Brother Duets


Lester McFarland and Robert Gardner (Mac and Bob)


 From the mid-1930s into the 1950s, harmony duos—often comprised of two brothers—constituted a major style in country music. Especially popular and influential in the Piedmont and Appalachian regions, such duos in the 1930s generally accompanied themselves on two guitars or on a guitar and a mandolin; by the 1940s, however, additional instruments were often added. Dozens of brother duos flourished via radio and recordings.

The first musicians to popularize the close harmony male-duo style were from Appalachia but were not brothers. Mac and Bob, the stage name of blind friends Lester McFarland, from Gray, Kentucky, and Robert Gardner, from Oliver Springs, Tennessee, won favor with Chicago radio audiences in the 1920s. Their recordings on the Brunswick and Vocalion labels featured traditional and popular ballads as well as hymns.

In the early 1930s, two Rockcastle County, Kentucky, natives, Karl Davis and Hartford Taylor, known as Karl and Harty, also attained radio popularity in Chicago and modest recording success nationally (on the Paramount and the American Record Corporation labels).

The first actual brothers to become major national figures as a duo were Alton and Rabon Delmore, from Elkmont, Alabama, who joined the Grand Ole Opry in 1933 and became widely known for their Bluebird recordings. The Delmore Brothers performed a variety of sacred songs, ballads, and blues-influenced numbers while popularizing such Alton Delmore–composed songs as “Brown’s Ferry Blues” and “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar.” The Delmores’ career extended until Rabon’s death in 1952; their later repertoire included more modern-sounding material such as “hillbilly boogie” songs.

In 1934 the American Record Corporation introduced the Asheville, North Carolina–based Callahan Brothers. Featuring higher-pitched vocals than the Delmore Brothers, Homer and Walter Callahan recorded several widely popular songs, including “She’s My Curly Headed Baby.” The Morris Brothers (Wiley and Zeke), from Old Fort, North Carolina, recorded such influential original songs as “Let Me Be Your Salty Dog.”

The latter two duos were overshadowed—even within Appalachia—by the Monroe Brothers and the Blue Sky Boys. Bill and Charlie Monroe were western Kentuckians, but they reached their height of popularity through radio broadcasts from Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina, and Greenville and Spartanburg, South Carolina, and through recordings on the Bluebird label. Bill Monroe’s fast mandolin playing and high tenor distinguished the Monroes’ music.

The pair broke up in 1938 to pursue separate careers. The Blue Sky Boys—Bill and Earl Bolick, from Hickory, North Carolina—had a mellower sound than the Monroe Brothers, though the Bolick brothers’ instrumentation was less dynamic. Like the Delmores’, the Blue Sky Boys’ career on radio and Bluebird/RCA Victor Records extended into the early 1950s.

In the 1940s, the Bailes Brothers, from Charleston, West Virginia, were a favorite act on the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride, performing such original songs as “Dust on the Bible” and “I Want to Be Loved.” There were four Bailes boys, Homer, John, Kyle, and Walter. Until 1947 the duo was composed of John and Walter; thereafter, Homer performed with John.

The end of that decade brought the rise of perhaps the most popular brother duo of all, the Louvin Brothers. Ira and Charlie Louvin (born Loudermilk), from the Sand Mountain region of Alabama, recorded primarily for Capitol Records between 1947 and 1963, when they dissolved their partnership. As Grand Ole Opry regulars from 1955 until 1963, the Louvins represented a commercial peak in the brother-duo style.

A few non-brother harmony duos also had notable careers, including West Virginia’s Bill Cox and Cliff Hobbs, North Carolina’s Whitey and Hogan (Roy Grant and Arval Hogan), and, especially, Tennessee’s Johnnie (Wright) and Jack (Anglin), who were brothers-in-law. Many characteristics of the brother-duo style survive in the music of such bluegrass musicians from Appalachia as the Stanley Brothers, the Lilly Brothers, the Goins Brothers, Jim and Jesse (McReynolds), and the Crowe Brothers. Although the brother-duo style has had much less influence in contemporary country music, many contemporary folk musicians have attempted to recreate the sound.

The Everly Brothers—rock ’n’ roll pioneers from western Kentucky who worked on radio in Knoxville, Tennessee—displayed reverence for the brother-duo tradition throughout their careers. Their style of harmony singing—modeled on that tradition—proved influential to many subsequent rock and pop performers, including the Beatles.

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