Roots Of Bluegrass—Brother Duets

The Everly Brothers
The pop and country music worlds lost another iconic musician with the recent death of Don Everly of the Everly Brothers, who were probably the most influential of the brother vocal harmony duet acts of the last century. (Don’s brother Phil died in 2014.) The Everly Brothers were from western Kentucky and their music was shaped by the old time and early country music that they heard growing up. Their father, Ike Everly, was a guitar virtuoso in the alternating thumb and fingerpicking style later made popular by Merle Travis. The Everly Brothers were extremely influential in early rock and roll — their close harmony singing was later copied by acts as diverse as Simon and Garfunkel and the Beatles. In bluegrass their influence can be heard in modern duets including the Gibson Brothers (the subject of an earlier post in this series), and the Whitstein Brothers.

The brother vocal duet format became popular in recorded country music in the late 1920s following the advent of electrical recording. The microphone was more sensitive to vocal nuance than the acoustic recording process that preceded it, and made it possible to clearly record intricate harmony singing.

Charlie Louvin of the Louvin Brothers once explained what makes brother duet singing special: “Ira and I strived for perfect phrasing. We could do that because we were brothers. There’s no way to meet a stranger and get as close as brothers can get. The tenor singer has to have a lead singer he knows. Ira and I had the advantage of singing while we were working.” (The quote is from an excellent collection of essays by Nicholas Dawidoff, “In The Country of Country-A Journey To The Roots Of American Music.” The quote is in the essay called “The Louvin Brothers-Hell’s Half Acre.”) It should be noted that exquisite sibling harmony is not limited to brothers, as the Price Sisters’ recent recordings unequivocally demonstrate.

Because there are only two voices, duets offer the singers more flexibility in note selection than do vocal trios or quartets, where each singer must adhere closely to his or her part to avoid trespassing on another’s part. In a duet, notes can be further apart and note choices a little squirrelier (music jargon).

This post focuses on some of the earlier brother duets that the Everly Brothers would likely have heard while growing up, namely, the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers, the Callahan Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, and the Louvin Brothers.

The Blue Sky Boys were Bill and Earl Bolick. Bill played mandolin and Earl played guitar. They were raised in North Carolina and, like many old time country singers, they honed their vocal talents singing in church. The Bolicks made their earliest recordings in 1936. They sang songs of home and mother, sacred songs, and old ballads-no honky tonk or racy innuendo for the Bolick brothers. Their harmonies were clear and plaintive, as suited the material, and Bill’s mandolin playing was unobtrusively creative. Two sacred songs, “Sunny Side of Life” (one of their earliest recordings) and “One Step More,” illustrate their style and impressive technique. “Are You From Dixie?” became their theme song-it’s both peppier and thematically different from much of their material. Their career was interrupted by the war; afterward they resumed and recorded into the early 1950s, but country music styles had moved away from their unadorned heart and home songs in the intervening years. During the 1960s, they enjoyed a revival of sorts and recorded again.

The Delmore Brothers, Alton and Rabon, first recorded in the early 1930s. They grew up in Alabama farm country, and learned music from their mother and in church. Alton played a conventional six string guitar; Rabon played a four string tenor guitar. On their recordings, Rabon often played the instrumental lead parts on the tenor guitar. The Delmores’ songs had a modern swing and (often) a sardonic message, very different from the Bolicks’ songs. During the 1940s they teamed up with Grandpa Jones and Merle Travis in a gospel quartet called the Brown’s Ferry Four. Many Delmore songs later became bluegrass standards, including, “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar,” “Nashville Blues,” “Blue Railroad Train,” and “Brown’s Ferry Blues.” Alton’s unfinished autobiography, “Truth Is Stranger Than Publicity,” was published in the 1970s.

The Callahan Brothers were Walter (a/k/a “Joe”) and Homer (a/k/a “Bill”). They grew up in North Carolina in a musical family and began performing in their teens. Joe played guitar and Bill played mandolin and other instruments. Their style was somewhere between the Bolicks and the Delmores. They recorded heart songs, like “Sweet Thing” (later covered by the Stanley Brothers), tragic romance songs, such as “They’re At Rest Together” (which John Duffey liked so much he covered it with both the Country Gentlemen and the Seldom Scene), train songs, including “Freight Train Blues,” and cowboy songs, like “Away Out There.”

