The Everly Brothers Play with Sharp Objects
This summer’s runaway small-screen “must see” TV show was HBO’s miniseries Sharp Objects, adapted from a book of the same name written by Gillian Flynn. I won’t spoil it for those who have yet to see it, but it takes place in the fictional town of Wind Gap, Missouri, and is primarily about the investigation into the murder and mutilation of teenage girls. More than that, though, it runs the psychological gamut of dysfunctional families with secrets and small town dynamics, self-harm and childhood trauma, sexual assault and violence towards women. The eight episodes are indeed not for the faint of heart, but the use of music throughout the show is central to its Southern Gothic genre.
Director Jean-Marc Vallée teamed up with music supervisor Susan Jacobs, who he also worked with him on 2014’s Wild. In a recent article from Billboardmagazine, Jacobs described the director’s use of music as a “painting” and said “It’s much more of a basket weave with Jean-Marc, as he’s cutting pictures right with the music that is all planned out in advance before we shoot.” Vallée also does not use scores, only licensed tracks. On this project he created a “sonic palette” for each of his characters, using Led Zeppelin for the protagonist and including music spanning multiple generations from Patsy Cline to Chris Stapleton. Almost all of the music throughout the show comes from one of two places: an old broken iPod or an expensive audiophile’s dream system, and it creates an interesting juxtaposition.
It was the final song of episode seven that played through the rolling credits on the screen that caught my attention. I immediately recognized the Everly Brothers, and knew they recorded “Down in the Willow Garden” (also known as “Rose Connolly”) for their 1958 Songs Our Daddy Taught Us album. For the BBC documentary Bringing It All Back Home, which traces the history of Irish folk music, they discussed and performed the song, a traditional murder ballad that — like many other songs — traveled to the Appalachian Mountains with the families who came looking for work in America.
Despite the many different spellings of Rose’s surname — Connoley, Conley, Connally, Condolee, Connilley, Condelee, Congalee, Cumberly, or Caudeley – the song’s lyrics haven’t altered all that much over time. It was likely written back in the 19th century, possibly as early as 1811. Documented in 1915 by songcatcher Cecil Sharp during his travels throughout Virginia and North Carolina, it was first recorded for the Victor Talking Machine Company sometime in either 1927 or 1928 by G.B. Grayson and Henry Whittier.
Wade Mainer and Zeke Morris recorded their version for Bluebird Records in 1937, but it was Charlie McCoy and His Kentucky Pardners who popularized the song in 1947 for RCA. As is the case with many traditional songs, McCoy took the composer’s credit along with Roy Acuff.
If it wasn’t for all the violence in the lyrics, it’d be a lovely song. The melody itself is quite pleasing, the Everlys version in particular, with their familial close harmony adding a particularly haunting and lonesome quality to it. But at the heart it’s simply just another murder ballad where a man kills a woman; though in this case not just once but three times. Poor Rose is poisoned, stabbed, and finally thrown into the river. It’s the murderer’s father who is portrayed as the victim, wiping away his tears while having to watch his son get hung from the gallows.
In the ’50s, in addition to the Everly Brothers’ interpretation, there were versions recorded by both the Stanley and Osbourne Brothers, as well as Ramblin’ Jack Elliott. In the ’60s Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs recorded it as “Rose Connelly” and Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys added it to their repertoire, as heard in this 1966 live performance captured in Madison, New Jersey.
In 1973, Art Garfunkel, with all due respect, recorded an absolutely dreadful pop-like version for his album Angel Claire. In the film Raising Arizona, Holly Hunter sings it as an unlikely lullaby. Since then it’s been covered by a multitude of folks, including Nick Cave, Bon Iver with The Chieftains, Honus Honus, The Chapin Sisters, Norah Jones and Billy Joe Armstrong, Shakey Graves and Mark Kozelek. Judging by all the activity on YouTube, it also has become a staple for a younger generation of old-time musicians.
After listening to an endless number of recorded versions, for me it comes back to the Everly Brothers. They are the linchpin of it all, adapting an old-world song learned and passed down by their daddy and releasing it on a traditional country-ballad album just as they were about to go out on tour with Buddy Holly to support their five successive rock-and-roll hit singles on Cadence Records. Two years away from signing with Warner Bros. and continuing their string of rock classics, Cadence chose to not promote Songs Our Daddy Taught Us nor release any singles from it.
I’ll close it out with their original studio version, and one might say it’s harmonically one beautiful sharp object.
Many of my past columns, articles, and essays can be accessed at my own site, therealeasyed.com. I also aggregate news and videos on both Flipboard and Facebook as The Real Easy Ed: Americana and Roots Music Daily. My Twitter handle is @therealeasyed and my email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.