Outlaw Hillbilly – The Earl Brothers

Outlaw Hillbilly - The Earl BrothersMany music fans may be familiar with the term “outlaw country,” which has been applied to musicians such as Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash who wrote and recorded music which sounded completely different from the slick, pop-flavored country music which has been popular since the 1960s. There are even some country stars today, such as Eric Church and the Pistol Annies, who are portrayed as “outlaws,” making “real” music based on real life experiences. However, that term has not often been applied to bluegrass music. With their new album, Outlaw Hillbilly, San Francisco-based The Earl Brothers are set to change that.

Outlaw Hillbilly contains nine original songs, depicting gritty country life very different from the happy, bouncy songs about bonfires and pickup trucks that are often heard on the radio. Band leader and banjo player Robert Earl Davis has either written or co-written all nine tracks, proving himself a very capable songwriter. The album opens with the extremely dark Arkansas Line, in which a man murders his wife’s entire family. From there on out, whiskey, switchblades, and pain are ever-present. Soldier, the tale of a man who was left behind after a battle, has a Stanley Brothers feel, while Don’t Think About Me Unkindly seems to have Celtic and folk influences and shares the story of a man who is facing being left alone and. Cheater and the instrumental Rebels Romp are performed in more of an old-time style, with Rebels Romp featuring some excellent old time fiddling from Tom Lucas and guest fiddler Jody Richardson.

Both the vocals and instrumentation on this album are reminiscent of the first generation of bluegrass as well as older, pre-bluegrass acts. Davis’s singing seems influenced by Ralph Stanley and Bill Monroe (particularly Stanley), but with a darker feel. Instead of taking individual breaks, as is common in bluegrass, the instruments often slide in over top of each other, mixing together to create an interesting sound which match the lyrics of the songs. On Arkansas Line, the combined banjo and fiddle lend to the song’s haunting sound, while the guitar and banjo in Hard Times Down the Road creates an ominous feeling. It’s obvious that band members Davis (banjo and lead vocals), Lucas (fiddle), James Touzel (bass), and Thomas Wille (guitar and tenor vocals), as well as their several guest musicians, have studied the playing styles and sounds of those who came before them.

With Outlaw Hillbilly, the Earl Brothers have succeeded in making an album that sounds much different from most of modern bluegrass or country music. Like the country outlaws from several decades ago, their music draws from the rougher side of life and rejects what is currently popular on the radio. The Earl Brothers’ stripped down, old time sound will provide listeners with a nice change of pace.

For more information on the band’s music and touring schedule, visit their website at www.earlbrothers.com. Outlaw Hillbilly can be purchased from CD Baby.


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About the Author

John Curtis Goad

John Goad is a graduate of the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass, Old Time & Country Music program, with a Masters degree in both History and Appalachian Studies from ETSU.

  • George

    John Goad is one of the few reviewers that not only fully understands what The Earl Brothers are up to, but how they choose to render their unique sound. Those like me who remember the initial bluegrass years, also remember the many dark songs of that era. Mr. Goad has much to say to a generation which has seemingly lost touch with the darker songs like those of The Stanley Brothers on their Rich-R-Tone recordings.

    • Buddy Woodward

      I just want to say the first time I saw The Earl Brothers years ago at an IBMA showcase I was utterly transfixed, and immediately transported from a noisy convention hall during breakfast to an eldritch, mist-shrouded holler at midnight. H.P. Lovecraft-grass…a sound both immediately familiar but totally unique. Dark, disturbing, Stygian, and totally their own. I made it a point never to listen to contemporary bluegrass, mostly so I wouldn’t be unconsciously influenced while I was writing our music, but I made an exception with these guys. Long live The Earl Brothers!

  • Ivor Trueman

    Thanks for this – they sound like a breath of fresh air! I checked some of their Youtube stuff & wound up ordering a bundle of their CDs….

    Incidentally, and perhaps rather strangely, Robert Earl Davis played at the first (multi-day) bluegrass festival at Fincastle ’65 (with the Virginia Gentlemen).

