By Wayne Erbsen
The search for the core of the roots of bluegrass always leads to the many brother acts that were so popular with rural audiences in the 1930s and 1940s. The familiar names that always crop up include the Monroe brothers, Callahan brothers, Delmore brothers and the Bolick brothers. Practically forgotten, but no less important to the roots of bluegrass, were Karl and Harty. Though “officially” not brothers, both were born in 1905, growing up in Mount Vernon, Kentucky, as if they were brothers. This same area produced such artists as Bradley Kincaid, Red Foley, and John Lair.
Growing up surrounded by traditional music, it wasn’t long before Harty bought a mail-order guitar and Karl acquired a mandolin. Besides learning songs from local musicians, Harty learned many old songs from his mother, who sang while she did chores around the house. By 1929, they joined forces with another Mount Vernon musician, Doc Hopkins. Calling themselves the Kentucky Krazy Kats, they landed their first radio program on WHAS in Louisville.
It was Bradley Kincaid who first helped give Karl and Harty their first real break. After hearing them play at a pie supper, he helped them get an audition on the WLS National Barn Dance, where Kincaid was already an established star. Even as they were building their own reputation as entertainers, Karl and Harty came under the spell of another duet on WLS, Mac and Bob. By the late 1920s, these blind musicians helped to popularize the combination of duet singing backed by mandolin and guitar. Several of their songs eventually ended up in the bluegrass repertoire, including Twenty-One Years and When the Roses Bloom Again.
Even while they themselves were absorbing the music of other musicians, Karl and Harty were in turn helping to influence many others, including Bill and Charlie, the Monroe Brothers, who saw them perform many times on WLS’s National Barn Dance. Among the songs the Monroes learned from a Karl and Harty recording was I Dreamed I Searched Heaven for You. On the flip side was one of Karl’s original compositions, I’m Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail. Curiously, the first part of the melody seems strangely similar to the old banjo tune Reuben. An instant hit, the song went on to be recorded by scores of country musicians, including Red Allen and Frank Wakefield, who sang it in bluegrass style.
Karl and Harty’s signature song was Kentucky, written by Karl in the early 1940s. It achieved even greater success when the Blue Sky Boys recorded it in 1947, selling almost a half million copies. Other entertainers were soon trying to emulate the success of Kentucky, including the Louvin Brothers with their song Alabama.
With changing musical tastes after World War II, Karl and Harty eventually drifted out of music as a career. Their influence, however, continues to be felt, as musicians and fans unknowingly learn and sing many of the songs they wrote and made popular.
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.