Many 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.