The Earl Brothers: (from left) Robert Earl Davis, Danny Morris, Tom Lucas, James Touzel: Access to knowledge that couldn’t come from a volume of history, but rather from a book on black magic…

Returning To The Vast Nothingness
The Earl Brothers, America’s Most Mysterious Band, Perfects Its Twilight Zone Bluegrass
By David McGee

The Earl Brothers
Big Hen Music

You’re looking at Act One, Scene One, of a nightmare, one not restricted to witching hours or dark, rainswept nights. Professor Walter Jameson, popular beyond words, who talks of the past as if it were the present, who conjures up the dead as if they were alive. In the view of this man, Professor Samuel Kittredge, Walter Jameson has access to knowledge that couldn’t come out of a volume of history, but rather from a book on black magic, which is to say this nightmare begins at noon. —Rod Serling’s opening narration, The Twilight Zone, season one, episode 24, “Long Live Walter Jameson,” first aired March 18, 1960

So what does “Long Live Walter Jameson” have to do with San Francisco’s Earl Brothers and their self-described “mountain bluegrass music” as heard on this, their fourth album? Well, Professor Samuel Kittredge was right about Profession Jameson—he had lived far longer than his relatively youthful looks revealed. In fact, a photo had been found of him hobnobbing with Civil War soldiers in his regiment; granted, he was identified in the photo as Hugh Skelton, but Kittredge sees the similarities. When Jameson’s long-abandoned wife shows up and shoots him dead, reducing him to a pile of dust on the floor, the truth is revealed.

And I believe I am right about the Earl Brothers: they may live in San Francisco, they may appear to be men of both relative youth and mature middle age. Friends, appearances can be deceiving. I am absolutely certain that in a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore tucked away in some southern basement or attic, buried deep in a neglected family photo album, is a Civil War-era photograph showing some Confederate soldiers lounging around a campfire in the days before a desperate battle. Maybe one of them is playing a banjo. Look closely at their faces; look then at an image of the Earl Brothers—Robert Earl Davis (he would be on banjo), Danny Morris, James Touzel, Larry Hughes and Tom Lucas. See if the Walter Jameson (or Dorian Gray, take your pick) effect doesn’t apply here. These Earl Brothers—not really brothers, you see—come from some place so dark and so mysterious and so ancient it cannot possibly exist in our day and age. They do what countless blues, bluegrass and country artists have done for so long in appropriating and building on lyrics and musical foundations that came before them, and Robert Earl can certainly affect a husky, nasally Ralph Stanley vocal style as if to the manor born. It’s probably to their credit that some reviewers have reviled the Earls as bluegrass frauds, or at least plagiarists. Truly, theirs is Twilight Zone bluegrass, a style with one foot in the music's deepest traditions, the other in a forbidding world only the Earls know. If you’re looking for something that sounds familiar but isn’t quite like anything else either in roots music, The Earl Brothers await and welcome you.

The Earl Brothers perform the title song of their second album, Troubles to Blame

The band’s thick, doom-laden sound is the product of simplicity: banjo, guitar, bass, mandolin (courtesy Larry Hughes) and—a new addition since 2006’s Moonshine long player—fiddle. They make no overt displays of virtuosity; instead, the Earls’ is a tight, ensemble sound designed to serve the mood and enhance key lyrical phrases, as Robert Earl’s nifty little banjo lick does when it adds an unusually cheery fillip to his dour warning, “the good things don’t last” at the end of the first verse of “When the Lovin’s All Over.” Only on the original instrumental “Red Top Rumble,” when both Robert Earl and new fiddler Tom Lucas step out on hard driving solos, do we hear something akin to the typical approach to a bluegrass album, although the track’s brevity (1:37) and placement at the midway point in the sequence (in contrast to the usual bluegrass convention of an album opening barnburner) indicates less a disregard for tradition than a need to get on with the business at hand—about the only purpose the instrumental serves is to distract a listener temporarily from the emotional and physical carnage Robert Earl leaves behind in his original songs. Let us not forget for a moment that the Earl Brothers introduced themselves to the world at large in 2004 with an album titled Whiskey, Women & Death, no joke. What worked in 2004 works in 2010, as that same trifecta provides the animating impulse for this new batch of songs.

