Delmore Bros. (#2)

by

DelmoreBrothers_New

from “Imitating Nobody,” by William Hogeland (www.oxfordamerican.org):

Tight picking on unamplified instruments, harmony singing that blends plangency with verve, a repertoire embracing folk, blues, and sentimental song: this rich mixture, which now seems the natural property of bluegrass, was concocted during the first boom of commercial country music, when male duos developed the athletic, stripped-down music that would come to be known as “brother duet.”

As early as the 1920s, these duos became almost indispensable to the crowd-pleasing variety formats of barn-dance radio programs and kerosene-circuit schoolhouse shows. The earliest of these pairs (who weren’t always really brothers) worked in sharply varying styles. Darby & Tarlton had a bluesy act, full of vaudeville flourishes, Hawaiian guitars, and yodeling.

The Allen Brothers were sometimes taken for “race” (i.e., black) artists, playing a string-band version of ragtime—jazz banjo as piano, kazoo as horn—and singing in a rugged kind of r&b unison. Mac and Bob went the other way, preferring a barbershop-influenced formality, in which Mac added tenor harmony to Bob’s lead vocal and backed up the voices with serene mandolin breaks.

In remote northern Alabama, around Sand Mountain, brothers Alton and Rabon Delmore were listening closely. The large Delmore family labored as sharecroppers. “It seemed we never got a good place and we moved nearly every fall or winter. Seldom did we ever stay in one house more than a year. I don’t believe I have ever seen so many rocks on top of the ground.”

This is Alton Delmore’s own description from TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN PUBLICITY, the autobiography he was still working on when he died in 1964. (Alton Delmore was a frustrated journalist and fiction writer. Most early country singers didn’t write autobiographies, so his book is an invaluable historical resource. It’s also fun, not least for the disarmingly direct prose, some of which evokes the folk-art leanings of Gertrude Stein. Writing about his uncle, he penned: “He could write songs and sing them too and they were in books and his name was on them and they were very beautiful.”)

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One Response to “Delmore Bros. (#2)”

  1. Ron & Donna, Mignarda Says:

    Thanks for this piece on the Delmores, whose music we enjoy for so many reasons, and Alton’s autobiography, Truth is Stranger Than Publicity, offers a delightful perspective on the hillbilly music biz. Written in a charmingly naive style, his reminiscence of working and traveling with Uncle Dave is a hoot, as is the down-to-earth snapshot of Hank Williams and how he was vilified by jealous rivals. Definitely recommended.

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