THE BLUE SKY BOYS THE SUNNY SIDE OF LIFE
THE BLUE SKY BOYS
The Sunny Side Of Life
Bear Family BCD 15951
In 2002, Bear Family assembled and released all the music from the formative years of Bill Monroe, on six compact discs that contain every note from every surviving studio recording that he made between 1936 through 1949. This past year ended with a comprehensive set of Blue Sky Boys RCA sessions from a comparable period (1936-1951). It's hard to overstate its historical and artistic importance. 1936 also was the year of the first recordings of Ernest Tubb. Hank Snow, and Roy Acuff. With them, the Blue Sky Boys built substantial prewar careers that survived into the 1950s and beyond. With the exception of Acuff, each of these artists' definitive work has been assembled. annotated, and published in authoritative box sets by Bear Family. with well-researched and well-written histories. That's quite an achievement. Brothers Bill (b. 1917) and Earl Bolick (1919-1998, originally Bolich) were descendants of German settlers who came to the Piedmont uplands after the Revolutionary War. Home was in West Hickory, N.C.. and the boys' parents were devout worshipers in the Holiness tradition of the Church of God.
The church brought a lot of music into the Bolick home and their dad, Garland, taught many hymns to his sons. who developed a love and talent for performing them. As Bill reached 16, struggling to find work in the limited job market of 1934, he discovered that music-making paid better than his job as a Woolworth's stock clerk. He first performed with multi-instrumentalist Lute Isenhour and fiddler Homer Sherrill, settling down to play mandolin and sing tenor when Isenhour opted out and brother Earl signed on to sing lead and play guitar. Beginning with Sherrill, the Bolicks performed with fiddlers throughout their professional lives, though they recorded exclusively as a duo until after World War II. Later fiddling colleagues included Leslie Keith. Richard "Red" Hicks, and the Bolicks' eventual favorite, Sam "Curly" Parker. Their professional name was adopted when they auditioned for RCA producer Eli Oberstein in 1936. A scheduled session was nearly aborted when, without having heard them. Oberstein accused the Bolicks of imitating the Monroe Brothers. (Actually, the Bolicks' style and repertoire derived more from WLS stars Karl and Harty, and from the 1920s duo Lester McFarland and Robert A. Gardner, none of whom were related!) As Bill and Earl took understand-able umbrage and headed for the door. Oberstein apologized.
They unpacked their instruments and, after hearing a few bars of "Sunny Side Of Life." Eli knew he was hearing something very special. The session that followed produced "I'm Just Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail," "Where The Soul Of Man Never Dies," "Down On The Banks Of The Ohio," and "Midnight On The Stormy Sea." Though Bill was just 18 and Earl only 16. their reputation was assured. As the session concluded, they discussed how their records would be marketed. Several brother acts were already competing against one another, especially on RCA labels. With the Dixon Brothers. Delmore Brothers, and Monroe Brothers already in place, a novel name was called for. Oberstein and the Bolicks agreed on the Blue Sky Boys. a name with an evocative bow to western North Carolina. and the Land of the Blue Sky. Their records were made in Charlotte. not too far from the Bolicks' home. Of the three major recording outfits in the 1930s. only RCA routinely visited Charlotte to record the older traditional music of the southeast. When unpalatable conditions were imposed on record-making by a local chapter of the American Federation of Musicians union.
RCA moved across the state line to Rock Hill, S.C.. in 1938 and to Atlanta in 1939, where most southeastern sessions would be held before producer Steve Sholes consoli-dated RCA recording activities in Nashville in 1950. The Bolicks made Bluebird. Montgomery Ward, and Victor records in each of these locations. The Blue Sky Boys had few substantial hits. but their broadcasts were popular and their records remained steady sellers through the years, with many becoming enduring standards. Their voices were always recognizable. blending flawlessly and conveying the extravagant emotions of the mournful old Victorian-era songs and hymns they recycled. Embodying country music at its best. they remain among the most highly-regarded brother harmony duos. Instead of the raw mountain harmonies of the Dixon Brothers and Stanley Brothers and the relaxed informality of the Delmore Brothers, in contrast to the polished perfectionism of Jim & Jesse and the adrenaline shouts of the Monroe Brothers and Louvin Brothers, the strength of the Blue Sky Boys' restrained, ethereal style lay in their modest vocal and dynamic ranges. and simple. predictable accompaniments.
Though their delivery was understated, their songs were emotionally charged and their mournful voices captured every ounce of each song's pathos. The Bolicks explored interior spaces, absorbing their songs' intrinsic poetry and spirituality, and conveying the heart of each song to the heart of each listener. What they did better than anyone else was to present tragedy and sentiment with depth and dignity, putting listeners at ease with their emotions and allowing them to experience the music intimately. Musically. these astonishing adolescents wore their hearts on their sleeves, with style and without guile.
