For 15 years beginning in 1988, Phil and Don Everly returned to the town of Central City, Ky. to perform an annual benefit “Homecoming” concert which, at its pinnacle, drew a crowd four-times the town’s population. On Saturday, hundreds of people from that same town turned out to pay tribute to Phil Everly, a day before what would have been his 75th birthday.
The recognizable hits poured from the stage of the Merle Travis Music Center. As one performer put it – being asked to pick out an Everly Brothers song to cover was like being led into Fort Knox and being asked to select a favorite piece of gold to take with you.
He picked "Bye Bye Love" and "Wake Up Little Susie".
Two of the Everly Brothers second cousins, Tim Giageos and David Everly performed four songs including "All I Have to Do is Dream" and "When Will I Be Loved."
One of the Everly Brother’s first cousins, Diana Sue Taylor described one of the first memories of her famous relatives – when she was eight years old was escorted backstage at the Civic Center in Hammond, Indiana.
“After it was over with, they had to leave and there were all these girls around and we had to go with them and escape out the back way," said Taylor. " And I’m scared because we’re having to go down this ice ramp and that’s what I remember about it – going down this ice ramp. The girls were after them and I couldn’t get over it: why were they after them? I was 8-years-old, it doesn’t mean nothing to me.”
Don Everly was born in Kentucky in 1937. The family would move to Chicago before Phil was born two years later. But as their cousin Diana Sue remembers, they would return to Kentucky at least once a year.
“Kentucky is home. Even though only Don was born here, it was still their home," she said. "You’ve got ties here, you have family here. Their grandparents were here – both sides and cousins and stuff. This is home.”
Ray Goodman, who also attended Saturday's tribute, remembers several of those visits, which were filled with games and music.
“We sat out there in front of that Baptist church there in Cleaton and sing on that ol’ bridge and never dreamed they were going to be what they was," said Goodman. "There wasn’t nothing to do but sing out there and sing or play hide-and-seek, you know. We had some great times playing basketball down there... we had some fond memories.”
Goodman says the Everlys’ parents, Ike and Margaret were very influential in their sons’ musical upbringing.
“Real nice people. Really nice. Ike was a great guitar player . In fact, the greatest picker that ever lived right there," he said.
A theme throughout the Phil Everly tribute was not only admiration for his musical ability, but also his humble and genuine nature, despite the fame he and his brother attained.
In the late 1980s, Central City’s economy was flagging and the police department couldn’t afford a new radio communications system. Hearing about the town’s plight, the Phil and Don called and offered to donate the remainder of the money. So grateful was the town, then-Mayor Hugh Sweatt decided to name a street in their honor.
The mayor along with businessman Bill Greenwood, a several others drove down to Nashville to meet with the Everly Brothers to discuss the possibility of putting on a benefit concert in Muhlenberg County. Greenwood says Don and Phil dove into the venture head-first, and often invited many of their musical friends to attend and play.
“We were so excited. We had like 8,000 people at the first one. By the fourth year when we had the Kentucky Head Hunters and they had just risen to popularity – we had about 20,000," said Greenwood. "So in a little town of 5,000 people, we had to coordinate traffic, parking, we ran buses to the field."
He says hundreds of the town’s residents volunteered to help put on the concert and he credits the event with helping to unify a community that had fallen on hard times after being a top coal producer prior to the 1980s.
“As the song ‘Paradise’ says ‘Peabody Coal Company came in with larger equipment’ and employment was down and coal is the only industry," said Greenwood. "The city’s tax base was down, but we just sort of turned that around with pride, not that we’re necessarily booming today. There are different issues with the coal market that before.”
Proceeds from the concert have provided college scholarships for several graduating seniors in the county. They also helped secure land for the Muhlenberg County's community college campus.
For years, Central City and Muhlenberg County have been synonymous with coal. Now, the town is making efforts to be known as the "Guitar Capital of the World" and the "Home of Thumpicking". There are signs all around town boasting the Central City’s distinction of being the “hometown” of the Everly Brothers.
When Phil Everly died on January 3rd, the world said goodbye a rock-n-roll legend. But for the people who gathered in Western Kentucky, including his cousin Diana Sue Taylor, the loss was much more personal.
“The last time I talked to Phil was when [his wife] Patty called me somewhere around in September. They were planning that Eden Everly concert. She called me and she put Phil on the phone and I got to talk to him. I didn’t think about him being bad – so it hurt."
Phil Everly’s relatives lost a loved one that day and the people of Central City lost a cherished friend.