Everly Brothers: Kentucky harmony

January 7, 2014 

The passing of Phil Everly, one-half of the seminal rock 'n' roll duo, The Everly Brothers, reminds us of the rich musical vein that runs through Kentucky's western coalfield.

The brothers learned to harmonize with their parents in the 1940s and '50s as the family, which left Muhlenberg County for Chicago, played and sang live on radio shows across the Midwest and on Cas Walker's radio show in East Tennessee.

Later, the brothers topped the charts with songs such as Wake Up Little Susie and Bye Bye Love. Their intoxicating harmonies provided the "vocal link between all the 1950s great doo-wop groups and what would come in the 1960s," said Robert Santelli, executive director of the Grammy Museum, in an interview with the Los Angeles Times. "They showed the Beach Boys and the Beatles how to sing harmony and incorporate that into a pop music form that was irresistible."

Simon & Garfunkel, The Byrds; Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young; the Eagles — all were influenced by the Everlys. Phil Everly also wrote When Will I Be Loved?, a huge hit for Linda Ronstadt.

The Everly Brothers were heirs to another musical tradition that helped make the guitar the virtuoso instrument of popular music. Their father, Ike Everly, and other pickers in Muhlenberg County helped originate a style known as thumb-picking in which a guitarist can simultaneously play bass, rhythm and melody. Ike Everly's most famous protege, Merle Travis, writer of the coal-mining anthem Sixteen Tons, taught Chet Atkins, who was a prime influence on George Harrison and other great rock guitarists.

Next door in Ohio County, Bill Monroe, father of Bluegrass music, was developing his unique sound. A former slave, guitarist and fiddler Arnold Shultz, influenced Monroe and the Muhlenberg pickers.

Phil Everly, 74, who was born in Chicago but often returned to his family's Kentucky home as a child and later to put on benefit shows with his brother, died of complications from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which his wife attributed to a lifetime of smoking.

In their 1967 single Bowling Green, the Everly Brothers sang: "Kentucky sunshine makes the heart unfold. It warms the body and I know it touches the soul. Bluegrass is fine. Kentucky owns my mind."

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