Forgive the old cliché about siblings producing superior vocal harmonies—you'll find the Blue Sky Boys serve as exhibit A. Sadly, their RCA studio recordings have been out-of-print for nearly thirty years. save for some anonymously- (and poorly-) produced CDs awhile ago. Instead, homemade tapes have circulated between collectors and musicians. allowing succeeding generations to learn and recycle Blue Sky Boys songs. I've mentioned a few immortal titles already; here are some more: The Knoxville Girl/Little Bessie/Kentucky/Sweet Allalee/Down On The Banks Of The Ohio/In The Hills Of Roane County/Behind These Prison Walls Of Love/The Last Letter/Are You From Dixie?/Fair Eyed Ellen (The Jealous Lover)/Whispering Hope/Turn Your Radio On. Excellent sound restoration by Seth Winner helps this collection a lot. with minimal record noise, no distortion, and lots of presence. I do hear fade-ups at the start of a few tracks, perhaps inherent in the originals. According to the credits. Winner copied original metal masters and mothers along with published pressings. When well-preserved metal parts are copied, the results can be surprisingly good. as is the case with these transfers. Lest this sound like unqualified praise. cite a few small negatives. The original records were made in real time with no retakes, and you'll hear an occasional error as the Bolicks start out before they're completely ready. In a few instances, instruments aren't adequately tuned and listening requires a little patience. In fairness, most of the original records retailed at thirty-five cents or less. and Eli Oberstein didn't allow second takes.
Finally, the CDs are numbered only in small coded print, so be careful to put them back in the right plastic holders! The set comes with a 12 x 12 book. whose format will be familiar to Bear Family customers. Bill Malone has contributed a sympathetic and admiring essay that sketches Bill's and Earl's biographies and offers some conclusions about their place in the broad history of country music. There are lots of publicity photos and a few informal ones, including a couple of neat 1949 snapshots of Bill Bolick and Ralph Stanley. Bear Family's Richard Weize has prepared a meticulous discography with original label photos and record session sheets, where you can learn each performer's social security number! Given the Bolicks' measured articulation. it wasn't necessary to transcribe song lyrics, though they can be usefUl when youlieed to find one quickly.
Bill Malone has provided useful brief histories for each one. Foreshadowing bluegrass, the Blue Sky Boys were among those who kept older songs and styles flourishing in the 1930s. Sharing a musical mindset with the Mainers and Monroes, Bill and Earl plowed, sustained, and nourished the ground that made the bluegrass revolution possible a few years later. Each brother saw extensive service in World War II before resuming their careers in 1946. Though they could have turned to bluegrass. the Bolicks wisely chose instead to further polish the style they first brought to records in 1936. What did evolve was their ensemble sound, enhanced by the brothers' mature voices. With the addition of fiddle and bass to their postwar records. Bill's mandolin could expand interior harmonies and add further depth to the music.
Their career ended quietly in 1951, even though fans continued to lobby for them to reunite. They appeared occasionally at music events during the 1960s and 1970s. and records of live events and studio sessions appeared occasionally. In the 1990s, producer Gary Reid borrowed radio transcriptions of Blue Sky Boys shows from Bill Bolick, and made their contents available on a series of Copper Creek compact discs, adding a major component to their discography. I mention that only because you'll want to hear more (and more!) Blue Sky Boys once you've heard everything in this collection. Bill and Earl Bolick created music for the ages, as nearly all the music in this handsome Bear Family collection will attest.(Bear Family Records, P.O. Box 1154. D-27727, Hambergen, Germany, <www.bear-family.de>.)RKS [Endnote: Bill Bolick has always disdained the notion of hillbilly music and Blue Sky Boys stage appearances. Publicity photos invariably showed Bill and Earl wearing coats and ties, looking more like prosperous stockbrokers than musicians. Nevertheless they avoided being starchy.
The normally unassertive Earl Bolick had a Jekyll and Hyde aspect—he rarely opened his mouth on stage when he wasn't singing, at least until he revealed his unlikely alter ego. As Uncle Josh, Earl became a down-home Jerry Lewis. quick on the uptake. irrepressibly mouthy. and genuinely funny. Though there are a couple of snapshots of Uncle Josh in the Bear Family book, his comedy wasn't captured on studio recordings. Some routines will be found on the Copper Creek sets.—Dick Spottswood]
JULY 2004 www.bluegrassmusic.com