About Our Music: Brother Duets

Brother duets are an outgrowth of the natural tendencies for families to sing together and learn to play musical instruments as musical knowledge is passed from one generation to the next. In the 1920s and ’30s, people took music seriously, and incorporated it into their everyday lives. It was common for families to sing gospel songs, sacred hymns, folk songs and even blues songs – just for something to do. This was before radios were common, and of course there was no television. In rural areas especially, where families may have been isolated by rugged terrain and a lack of reliable transportation, people learned to entertain themselves.

Continuing a tradition in the rural southern and southeastern United States since the early 1800s, itinerant music teachers came and set up commercial singing schools, often connected with churches, where they taught harmony singing in the Shape-Note style. Shape-Note hymnals such as the Sacred Harp used a printed notational system consisting of different shapes – diamonds, squares, triangles, ovals and so on – each of which indicated different notes and harmony parts that were to be sung. It was in these schools that many of the earliest country musicians learned to sing.

As illustrated in the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” the rise of commercial radio stations in the late 1920s and early 1930s fueled the need for live performers to provide the programming, as many recordings that were available for the home Victrola were stamped “Not Licensed for Air Play” and could not be broadcast by the radio stations. A natural source of talent for the stations were the many family bands who played at local dances, pie suppers, and church socials. Siblings raised together who also sang together were especially enjoyable, in part because they shared the same regional accent and inflection and were able to match their phrasing and blend their voices almost seamlessly.

Some of the earliest of the so-called close-harmony “brother groups” were the Delmore Brothers, Alton and Rabon, from Alabama, and Bill and Earl Bolick, performing as the Blue Sky Boys, from North Carolina. During the 1930s they were very popular, and the Delmore Brothers became stars of the Grand Ole Opry, a radio program which has been broadcast weekly from Nashville, Tennessee, since November 28, 1925. The songs were performed with simple instrumental accompaniment – often just an acoustic guitar and a mandolin – which allowed the soaring vocal harmonies to take center stage. As the Delmore Brothers’ popularity grew, so did that of other “brother acts.” Also prominent during that time were the Monroe Brothers, Charlie and Bill, until they parted company in 1938 – at which time Bill Monroe teamed up with other musicians, supercharged the music, and dubbed his new creation “bluegrass.”

In the 1940s the Louvin Brothers, Charlie and Ira, took the “brother duet” to new heights, developing the closest and most complex harmony singing heard to that time – or, some have said, since. They, too, became major stars of the Grand Ole Opry and had many hit songs which made their way into the Top Ten. During the 1950s, they brought in Chet Atkins on electric guitar, adding a “modern” dimension to their sound, and they continued to experience great success.

Absorbing these influences were midwestern musicians Ike Everly, a talented guitar player, his wife Margaret, and their two young sons. When the boys were six and eight years old, their family band made its radio debut on station KMA in Shenandoah, Iowa, before moving to Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1953, where they worked for WROL. By that time, the boys, Phil and Don, were coming into their own as a singing duo. Chet Atkins invited them to Nashville, where, after a few false starts, they were able to develop their own sound – based on close harmony singing. With the advent of rockabilly and rock and roll in the late 1950s, Don and Phil – the Everly Brothers – brought the “brother duet” into the modern age, and in turn influenced the Beatles, the Byrds, the Hollies, Simon and Garfunkel, and countless harmony singers since.

The roots of honky tonk music were more urban than rural, though the music was largely played by – and appealed to – rural people who were living in cities in the south and southwestern United States. Born in Texas roadhouses in the 1940s, the music grew to feature more electric instruments as performers sought ways to compete with the loud clamor of the juke box, then as now a fixture in every bar. Wanting to turn away from some of the religious songs they had sung since their youth, honky tonk performers extolled the real-life themes of celebration and sin – and sometimes even the celebration of sin. Well-known honky tonk performers of the day included Ernest Tubb, Hank Williams, Lefty Frizzell, Webb Pierce, and Ray Price.

Honky tonk music was by no means confined to Texas, however. Out in California, the “Bakersfield sound” was being pioneered by artists like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens. Their sound was more tied to the 1950s-style rock and roll than it was to the simple accompaniment of the “brother duets” of the rural southeast, but the harmonies sung by Owens and his lead guitar player, Don Rich, were as stunning as the best of the brothers’ work.

Country music today, with its smooth sound and rock beat, bears only the slightest resemblance to its precursors. There may never be a time again when simple songs, sung in duet style, will be heard on the radio, but there are at least two performers who are working hard today to keep that music alive.

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