc.

Given evangelical Christianity's large place in the Southern imagination, religion has always been a big part of the bluegrass tradition. No bluegrass bands fail to include gospel anthems in their repertoires; some, in fact, feature nothing but. Death is a recurring theme, with the singer or a loved one testifying in life's fading moments to the imminence of home in heaven. Not, however, here. "Oh Death is Calling Me" is a song in the vein of its partial namesake, the antique "Oh Death," where the cessation of life happens at the psychic crossroads of terror and relief -- terror at the fall into oblivion, relief at the passing of mortality's trials and misfortunes. To all intents and purposes, incomprehensible as it may seem -- naturally, I can't speak to their private thoughts and beliefs, only to their musical persona -- the Earls are the world's first agnostic bluegrass band.

Or it may be that they're just more interested in sin, despair and violence than in faith, redemption, and resurrection. Most of the vividly realized characters in their songs are drunks or criminals, or both. Sometimes, as in WW&D's "Hard Times" and in Troubles' "Old Gun Road," they're cruising the lost highways with both liquor bottles and weapons within reach, on their way to a bar or a stick-up, maybe one, then the other. You wouldn't want to drink where they're drinking, even if -- as it surely would be-- the music emanating from the nearby bandstand is incredible.

The Earls don't bother to prettify any of it. There's not a lick of sentimentality in them. They sing -- utterly convincingly -- like rough characters from way back in dirt-road hills and honkytonks. The harmonies are raw and nasal, the art so piercingly original that, for all its ostensibly traditional roots and particulars, it seems outside time and place, almost more avant garde than retro.

by Jerome Clark
17 March 2006