november 2008

Trouble In Mind, Lord They're Blue (Or Drink Up, You're Screwed Anyway)

By David McGee


The Earl Brothers (from left, standing): Robert Earl Davis, James Touzel, Danny Morris; (seated) Larry Hughes: No redemption. No problem.

The Earl Brothers
Big Hen Music

The pattern has been for the San Francisco-based Earl Brothers (Robert Earl Davis on banjo and lead vocals; Danny Morris on guitar and tenor vocals; Larry Hughes on mandolin and an occasional lead vocal; James Touzel on bass) to emerge every two years and deliver another knockout punch with a new album. It happened in 2004 with Whiskey, Women & Death, again in 2006 with Troubles to Blame, and now, in 2008, with Moonshine. When listening to the Earls' songs, you find yourself checking the songwriter credits, thinking this one or that one must be about a hundred years old. But no, they're all original here, all but one penned by Robert Earl Davis, who gets co-writing help from Danny Morris on one cut, from Larry Hughes on another; the lone non-Davis cut is from Hughes, a jubilant instrumental titled "Crossing Richmond" that features some infectious mandolin work on his part in the form of a repeating curlicue riff you don't want to stop. The sense of dread and doom looming over this entire endeavor comes from some place other than the Bay Area, too; maybe it's rising up from the depths of Appalachia or skulking around in the shadow of Clinch Mountain a century ago, an impression reinforced by Davis's nasally, pinched voice, wizened and wise all at once, but harboring no hint of redemption in its deeply metaphysical, Homeric ache. It's all the more effective in the context of the band's medium-heat atmospherics-the Earl Brothers don't go for the hard charge, really, but instead prefer a tight, close-knit, somewhat muted but nonetheless driving sound that emphasizes the "blue" in bluegrass.

But check and remember the album titles, because the Earls have staked out specific terrain, and it can be summarized as whiskey, women and trouble (not so much death, but it's in there too). The aforementioned "Crossing Richmond" is a rare example of high spirits sneaking onto the Earls' property, but less than three minutes later those have been summarily dispatched to wherever high spirits go to die in this world. Thematically the Earls are most beholden to the tragic worldview propagated by the brothers Stanley and Louvin. But whereas the Stanleys and Louvins could find solace in God's mercy, the Earls seem to have found the place God forgot, because He's not in the picture. Perhaps this feeling of being absolutely cut off from their maker's benevolence or obloquy accounts for why the Earls-in the words of Davis's songs-not only sense trouble lurking around every corner but actually counsel anticipating trouble brewing, always, and staying one step ahead of it. Even Larry Hughes, in his hilarious "Going Walking," finds a reason to light out for safer climes after his "exgirl" abandons him and his dog and takes the hog with her to boot (now that's cold, but he notes, "I didn't like the way she held her mouth anyway"-where does that come from?), prompting Hughes to announce, "I'm going walking/Get away from bad news." Women need not look her for any appreciation of their charms, for Davis chronicles one romantic disaster after another, sometimes linked to overindulgence in alcohol. In the lilting, mountain-style ballad, "Too Young to Go," Davis counsels a mate against marrying an underage girl, not because of her age but rather owing to what looms ahead in wedlock-"Now if you're thinking about marriage/And all the fine things it'll bring/You better be ready for trouble/Before you give someone a ring"-before asserting that the young girl is destined to grow into someone he won't recognize in later years. In the midtempo stroll of "Troubles to Blame," the "troubles" of the title sentiment happen to be a girl in a bar that Davis assures listeners will "tell you likes/and lead you astray," so he wisely suggests preemptive action: "Hit the road running/you'll be hurtin' today," and "Trouble is waiting/Stay ahead of the game/Make your own sunshine/Troubles to blame."

Trouble, trouble everywhere. In the somber thump of "Heartbreak Game" is a tale of a romance undone by whiskey and wine, with Davis's narrator having climbed so deep inside a bottle that he can't even remember his lover's name anymore. Belying its title, the strutting pace of "Hell On the Highway" is merely a ruse, masking a man's vow to hit the road and leave his heartbreak far behind-"loneliness ain't easy/when you've got cross-eyed pain," Davis moans as Hughes adds a piercing tenor harmony, "take a drink in the morning/our love won't be the same." Davis's forceful banjo picking leads the way into a wailing lament, "Dark Days," a tale of wanderlust and whiskey and the heartbreaking price paid for being overly familiar with both-"drunken days and evil ways/got a hold on me" he cries, before closing with what is some strikingly odd advice coming from the Earl Brothers, to wit: "If you drink whiskey/And lead a drunkard's life/Your life will be all troubled/You'll never take a wife."

Lest anyone think otherwise, the Earls are all superior musicians, but the band's style is to de-emphasize individual pyrotechnics. Although Hughes has a couple of wonderful mandolin solos (on "Troubles to Blame" and his own "Richmond Crossing") most of the solos discreetly rise up out of the mix and quickly resolve. Clearly the songs and the point of view are the things, and in Davis's rich, affecting songwriting the Earl Brothers have something special and unique. They may need to find something else to sing about somewhere down the road, but who can argue that theirs aren't timeless themes? When a group can assemble a dozen songs as mesmerizing as those on Moonshine, well, it's best to listen up. You might learn something.

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024