Blue Sky Boys
Blue Sky Boys
Country music duo
In June of 1936, Bill and Earl Bolick climbed the stairs to the second floor of the Southern Radio Corporation Building in Charlotte, North Carolina. The brothers had just broken away from fiddler Homer Sherrill and were determined to make it on their own. They were young—Bill was 18, Earl 16—and they were about to audition for Victor, the biggest record company in the business. With no more than a mandolin and guitar to back them, the brothers relied on their secret weapon: their simple, tight vocal harmonies. Although they undoubtedly felt anxious, they breezed through the audition. After changing the new duo's name from the Bolick Brothers to the Blue Sky Boys, the young musicians were on their way to creating a distinct recording catalog that musically rose above those of many other country music brother groups.
Bill and Earl Bolick were born in Hickory, North Carolina; they were the fourth and fifth children in a deeply religious family. They inherited a musical legacy from their maternal grandmother and learned to sing close harmony on old British and American ballads at family and neighborhood get-togethers. The influence of early string band musicians like Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers also inspired Bill Bolick to learn guitar from a neighbor, lessons he passed on to his brother. Earl Bolick, who had been given a mandolin, preferred the guitar, and the brothers switched instruments. By the time the Bolick Brothers reached their teens, they had mastered their instruments and characteristic vocal style.
Earl Bolick joined the Crazy Hickory Nuts in the mid-1930s, but soon left the band to form the JFG Coffee Boys with his brother and Homer Sherrill. At first the band played in Ashville, North Carolina, but later they relocated to Atlanta, where they called themselves the Blue Ridge Hillbillies and worked for radio station WGST. By the middle of 1936, the Bolicks decided to split from Sherrill and start working as a brother team. Brother teams, however, were very popular in the mid-1930s, and RCA, worried that the name "Bolick Brothers" sounded too much like the existing Monroe Brothers and Delmore Brothers, suggested a name change. Borrowing from the slogan "Blue Ridge Mountains, Land of the Sky," Earl and Bill Bolick became the Blue Sky Boys. Newly christened, they recorded their first session for RCA on June 16, 1936, producing ten sides including the popular "Keep on the Sunny Side."
Despite intense competition from acts like the Callahan Brothers and the Dixon Brothers, the Blue Sky Boys were in constant demand. They worked for a number of radio stations during the 1930s and 1940s, including WNOA in Raleigh, North Carolina. Radio work provided a steady income and also gave the brothers a way to advertise their evening shows throughout the region. The Blue Sky Boys recorded frequently between 1936 and 1941, and popularized ballads like "Mary of the Wild Moor" and "The Knoxville Girl." The brothers' interpretive skills offered fresh takes on old, familiar ballads. "The Blue Sky Boys' passion for their subjects and unique vocal abilities infuse light into dark corners, turning eerie tales of the hidden side of man into lessons on redemption and beauty," wrote Zac Johnson in the All Music Guide.
In 1941 Bill and Earl Bolick enlisted in the armed services for the duration of World War II. In 1946 the Blue Sky Boys returned to active performing, recording more sides for RCA and working for a radio station in Atlanta. The Blue Sky Boys added new flourishes when they entered RCA's recording studio in September of 1947, filling out song arrangements with fiddle and bass. Although this represented a slight stylistic change as compared with their earlier recordings, the brothers maintained both their popularity and artistic integrity. "Musically…these were among their best recordings," contended a writer for the Eyeneer Music website. "The addition of a tasteful and unobtrusive fiddle and string bass enhanced and filled out their sound without cluttering it …"
Toward the end of the 1940s the Blue Sky Boys became disillusioned with the music business. They had always relied on sparse textures with very little instrumental accompaniment, but now musical tastes were changing. The new honky-tonk style added electric guitar to country music, leading record labels to pressure older groups to update their sound. The Bolicks resisted RCA's requests to add electric guitar, and as a result they recorded less often after 1947. Tired of fighting with the label, they recorded one more session with RCA in 1950, and retired from performing the following year.
In the early 1960s, while Americans were experiencing a renewed interest in older folk music, music scholars and fans began to wonder what had happened to Earl and Bill Bolick. Music scholars D.K. Wilgus and Ed Kahn, who had collected the Blue Sky Boys' records, began to search for the brothers. After a great deal of effort, the Blue Sky Boys were persuaded to come out of retirement and record for the Starday label. Starday had already issued an album of radio transcriptions, The Blue Sky Boys, in 1962, and in 1963 the brothers began work on two albums, Together Again, a secular record, and Precious Moments, a religious one.
The Blue Sky Boys were also pressured to make live appearances on the festival circuit, and, after turning most offers down, agreed to perform at the University of Illinois. They later played at the New York Folk Festival at Carnegie Hall and at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA); the latter concert was recorded and issued as In Concert, 1964. The Bolicks then retired once again; Bill relocated to his hometown of Hickory, North Carolina, where he worked as a postal inspector, and Earl moved to Georgia, where he worked for the Lockheed aircraft corporation. In 1975 they recorded one more album for Rounder Records, The Blue Sky Boys, and then retired for good.
For the Record . . .
Members include Bill Bolick (born on October 28, 1917, in Hickory, NC), mandolin, vocals; Earl Bolick (born on December 16, 1919, in Hickory, NC; died on April 19, 1998), guitar, vocals.
Performed with Homer Sherrill in the JFG Coffee Boys, 1936; formed the Blue Sky Boys, 1936; made approximately 100 recordings between 1936 and 1941; retired, 1951; came out of retirement, 1963; recorded two albums, Together Again and Precious Memories for Starday; retired again, returning to record The Blue Sky Boys for Rounder Records, 1975.
Addresses: Record company— Rounder Records, One Camp St., Cambridge, MA 02140, phone: (617) 354-4840, website: http://www.rounder.com.
It is difficult to overestimate the Blue Sky Boys' influence over country music in general and country duets in particular. "No one in country music," wrote David Vinopal in the All Music Guide, "has done vocal duets better than the Blue Sky Boys." The Louvin Brothers brought the Bolicks' country harmonies into the modern country era during the 1950s, while the Everly Brothers carried the innovators' intricate duo style into mainstream pop music in the 1950s and 1960s. The Blue Sky Boys also received belated recognition for their achievements when the German label Bear Family issued a 123-song box set compilation of the duo's recordings. "One of the great teams of traditional country music," wrote Irwin Stambler and Grelun Landon in the Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, "the Bolick Brothers rank with such legendary artists as Uncle Dave Macon, Gid Tanner, and Jimmie Tarlton."
The Blue Sky Boys, Starday, 1962.
Rare Treasury of Old Song Gems, Starday, 1963.
Together Again, Starday, 1963.
Precious Moments, Starday, 1964.
Presenting the Blue Sky Boys, Capitol, 1966.
The Blue Sky Boys, Rounder, 1976.
In Concert, 1964, Rounder, 1989.
The Blue Sky Boys on Radio, Vol. 1, Copper Creek, 1996.
The Blue Sky Boys on Radio, Vol. 2, Copper Creek, 1996.
The Sunny Side of Life, Bear Family, 2003.
Stambler, Irwin, and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, St. Martin's, 1983.
"Blue Sky Boys," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (December 10, 2003).
"Blue Sky Boys," Eyeneer Music, http://www.eyeneer.com (December 10, 2003).
—Ronnie D. Lankford, Jr.
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