By Wayne Erbsen
It all began with a misunderstanding. It was early June, 1936, and the teenage brother duet of Bill and Earl Bolick had just abruptly ended a three-month stint at radio WGST in Atlanta over a dispute with the sponsor, W.J. Fincher’s Crazy Water Crystals. Within a matter of days the Bolicks traveled to the RCA Victor studio in Charlotte, North Carolina, to fulfill a contract to make their first recordings.
Perhaps out of spite, W.J. Fincher passed on to RCA Victor the erroneous information that the brothers had broken up their act. For this reason, Eli Oberstein at Victor was surprised and annoyed when he discovered that the two teenagers who had been impatiently sitting in the waiting room for three hours were Bill and Earl, the Bolick brothers. Once Oberstein found out their names, things only went from bad to worse. He curtly asked, “You’re the boys who copy the Monroe Brothers, aren’t you?” The brothers prickled at the charge that they copied anyone. True, they had taken over the spot vacated by the Monroe Brothers on radio WGST in Atlanta, but as of yet, they had never even heard the Monroe Brothers!
When things calmed down, Oberstein relented and invited the Bolick Brothers to audition. The first number they tried was On the Sunny Side of Life, which they had sung on the radio for over a year. Before they had sung little more than a verse and chorus, Oberstein burst into the studio and interrupted them, admitting that their sound was “nothing like the Monroes” and adding, “I think it’s something that will sell.” He then proceeded to record them right on the spot. In addition to On the Sunny Side of Life, they waxed nine other songs, which would help write a new chapter in the history of recorded country music.
After the brothers finished recording, they had to come up with a name to use on the records. The most recent name they had used was the Blue Ridge Hillbillies, which was given to them by J.W. Fincher of Crazy Water Crystals, their sponsor at WGST in Atlanta. Since Homer Sherrill, along with Shorty and Mack, had assumed that name when they took over the Bolick Brothers’ slot on the radio, that name was no longer available.
The brothers suggested using the name, The Bolick Brothers, but Oberstein protested, saying there were already too many names with the word “brothers” in it. As a compromise, they took the name Blue Sky Boys, after “The Land of the Blue Sky,” which referred to the area in and around Asheville, North Carolina. Although born and raised in Hickory, some seventy-five miles east of Asheville, they had played the year before over Asheville radio WWNC, along with Homer Sherrill and The Good Coffee Boys, when they were sponsored by the J.F. Goodson Coffee Company.
Just as Eli Oberstein had guessed, the brothers’ close harmony singing and their uncanny ability to blend their voices made these first Victor records a success. With their first royalty check in November 1936, they were able to purchase an automobile, which they used to travel to numerous radio stations and shows. By October 1936, they were called back to the Victor studio to record more sides.
But just as their career was really taking off, the Blue Sky Boys had the rug pulled out from under them when they were both drafted for World War II. It was almost five years before they could resume their music career. By then, country music had changed and the Bolick brothers’ plaintive style of singing the old songs and ballads with just mandolin and guitar was no longer in fashion. In 1951, with RCA Victor pushing solo acts like Eddy Arnold, the Bolick brothers decided to retire from music.
Although they later reunited to play for a limited number of folk and bluegrass festivals and to record on several occasions in the late 1960s and early 1950s, the career of the Blue Sky Boys was essentially over. But far from over was the impact their music would have on old-time country and bluegrass music for years to come. Most careful listeners point to the Blue Sky Boys as the finest harmony singers the music has ever produced. Their recordings preserved a body of songs that would likely otherwise have been lost. These songs included a large number of gospel hymns, as well as sentimental songs derived from English ballads, mountain folk songs, and Tin Pan Alley tunes like their 1938 theme song, Are You From Dixie, which was written in 1915 by Jack Yellen and George L. Cobb. By anyone’s count, scores of songs recorded by the Blue Sky Boys have been sung by bluegrass musicians.
Gary B. Reid, of Copper Creek Records has been helping to preserve the legacy of the Blue Sky Boys. Gary has issued at least four CDs of live radio transcripts from Boys’ days in Atlanta in 1946-47, and on WCYB’s Farm & Fun Time in 1949. These discs capture the sound of their live shows, complete with their wonderful close harmony singing, as well as hilarious comedy routines by Earl Bolick, better known as “Uncle Josh.”
Here’s the song list from the Blue Sky Boys’ first recording session:
I’m Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail
On the Sunny Side of Life
They’ll Come a Time
Where the Soul Never Dies
Midnight on the Stormy Sea
Take Up Thy Cross
Row Us Over the Tide
Down on the Banks of the Ohio
I’m Troubled, I’m Troubled
The Dying Boys Prayer
Wayne Erbsen has been teaching banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin since dinosaurs roamed the earth (really, about 50 years). Originally from California, he now makes his home in Asheville, North Carolina. He has written more than 30 songbooks and instruction books for banjo, fiddle, guitar, and mandolin. Portions of this article are excerpted from Wayne’s book, The Rural Roots of Bluegrass.