When Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones recorded their own version of the Everly Brothers' Songs Our Daddy Taught Us, writer Tom Lanham tracked down Phil Everly to talk to him about the album. He couldn't know that the musician would pass away a few weeks later, just shy of his 75th birthday. The following is what's believed to be the artist's last official interview.
With his co-vocalist brother Don, singer Phil Everly helped lay the very foundations for rock 'n roll, which included such surprising left turns as Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. The 1958 American Gothic-style sophomore album still continues to stun — and/or haunt — new generations of artists, like Billie Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones, who recreated the album, note for note, on Foreverly.
When I interviewed Phil weeks before his unexpected death Jan. 3 at the age of 74, the music pioneer's life was much less hectic, as he quietly oversaw the Everly Music Company in Southern California. But that didn't mean he'd stopped making music.
"My son and I run a string company, and he has a studio there, and I go down sometimes and we'll record," he said. "Like last year, I did some Christmas things, but I just do that for myself. So if I do end up doing something, it's just because it'll be fun."
Which is why Everly was seriously considering tracking his own version of Green Day's poignant "Wake Me Up When September Ends," as a way of saying thanks to his new punk rock benefactor Armstrong.
"Because that song is very similar to a Boudleaux Bryant song," he explained. "When you put the harmony to the last line, it just reminds me of that feel — it's a really good song," he added, during the course of a rare interview on the occasion of Jones and Armstrong's Foreverly tribute.
Songs Our Daddy Taught Us has almost every dark traditional song but "Knoxville Girl." It's just incredible.
You know your songs. These were the traditional songs that we grew up singing, because we started out in radio with our mom and dad, and those were the songs that we sang. So we knew them — it was just a matter of doing them. And it was kind of strange to have done it. But it was part of our tradition, so we just did it.
And The Everly Brothers had already scored all these chart hits. It was quite a creative gamble to put Songs out for a second album.
Well, there was some reason other than that, that eludes me right now. But it was perfectly natural. And you know, it's all live and it was very easy to do. And I think it was at the transitional period where we had another album to do for [initial imprint] Cadence, and then we were going to go to Warner Brothers. So all of that comes into play.
But we didn't think in those terms back in the old days. Only now, in modern times, is it acceptable for you to keep doing the same thing, over and over and over. But in the beginning of rock and roll, there was always innovation. Artists were always trying to do something new and something different. And I find that [vintage mindset] true for Billie Joe Armstrong — it's very unusual for him to have done this.
Have you heard the entire Foreverly album yet?
Well, the two pieces that I have heard are just really, really sensational, really good. I heard "That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine" the other day, and they did it a little faster, and it's really quite interesting. It's one of my favorite songs, anyway, but it was always hard for me. On the last tour my brother and I did in England, we were doing an acoustic set in the middle of it, and we would do that one. And it's a real hard song to sing — it just brings up that... that emotional feeling. But Billie Joe and Norah do a great job with it.
And they put a funky flamenco topspin on "Kentucky."
Well, it had a rhythmic feel to it in the old days, in the original one that we did. The timing on it is very funny. But it's all very interesting stuff, and an interesting comparison, these two things.
Norah said that she'd heard "Barbara Allen" had been sung since nearly medieval times.
Oh, really? That's surprising! But that's the wonderful thing about music. And that's still a great story, isn't it?
As a kid, was there a point where you went "Uh, dad? These songs kinda scare us"?
That's an interesting question. But you know, it's a little like ... like gore. When you're young, you really like gore anyhow, so I think I just found those songs really interesting. And there are other songs, too, like "The Rosewood Casket." But it was just so traditional for us, when we sang in the family. And we were singing every morning, and you'd sing almost any given thing.
So Don and I were doing those songs, plus what for us were very modern things, like The Dell Sisters, some of their things. So there's also the fact that "Barbara Allen" lasts, the fact that the music itself is so good, it holds up. Especially in harmony — it really lends itself to that.
So you and Don truly never consider performing together again?
No, you couldn't get me to go travel around and sit in a hotel room again. I have no interest in doing that. So everybody's happy. I am, at 74. Some people like doing it, but I never was much for that, anyway. It's a lot of work.
So the only thing I miss about all of it is the camaraderie of the tour, but that doesn't offset the rest of it. So it's not something that we're going to do.
It's curious to note your Songs lineage. Like the Gene Autry-popularized "Silver Haired Daddy."
With Gene Autry, it's kind of funny. I grew up as a Roy Rogers fan, of course. And in my old age, it's kind of funny — at night, what I like to do is watch TV when I go to sleep. And what I really like is to put on a Gene Autry film, because he sings really well. So he sings me to sleep. And it's amazing, how many songs you know that he caused you to know.
But you have quite a few of your own.
Have you heard our Pass the Chicken and Listen album? It's a strange damn title, but Chet Atkins produced it. So for anybody who's actually interested in our stuff and wanted to hear something, they ought to listen to that album. It's a very interesting album.
I don't sit around and listen to our stuff at all — it's just what I remember. And my favorite song on the thing is called "Lay It Down, Brother."
But whenever people talk about Don and I recording again — which almost everybody usually mentions — I always say, "Well, there's plenty of things that you haven't heard! Plenty of things out there to discover!"
Are you bracing yourself for a sudden uptick in Everly Brothers iTunes sales?
Well, that's an interesting thing, and it's a whole new world out there. I don't keep up on things like that, but I've got a young wife, so I'm usually aware of something current. But I don't know as much about it as probably I should.
But this [Foreverly collaboration] has been an interesting thing, because Songs was such a strange album anyway. But it was one of our things that we always liked, and it was so much a part of our life, our heritage. So it's kind of nice to see somebody who's brave enough to do the same thing, all over again.
A version of this article previously appeared in Paste Magazine.