    • Robert Earl Davis

      Ivor …thanks for the comment…
      yes you are right i did play at that festival..it was in Sept 1965 and i had just turned 16…we played at 6:30 on Saturday just before the Osborne brothers…i remember standing back stage and looking at sonny and Bobby thinking that “these guys are Really big ( they weighted a lot more back then)…and they had two girls with them that looked to be Twins/ big hair…well it was quite a sight!! and i remember it well..
      thanks for bring it up …

  • Josh

    I’ve been a long time fan of the Earl Brothers and own their albums. It’s great to hear new stuff and Outlaw Hillbilly may rank as the best the Earl Brothers have yet released. It’s great to hear Robert Earl Davis with tenor accompaniment from Thomas Willie. Very reminiscent of John McKelvey’s supporting vocals that made Whiskey, Women, and Death such a potent release. But I think what has leapt out at me is the new version of Hard Times Down the Road. Stripped down and keyed down, this new version is much more raw than the original, which I never did think was possible. But the standout performer on that song is the lil Jimmy Touzel’s electric bass. There’s bass riffs that erase any feeling that maybe a fiddle oughta be adding some comment in there. Terrific new version, Earl Brothers. Hope you guys tour near Kentucky way in the coming months.

    • Josh- I’d have to agree with you on all points. Outlaw Hillbilly is my favorite to date. You nailed it. I haven’t been able to explain what I’m hearing on this much more than I simply like it a lot. Did I mention I like this album a lot?

  • Ivor Trueman

    Just got “Outlaw Hillbilly” (and the previous two albums)… normally I run a mile from electric bass, but the runs on ‘Hard Times Down The Road’ suit the song perfectly.

    It’s kinda Ralph Stanley meets Roscoe Holcomb meets the Ramones.

    Their stripped to the bone sound have been ideal for the ‘Lawless’ film soundtrack. It would’ve suited the ‘very raw and brutal and punky’ sound Nick Cave & Co. were aiming at for their tale of prohibition era bootleggers the Bondurant bros’.

    • I’d have to agree completely with you Ivor. The Earl Bros. would have been a much better and authentic sound for “Lawless”.

  • Pingback: The Earl Brothers – Outlaw Hillbilly (2012) | exystence()

  • Robert Earl Davis

    “Many hitherto unknown secrets of the Earl Brothers are revealed”

    Robert Earl Davis & Thomas Wille talk with Ray Edlund “Pig in a Pen” radio show on KPFA..Live music and songs played from 5th CD “OUTLAW HILLBILLY”
    we had great talk with Ray…it’s always a pleasure….. R E / 4-8-2013 San Francisco

  • Robert Earl Davis

    Earl Brothers soundcloud ……


  • Robert Earl Davis

    “Are Bringing It”
    IBMA’s “World of Bluegrass Week 2013”

    The Earl Brothers, based in San Francisco and led by banjo master Robert Earl Davis, have been delving into the dark side of bluegrass for more than a decade now, and their fifth and latest album, Outlaw Hillbilly, takes them further down that rough road with songs like “Troubles,” “Cold and Lonesome,” and “When the Lovin’s All Over,” and grisly lines like “I stabbed her dear brother and cut off his head, and buried him deep so I knew he was dead.” They’re not a good time bluegrass band – they’re more interested in exploring the really bad times – but their music, like the blues, has that paradoxical effect of taking you so deep into the mire that you come out feeling a little better than you did before. “Their music is bare-bones bluegrass, without even the hint of anything more modern than 1965! These guys are very talented musicians, vocalists, and songwriters, but their sound is raw,” says the website Country Standard Time, which praises their “terrific new album” as “jarring in its intensity” and “simply the next step in the steady progression of a band that continues to gain ground within the bluegrass community.”

    The band features James Touzel on bass and vocals, Tom Lucas on fiddle and vocals, Thomas Wille on guitar and vocals, and Robert Earl Davis on banjo and vocals. Special guests Jody Richardson on fiddle will join the band. Truth be told, there’s only one Earl in the bunch, and none of them are related, but they play together like brothers. Their raw and ravaged sound brings to mind Ralph Stanley at his bleakest – and that’s a good thing!

    Review “Outlaw Hillbilly” Bluegrass Today

    Review “Outlaw Hillbilly” Country Standard Time News Magazine