(The above recording is by the Country Gentlemen)

I have mentioned the Monroe Brothers several times in prior posts. Bill (mandolin and tenor vocal) and Charlie (guitar and lead vocal) made exciting music together from 1934-1938 and recorded from 1936-38. Their records were immediately popular-their fast tempos, high pitched singing, and Bill’s innovative and fleet mandolin playing set them apart from the other duets of the 1930s. Unable to get along, they parted company in 1938. Bill formed the Blue Grass Boys, earning a spot on the Grand Ole Opry in 1939 that he held for the rest of his life. Recordings like “Long Journey Home,” “I Have Found The Way,” and “Gospel Ship” hint at the bluegrass to come.

Finally are the Louvin Brothers, who were probably the most important influence on the Everly Brothers’ vocal sound (and on many singers since). Ira (mandolin) and Charlie (guitar), whose given last name was Loudermilk, began playing and singing music as children. They saw it as a way to leave behind the grinding poverty of the Alabama farm where they grew up. Their early recordings were primarily sacred songs, but they eventually added secular songs to their repertoire. Ira wrote much of their material, and many of Ira’s songs became classics. The brothers’ vocal technique was extraordinary. Ira and Charlie would often switch parts several times during a single song. Some of their best known songs are “I Wish It Had Been A Dream,” “Cash On The Barrelhead,” “When I Stop Dreaming,” and “Are You Teasing Me?”

Even in the talented company of the Opry, the Louvins were regarded as something special. The story is told that when Ira, a gifted mandolinist, needed a mandolin for an Opry performance, Bill Monroe lent Ira Monroe’s famous Gibson F5, an unprecedented gesture on Bill’s part. Unfortunately, Ira’s personal problems drove the brothers apart in the early 1960s. Ira died a few years later in a car accident, but Charlie continued as a solo act on the Opry until his death in 2011. Charlie’s memoir, “Satan Is Real-The Ballad Of The Louvin Brothers,” is an unvarnished look at the brothers’ lives. The book’s title “Satan Is Real” comes from a famous Louvin Brothers album and song-the album cover featured a garish picture (later used for the cover of Charlie’s memoir) of the brothers against a pile of flaming tires with a large figure of the devil behind them, complete with horns and a pitchfork. Country music was more real back then.

As explained above, brother duets like the five discussed here influenced the Everly Brothers’ harmonies and style. Through the Everly Brothers, this influence spread into rock and roll in the late 1950s and early 1960s. In addition, the vocal techniques and often the songs of these old time country brother duets were later adopted by bluegrass singers hungry for ear catching harmonies and good material.

Andy Bing

Andy Bing has been playing bluegrass music for 40 years in the Hudson Valley region of New York. He plays mostly mandolin and dobro, as well as some banjo and guitar. He studied dobro in the Washington DC area with Seldom Scene dobro innovator Mike Auldridge, who remains his main inspiration on that instrument. On the mandolin Andy is a huge fan of Bill Monroe. In his other life Andy is a retired lawyer who worked in Albany for over 30 years.

4 Responses

  • Dog gone, Andy, what a great summary of brothers in BG. Enjoyed reading it, and it makes me wish I had a brother that liked bluegrass!! And was a singer too!

  • I must say this installment was most meaningful to me since I don’t have a long bluegrass history. I listened to my teen music on my transistor’ down in Brooklyn, enjoying the likes of Bill Haley, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Louis, The Platters, Bobby Darin, Elvis, and of course the Everly Brothers, among so many others, MC’d by Alan Freed and Murray the K on radio and the venerable Dick Clark on TV. I particularly enjoyed the occasional country sound that made it into the top 10 as well. I would also hear county music when each year my family would pack the car for long drive for an overnight stay with our country-relatives way out in rural New Jersey, near the Pennsylvania border, in an agricultural community where the local fashion, vocabulary and dialect was earthy, and country music was prominent on the radio and juke box. (My relatives in western NJ were roughly 100 miles from the city by car, about the same distance as my current “upstate” home near Poughkeepsie and a round trip visit to the city is common. My how perception changes!) Like many others I was introduced to bluegrass when the Beverly Hillbillies TV show aired. I liked it. But I digress. Back to the Everly Brothers; it is fascinating to learn the origins of their new sound, a sound that isn’t so new after all. Thank you Andy.

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