THE BLUE SKY BOYS The Sunny Side Of Life
123 tracks including Sunny Side Of Life / Midnight On The Stormy Sea / Down On The Banks Of The Ohio / Sweet Evalina / Story Of The Knoxville Girl / Little Bessie / Katie Dear / This Is Like Heaven To Me / When The Roses Bloom In Dixieland / I'm Just Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail / The Convict And The Rose / I'm S-A-V-E-D / Mary Of The Wild Moor / Why Not Confess / A Picture On The Wall / Where The Soul Of Man Never Dies / Dust On The Bible / Kentucky / Garden In The Sky / Angel Mother / Alabama Producers: Eli Oberstein, Dan Hornsby, Frank Walker, Stephen H. Sholes, Charles R. Grean Bear Family BCD 15951 EK (5CD box set) (5:48:00) *****
Where to start? Bill and Earl Bolick, the Blue Sky Boys, were one of the major brother duets in the history of country music. As the Monroe Brothers led the way with their hard driving style, the other paradigms of the genre were the Bolicks with their gentle, more folksy approach to the music, and Rabon and Alton, the Delmore Brothers, with a soft bluesy style. Until now Bill and Earl have been sadly neglected by CD compilers, but all this is rectified by this superb Bear Family box set that offers a hardback book in addition to the faultless quality of their CDs. When they started recording in June 1936, Bill was just 18 years old and his brother Earl a mere lad of 16, and listening to their music that fact is nigh impossible to comprehend. The second side they cut, which would remain their theme tune throughout their career, was Sunny Side Of Life, learned from an old holiness hymn. Earl sang lead in a strong baritone voice and played guitar, with Bill singing tenor and playing mandolin.
Their arrangement of this song still stands-today with its complex chorus and answer style favoured by many of the gospel quartets. To resolve this into a duet, and by two teenagers, is a creative feat that has probably never been beaten. The ten songs at this first session defined the music of the Blue Sky Boys for all time, a combination of sacred and secular material, including traditional numbers like Down On The Banks Of The Ohio, I'm Just Here To Get My Baby Out Of Jail, learned from Karl and Harty, and songs such as Where The Soul Of Man Never Dies and I'm Troubled, I'm Troubled that they had sourced, often from songs they had heard their father sing around the house. They were not prolific -writers themselves; in fact, it was not until 1946 that they recorded their first original song, so finding material they could adapt to their style was mostly Bill's province, and he was the undoubted leader of the duo. Usually, every song they recorded provided the definitive version for others to follow. Why Not Confess, Little Bessie, The Lightning Express and Turn Your Radio On are songs that have found their way into bluegrass music and other traditional forms via the Blue Sky Boys original recordings and radio performances.
More than any other group, the Blue Sky Boys also unearthed many traditional ballads, such as Mary Of The Wild Moor, Story Of The Knoxville Girl, Fair Eyed Ellen and The Butcher's Boy, that provided the source and inspiration for others to follow. The music was always simple and must have sounded within reach of anyone with aspirations to become a player. Bill Bolick was no Bill Monroe on the mandolin and usually played a round hole model that gave a much softer tone than Monroe's Gibson F5. Similarly, Earl was a competent guitarist, and it was their perfect vocal and instrumental blend rather than their technical prowess that inspired others. They continued to record for RCA Victor, cutting seven more sessions between their 1936 debut and October 1940. The quality of their music remained incredibly high but was interrupted whilst both brothers saw active service; upon their discharge in 1945 they resumed their musical career.
They added a fiddle and (usually) bass to the lineup but that did not detract in any way from the old time quality of their music. Original songs now complemented the familiar repertoire of venerable and trusted songs sourced by Bill, and the brothers continued their popularity on radio and record. One song is worthy of note: Alabama, recorded in 1949, had been written by Ira and Charles Louvin who were themselves inspired by the Blue Sky Boys.
Pupils briefly becoming becoming teachers. Ironically, the last song they recorded for RCA was a remake of Sunny Side Of Life. Not the last recording of a fading career but one that ended abruptly in early 1951 when Earl decided to quit the music business to concen-trate on his family. Sadly, the brothers parted with regrettable traces of bitterness. There were comebacks in later years that were nearly always artistically, if not commercially, successful but when I visited Bill at his home in Greensboro some years ago he had more bitter than happy memories of their later time together.
Earl died in 1988 but Bill has survived and will undoubtedly be very proud of this magni-ficent testament to the monu-mental contribution he and his brother made to country music. What a wonderful experience to be able to listen to all of this music in one collection, in many cases over 60 years after it was first recorded. I don't think even Bear Family have ever done better.
• John Atkins