The Earl Brothers,
Outlaw Hillbilly
(independent, 2012)

There's a bright and sunny side of life, but there's a dark and troubled side, too. If you're looking up the Earl Brothers, be advised to search for their residence in the latter. So that there is no misunderstanding on that score, Outlaw Hillbilly's very first cut, "Arkansas Line," boasts this verse:

I stabbed her dear brother and cut off his head
And I buried him deep so I knew he was dead
The rest of her family I burned them alive
I stirred up their ashes, and no one survived.

This is not so much horror show as the Earls' joking on themselves and their reputation for the morbid and the Gothic, which is to say their ramping up Greil Marcus's notion of the Old, Weird America to something that sometimes verges on parody. Most characters in the Earls' songs (nearly all of them originals) aren't mass-murdering psychopaths, but they aren't psychically healthy either: small-time criminals and/or big-time drunks, mostly, men who nurse grief and grievances and who are best given wide berth except when they're singing.

The sound that delivers the bad news feels like a 1947 of the soul. In that year bluegrass as we know it hadn't yet taken shape; yet in the songs of (for the most lasting example) Ralph & Carter Stanley, mountain music was pushing toward (relatively) more modern expression, holding on to older traditions while incorporating elements of the newer honkytonk style coming out of Texas and California. In that vein, the Earls conjure up lost men on lost highways, fleeing personal and other demons, disconnected from society and God. While God is a significant presence in bluegrass and its antecedents, He is pretty much invisible in the Earl Brothers' universe.

Overwhelmingly, those songs are the creation, and occasional co-creation, of banjo player Robert Earl Davis, who though he has Southern roots lives in San Francisco. Over the five albums released since 2004, the personnel has shifted so that only Davis remains from the first, whose title Whiskey, Women & Death announced what the band was and would be about. On Outlaw Hillbilly "Hard Times Down the Road" is revisited from Whiskey in a slightly different arrangement. It's still one of Davis's finest songs, if perhaps too darkly toned to be the bluegrass standard it deserves to be.

The arrangements this time aren't quite so stripped down -- on this recording anyway, the Earls number six as opposed to their usual four -- but the flavor is the same, rural in accent, downbeat in sentiment. In harmonies the Blue Sky Boys' mournful wail comes to mind, and that's nothing to complain about. On the other hand, there is nothing of their sentimentality. Perhaps something of an echo of it can be heard in "Don't Think Unkindly of Me," as close as the Earls get to a heart song. Here, hearts break while whiskey flows, but at least nobody gets killed.

One wishes only that there were more than nine cuts. The other discs have given us 11 or 12. Still, it's nine cups of darkness distilled the Earl Brothers way. Drink up and be damned, and like the Earls, I mean that in a good way.

music review by
Jerome Clark

6 October 2012

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