The Everly Brothers should be regarded as the first country-rock act. After growing up in Iowa and Tennessee during the 1940s and early '50s as performing country musicians in the Everly family band with their parents, the brothers eventually broke away as a duo and, being teenagers, gravitated toward rock 'n roll.
The brothers' early sides for Cadence -- big hits like "Bye Bye Love," "Wake Up Little Suzie" and "Bird Dog" -- essentially pioneered a hybrid sound distinct from rockabilly. That's about a full decade before the concept of a country-rock genre began to be talked up around some of the '60s groups typically pegged as originators (think International Submarine Band, The Byrds, Rick Nelson's band, and many more). Heard with the hindsight of five-plus decades of history, the early Everly sides still sound like nothing else from the era, except, perhaps, the many performers in their wake who appropriated the duo's format and sound. When considering the question of "first" historically, there are so many discs from the 1940s on in the country and R&B fields responsible for pioneering parts of the rock 'n roll sound that it's a dangerous folly to proclaim absolutes, but for the Everlys I make an exception.
It's worth noting that unlike many rockers who came from a country music background, the Everlys didn't abandon playing country music after becoming rock 'n roll stars -- or, retreat to strict C&W after the early '60s. When they recorded one of the first concept albums by rock 'n rollers, 1958's Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, it was a straight country/folk disc. They would return to the genre again for the 1963 album The Everly Brothers Sing Great Country Hits, during a time they were blocked from recording their own songs due to a dispute with publisher Acuff-Rose Music. Along with some other factors, the management dispute (lasting from 1961-64, as detailed in a Saving County Music commentary) essentially tanked the Brothers' career as major pop chart hit-makers in the U.S. ... which was a complete shame, because the duo continued recording fabulous music until their break in the early '70s.
Possibly the best of all those commercially ignored '60s Warner Brothers albums emerged in 1968, into a pop field smitten with psychedelia and heavy sounds. Roots was another concept album of sorts, the title optimistically signaling for the duo's wayward public a career reboot in the mode they first hit the charts with a decade previously. The album itself is hardly a retrenchment to vintage rock 'n roll or straight country, though, and instead is one of the most ambitious entries in the country-rock genre. The Brothers mix a few new songs (none written by Don or Phil, though), then-current country hits, some genre classics, a recasting of one Cadence-era number, and even clips of Everly family radio performances from 1952 into something completely new, appropriate to its era but still timeless and even fresh-sounding 40-plus years on.
Especially worth pointing out is the remake of "I Wonder if I Care as Much," originally the B-side of "Bye Bye Love" in 1957. The new version, taken at a slower tempo and gussied up for modern times with droning feedback guitar, is in its own way as simple a production as the original but spine-chillingly effective as psychedelia, gaining additional resonance when sung by the Brothers as adults rather than teenagers on the fast track to success. Another wild rearrangement overtakes Jimmie Rodgers' "T for Texas," which becomes a wah-wah, stop-time rocker (and credited on the album to Terry Slater, the Brothers' touring bass player). Slater does turns in my favorite of the new songs with the baroque "Living too Close to the Ground," edging out a pair of contributions by Ron Elliott of The Beau Brummels and a countrified take on Randy Newman's "Illinois."
Roots is a thoughtful look back at where The Everly Brothers started, but anchored squarely in a 1968 pop culture that had transmogrified in ways unthinkable when "Bye Bye Love" first hit the charts. In a perfect world, the album would have found an audience with both the duo's original fans and the hippie heads, and put them back on top. In this world, though, Roots caught the ears of the critics but not of the public; it sank quickly, was not re-pressed and for years was very hard to find.
The sound on the original Roots LP was yet another victim of Warner's use of Haeco-CSG processing, resulting in an oddly muddy and at times phase-y presentation. There have been some CD releases in the past using a slightly different pre-CSG version of the album, and a non-CSG version is finally available on LP. On Record Store Day, Rhino issued a new pressing of Roots, one that conforms to the original presentation of the album but without the CSG strangeness. Fans of the album (and anyone else, really) should track one of these down before the limited pressing disappears. (Warner Brothers WS 1752, 1968; Rhino 8122796025)