By Richie Unterberger

For several years following the British Invasion, the Everly Brothers had tried various approaches to recapture the large audience they'd enjoyed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. They'd recorded two albums of rock'n'roll oldies and soul covers; gone to London to cut an LP largely written by the Hollies; and absorbed elements of the British Invasion, folk-rock, and soul music into numerous singles. These explorations produced a good number of fine recordings, but rarely met with any significant commercial success. By 1968, however, there may have been a feeling that the Everly Brothers were catching up with the times, or perhaps it was the times catching up with them. Country-rock was starting to take off, played by musicians just a few years younger than Don and Phil Everly, and by groups and singer-songwriters who often counted the Everly Brothers among their major heroes and influences. The time was right, perhaps, for the Everly Brothers to do a country-rock album of their own, especially as much of their past music hadn't been too far from country-rock itself.

    With some excellent exceptions, most of the Everly Brothers' 1960s albums had suffered from adhering to a vague concept that wasn't wholly in line with the duo's greatest strengths, or from being ragtag collections of previous singles and other stray tracks. Roots, however, would be envisioned and recorded as an album to stand on its own two feet, following a growing inclination toward country-rock, but not wedded to a confining theme. Warner Brothers itself was becoming much more conscious of the expanding market for serious rock albums, and the record would be produced by one of the company's chief advocates of that shift in direction, Lenny Waronker (who would later become president of the label). Working with Don and Phil Everly on most of the arrangements, and also contributing some guitar and songwriting, was Ron Elliott of the Beau Brummels, who'd been introduced to the Everlys by Waronker. The team made sense, as Waronker had helped oversee the Beau Brummels' own transition into more serious singer-songwriter-oriented music and country-rock by producing the group's Triangle and Bradley's Barn albums, in 1967 and 1968 respectively.

    The material, too, would be selected more carefully than it had on some of the Everlys' prior Warner Brothers LPs. As the title signified, there would be homages to the music that Don and Phil had grown up with, via covers of some pure country tunes. Yet there would also be interpretations of contemporary compositions by newly emerging songwriters, and unobtrusive orchestration would occasionally grace the tracks. Even the packaging reflected a commitment to both honor the past and forge into the future, the brothers sporting mod white clothes and Beatles haircuts on the front cover, but the back sleeve featuring some family photos of the pair from childhood. The record would even include some snippets from a 1952 Everly family radio broadcast.

    The result was an album that showcased a maturing Everly Brothers, more subdued than the past perhaps, yet also imbued with the knowing wisdom that comes from scaling to superstardom and struggling to recapture it. From the pure country side came two Merle Haggard tunes, "Mama Tried" and "Sing Me Back Home," and "You Done Me Wrong," first done by country icon Ray Price, and given a circus-like treatment here. They dug much further into country's roots for Jimmie Rodgers's "T for Texas" and the traditional "Shady Grove." Glen Campbell's "Less of Me" also was coated in heavy country stylings (particularly in the guitar parts), though judging from the harmonies, it wouldn't be a surprise if Don and Phil had been listening to the Byrds' Sweetheart in the Rodeo, which had been cut earlier in 1968.

    Just as the Waronker connection had been responsible for bringing Elliott and the Everly Brothers together, it likely also led to the pair covering a song by Randy Newman, "Illinois" (which the composer would never put on his own LPs). Though some of his songs had been hits for other artists, Newman in 1968 was still barely known as a solo artist, putting out his first album that year -- an album that, unsurprisingly, Waronker worked on as co-producer. Ron Elliott's "Turn Around," probably the record's catchiest tune, came from the Beau Brummels' Bradley's Barn, and Elliott also contributed "Ventura Boulevard," which the Brummels never put on their releases. "Living Too Close to the Ground" was contributed by their English bass player, Terry Slater, who had co-written the Everlys' final Top Forty hit, 1967's "Bowling Green."

    Many of the Everly Brothers' 1960s albums included little or no original material, and Roots unfortunately had only one such item, Don and Phil's "I Wonder If I Care So Much." Furthermore, that wasn't a new tune, having been first recorded by the pair back in 1957 for the B-side of their first hit, "Bye Bye Love." The Roots has a far different arrangement, however, and was singled for praise in The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, where Kit Rachlis wrote: "The original version is too jaunty. Their harmonies gloss over the lyrics, which seem beyond their capabilities. On Roots their voices display an added edge and weight. They slow down the song -- changing the tempo several times -- and break it down into pieces, as if they were rolling it around in their hands and carefully examining it. As they sing it now, the song questions their whole career."

    Roots has attracted critical praise since its release, but like most of their Warners LPs, it wasn't much of a seller. As one-time Warner Brothers Records president Joe Smith observed in Roger White's Everly Brothers biography Walk Right Back, "We decided to do one all-out assault. Lenny Waronker and [Warners'] Andy Wickham [credited, with Waronker, with "conception" on the back cover] had an idea to do a definitive country pop album. It was brilliant but unfortunately it was the kind of album that seems, in retrospect, maybe four or five years ahead of its time." It would be the Everlys' last studio album for the label, their stay with the company concluded by the live 1970 double LP The Everly Brothers Show, also reissued on CD by Collectors' Choice Music. -- Richie Unterberger

contents copyright Richie Unterberger , 2000-2010
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