Bill and Earl Bolick, the Blue Sky Boys, epitomized the close-harmony brother duet sound of early country music. In addition to their RCA recordings, they were on the air in the 1940s with 15-minute radio shows originating in Atlanta and Bristol. Bluegrass Country is bringing those shows back to life, broadcasting a Blue Sky Boys radio program each Tuesday and Thursday afternoon at 5:45 eastern time.
The shows are presented with commentary by Dick Spottswood, host of the Dick Spottswood Show and author of the definitive book on the duet, The Blue Sky Boys (University Press of Mississippi, 2018). Dick wrote the following essay for “The Blue Sky Boys – 1939-1949 Radio Broadcasts,” a 4-CD set from Patuxent Music.
THE BLUE SKY BOYS
By Dick Spottswood
They had what they call a close-harmony style, a sound that only brothers could get. You could hear a lot of church in their singing. And there was a quiet grace in the way they blended their instruments with their voices. Like they was born to it. But any musician will tell you how hard it is to make it sound so easy…They had about the most perfect harmonies around. What Carter and me liked most was, you could understand every syllable of what they were singing. They never slurred their words; they had the best diction outside of a grammar class, and they always stayed true to the song and the story.
– Ralph Stanley, in Man of Constant Sorrow: My Life and Times, by Dr. Ralph Stanley with Eddie Dean. Gotham Books, 2009, p. 142
When Bill and Earl Bolick returned from World War II and the army in 1945, their future looked unpromising. Since 1941, they’d fought in Europe (Earl) and the South Pacific (Bill), while nearly all pre-war Blue Sky Boys records vanished from the catalog. Newer western and honky tonk styles gave their austere hymns and heartbreak songs minimal juke box potential, and Billboard condescendingly dismissed them as “strictly from the haystacks,” claiming their appeal was limited to the “old folks at home.”
Bill fought back in a 1947 song book editorial, excoriating “bum and hobo songs of the bar room and Honky-Tonk nature [that] do not carry the quality or character that you will find in the songs handed down to us by our Pioneer ancestors.” Still, tension between traditional and modern styles persisted after RCA Victor re-signed the Blue Sky Boys in 1946, and producer Steve Sholes had limited success when he tried to persuade them to update their style.
On returning home, Bill and Earl reunited with fiddler Sam “Curly” Parker, who had first joined them on WPTF in Raleigh, NC in 1940. In addition to providing tasteful obbligatos behind their singing, Curly sang lead on trios while Earl sang bass and Bill sang tenor. Regrouping at the Bolick family home in Hickory, NC, they were pleased to discover that their music still sounded good, and they decided to keep performing if they could find steady work.
After auditioning for WBT (Charlotte), WWVA (Wheeling), WRVA (Richmond, VA), and WVOK (Birmingham), they rejoined WGST in Atlanta, where they’d already worked from 1936 through 1939. They were welcomed back with daily pre-recorded fifteen minute shows, sponsored by Willys Jeep distributor Jack Briscoe, whose on-air ads proclaimed the versatility of combat vehicles repurposed for civilian and agrarian use. The shows were captured on sixteen-inch lacquers at 33 1/3 rpm and dubbed for three more Georgia stations. The format called for quick ads to begin and end every show, with a longer pitch midway through. “Are You from Dixie” opened and closed each show, and an instrumental version of it midway served as a bed for live local promotion. Earl (in his comic Uncle Josh caricature) then would razz Bill for a minute or so before the music resumed. Even with all that, there was usually time for three or four songs per show, with abbreviated fiddle tunes that ran out the clock and closed each broadcast at 14 ½ minutes. The Bolicks and an announcer normally completed five shows in a single afternoon. Bill said the work was challenging:
Imagine, if you can, doing five fifteen-minute programs in one afternoon. On four or five occasions we did as many as ten programs in one day. It was very tiresome saying the same thing, listening to the same commercials, trying to work out something with Uncle Josh, singing songs you didn’t have time to rehearse and hadn’t sung in some time. Luckily we didn’t make too many mistakes. A number of times we were almost finished with a program when they would tell us they were having technical problems and we would do the same program again.
Although the Blue Sky Boys were active RCA artists from 1946 to 1950, their broadcasts did little to promote their new records. Bill didn’t care for a number of songs Steve Sholes was pitching, and those he considered second rate were rarely performed again. Instead, their broadcasts revisited traditional songs and hymns that were responsive to listener tastes and their own. By the time of the broadcasts in 1946-49, their voices were mature and their confident performances rarely less than immaculate. RCA wouldn’t let them record vocal trios, but their radio and live shows featured them regularly, with Curly Parker (and later Leslie Keith) singing lead to Bill’s tenor and Earl’s bass. They especially liked trios on hymns, and the format suited a lot of secular material just as well.
Country music acts usually fade into obscurity once their careers end, but Blue Sky hymns, heart songs and vocal harmonies still set the gold standard, even though it’s been forty years since their last records. Colin Escott has testified that “their unerring sibling harmony was almost dreamlike and made them perhaps the all-time finest brother duet.” Who could disagree?