Archive for the ‘Delmore Bros.’ Category

Truth Is Stranger Than Publicity

July 8, 2013


from “Truth is Stranger Than Publicity,” by Alton Delmore (Country Music Foundation Press):

Alton Delmore writes about the 1930 fiddlers’ convention in Athens, AL:

“There was a big crowd there and everything was decorated and all fixed up like the president of the United States would be there. It was by far the biggest and most important contest in the entire country. People who had never been to a contest before gathered with the contestants at the Old Athens (Alabama) Agricultural School. My mother had made (guitar) cases for us out of cotton sacks we used during the picking season and we had our names on them spelled out in full. I painted them on the cases with pokeberry juice.

“You know how it feels to be a combatant in any kind of contest so we rightly felt proud of the sack cases and we were primed to go for the first in the prizes in each case. I entered the contest for the best guitarist and we also entered the contest for the best band. There were some bands there that would have given Bob Wills some strong competition if Bob had been there. We didn’t think we would win that one. By then we had ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues’ down pretty pat-in fact we could play it then just as good as we ever did.

“When it came our time to play we sang just as soft as we could and just as loud as we could but we put the music in there, too -and that counts as much as anything I can think of to help put an act over. You can analyze music and record hits, I mean the legitimate ones, and you will find that there is a synchronization between the voice or voices and the instrumentation.

“We got tied for the first place with three pretty girls. Nothing worse could have happened because we knew the crowd usually takes sides with the singer if it happens to be a girl and those three girls could really sing. The rules were that they were to play two songs and two for us. The girls went out first, and I could tell they had lost something of their quality on their very first song. Their second one was not any better but they still got a tremendous hand from the audience. I knew we had something to beat. Rabon did, too, but it just made us work harder. We could feel the challenge in the air.

“For our first number we used the old song ‘Columbus Stockade Blues.’ It was written by Tom Darby and Jimmie Tarltor It is a plaintive prison and love song combined  and when we got through singing men threw their hats into the top of the house and everybody screamed like the had really never before. We thought had it won then and we did but we still had the ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues’ for them and when we did it the people really went wild and we won that contest without any question or any doubt. And that started us on our way to the Grand Ole Opry and the big record companies. Incidentally, I also won the first place for guitar playing with an instrumental rendition of ‘St. Louis Blues.’ Our names came out in the paper and it was really swell. Of all the days of triumph in my life, there were none any greater than those.”


Delmore Bros. (#2)

June 20, 2013


from “Imitating Nobody,” by William Hogeland (

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.”)

Delmore Bros.

May 11, 2012

Alton (1908-1964) and Rabon (1910-1952) Delmore of Elkmont,


Alton (1908-1964) and Rabon (1916-1952) Delmore possessed a formidable combination of writing, singing, and musical talent that brought them fame in the 1930s and 1940s. The brothers adapted, and in some cases, created musical styles that helped define modern country music. By virtue of their proficient songwriting abilities, intricate harmonies, and complex guitar runs, the Delmore Brothers influenced their contemporaries and cast a long shadow on future generations of country performers who benefited from the professionalism, the innovations, and the respectability that they brought to the genre.

Delmore BrothersThe brothers were born in Limestone County, just south of the Tennessee border, to Charlie and Mary Williams Delmore. Alton, the eighth of the couple’s children, was born on December 25, 1908. Rabon, the 10th child, was born on December 3, 1916. The parents were tenant farmers, but the infertile soil of northern Alabama forced Charlie to find work at a nearby cotton mill as well. As the boys grew older, they helped the family by occasionally working as hired hands on nearby farms. Alton became fascinated with music at any early age, most likely through the boys’ aunt Molly and uncle Will Williams, who taught him how to read and play music. Alton’s familiarity with traditional shape-note singing was strengthened by attending local singing schools. Like so many other youngsters in the South at that time, both boys sang at revival meetings and Sunday services. In his teens, Alton learned to play the guitar, fiddle, and mandolin. He also became fascinated with the tenor guitar, an instrument he saw played in a vaudeville show, and he eventually acquired one to give to Rabon, who up to that point had focused his musical attention on learning to play the fiddle and traditional guitar.

In the mid-1920s, the brothers began singing and playing music as a duo at local community events and contests. With each event, they gained more experience and more confidence, and by 1930, Alton was soliciting radio stations and record companies for auditions. The success of country music acts like Jimmie Rogers and the Skillet Lickers indicated that one could make a living as a performer, and the Delmores welcomed an alternative to tenant farming. In 1931 Columbia Records offered them an audition and an opportunity to make a record in Atlanta. Although “Alabama Lullaby”/”Got the Kansas City Blues,” was their only record with Columbia and sold a modest 500 copies, the Delmores were encouraged enough to become full-time musicians. Throughout 1932, they played at schoolhouses and talent contests, hoping for an audition on the Grand Ole Opry, a radio show on station WSM in Nashville that was emerging as the premier country music program in the South. (more…)