If we know anything about Robert Earl Davis from his songs, we know that he is a man for whom the last fair deal has gone down. Behold: do not mistake the album opening “Going Back Home” for anything approaching the bucolic sentimentality of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” No, this gently rolling dirge with its sweeps of anxious fiddling relates the abject regrets of a man who left home impetuously and now returns to a place where “no one remembers my name,” because his mother has died in his absence. The cruel joke is on himself: “If I can get back/I’ll never more roam,” which doesn’t change the fact of his mother being six feet under and him left alone to lament his foolish choices. (Note, too, if you follow the lyrics in the gatefold package, you’ll see “roam” spelled “rome”; in what passes for a gospel song, “Walk In the Light,” the chorus, as printed, reads in part, “when there’s no where to turn don’t choose evil way’s.” These are but two of numerous examples of what might be regarded as sloppy proofreading but seem more part and parcel of the band’s personality—hey, Prince, a far less interesting artist than the Earls but far more famous and considerably wealthier, hasn’t learned how to spell “your” or “two” yet. As for the Earls, education in the 19th Century was not what it was in the 20th.) Like “Going Back Home,” the aforementioned “Walk In the Light” finds the singer again testifying to all the dastardly things that can happen to a soul when it pays no never mind to his parents’ counsel: his embrace of the bottle drives away his good wife and he winds up taking residence in a bar with his new companion, a bottle of whiskey, and moaning the hard truth he’s learned, as it’s spelled out here: “Don’t let Satan in/he’ll only bring trouble/he’ll ruin your life and bring a bad end/shoulda listen to mama/an heeded her warning/walk in the light and make Jesus your friend.” At least we know from Danny Morris that at least one of the Earls has walked the straight and narrow and anticipates his just reward: his lone contribution to the tunestack is the lilting “Sweet Bye & Bye,” in which he anticipates the “glory on high” awaiting him in death: “I’ll walk with Jesus in the sweet bye and bye.”

Robert Earl Davis: ‘I hope things are going great and good luck is with you.’

Morris’s is a transitory peace, though. “When the Lovin’s All Over” is not merely a breakup song, but a monumentally fatalistic one, looking not toward a happier time but drowning in the inevitability of looming trial and tragedy: “When you’re out on the highway/To far from home/You’re likely to wander/Down a unhappy road/Someone’ll call you/From out of the past/They’ll break up your home/The goodthings don’t last”—this being one of two instances on the record when Robert Earl stresses the truth of “good things don’t last,” the other coming in “Troubles,” a tale of the existential link between hard women, trouble, whiskey and the certainty of dire consequences ensuing from straying too far from home at a young age—“don’t count on good luck to be with you/good things don’t last for long,” he intones dourly. In “Cruel Lovers Game” (which becomes “crual lovers game” in the printed lyrics—we’ve dispensed with any [sic] notations here; it is what it is), Robert Earl has only the bottle left to comfort him after his gal has flown the coop, but incredibly, in the chorus he beseeches her with “I know I could make you real happy/if you’ed only come back again.” That’s optimism of the highest order coming from this fellow. In “Won’t Be Around Anymore,” no whiskey is evident in the storyline, but there is a “wild cat place where my sweet Linda made my heart race,” presumably a brothel, but this sturdy, driving tune is not concerned with “sweet Linda” but with the upshot of his encounter with her—he’s leaving town in order to escape her temptations and the lure of the “wild place of sin”; so overpowering is his remorse over his “ramble” that in the chorus he and Morris harmonize on a plaintive wish: “If I had my life to live over again/I wouldn’t go back to that wild place of sin…” When you get around to rethinking your life, you’re in deep. All this must be heard to be believed.

So what am I to make of the note from Robert Earl that accompanied this CD mailing? It begins: “I hope things are going great and good luck is with you.” I’ll ponder that in the context of his expressed philosophy in song and sign off recommending The Earl Brothers without reservation as the fourth mesmerizing testament of the most mysterious band in America. As Rod Serling put it in his closing voiceover in “Long Live Walter Jameson,” “Last stop on a long journey, as yet another human being returns to the vast nothingness that is the beginning and into the dust that is always the end.”

The Earl Brothers is available at

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