The Delmore Brothers

The Delmore Brothers were probably the most distinctive of all the brother acts that proliferated hillbilly music during the 1930s and 1940s. Drawing from both gospel and Appalachian folk, they were one of the greatest early country duet teams. They were also skilled songwriters, penning literally hundreds of songs, many of which have proven to be durable. Most important, they were among the few early traditional country acts to change with the times, and pioneer some of those changes.

Forerunners of the 1950s rock’n’roll explosion, they expertly blended traditional country, boogie and blues into a distinctive sound that was often imitated but rarely equalled. Later acts like The Everly Brothers, The Johnny Burnette Rock’n’Roll Trio, The Louvin Brothers, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis were all heavily influenced by The Delmore Brothers. Yet, for years, they have been overlooked by the country music industry, until finally, they were inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001, 30 years after they had been elected into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame, and 50 years after they had last performed together.

The sons of tenant farmers, the Delmore brothers, Alton (born December 25, 1908) and Rabon (born December 3, 1916), were born into poverty in Elkmont, Alabama. Farm raised, they were taught fiddle by their mother, Aunt Mollie Delmore, winning an old-time fiddle contest in Athens, Alabama in 1930. Equally adept on guitar and vocals, they were playing as a pair by the time Rabon was ten years old. They were confident enough to enter professional music, auditioning for Columbia in 1931 and successfully auditioning for Nashville radio station WSM the following year, where they soon became long-time Grand Ole Opry favourites. From the outset they were performing their own original material, which was mainly written by Alton, although his younger brother was also a competent writer. An early success came in 1933 with Brown’s Ferry Blues, for RCA’s Bluebird label and throughout the 1930s, the Delmore Brothers recorded often, as well as performing on several radio stations. The music emphasised their beautiful soft harmonies, accomplished guitar picking, and strong original compositions. Unusually for that time (or any other), The Delmores would switch high and low harmony parts from song to song (or even within the same song), although Alton would usually sing lead.

In 1
944, The Delmores signed with the Cincinnati-based King Records, inaugurating an era which found them delving into and innovating more modern forms of country. Although their first recordings for the label stuck to a traditional mould, in 1946 they expanded from their acoustic two-piece arrangements into full-band backup, with bass, mandolin, steel guitar, fiddle, harmonica, and additional guitars. Some of those additional guitars were supplied by Merle Travis, who credited Alton Delmore as a key influence. This led to chart success with Freight Train Boogie, Blues Stay Away From Me (a number one in 1949) and Pan American Boogie. They teamed up with Travis and Grandpa Jones to form the gospel quartet The Brown’s Ferry Four, a popular radio and recording act.

Soon after that success, The Delmores became based in Houston. By this time Alton had published close on 1000 songs and a legal battle ensued over the copyright of one of those, Beautiful Brown Eyes. Without the finances to fight the case, Alton had to settle for a nominal payout. Shortly after, their father died, then almost immediately Alton's three-year-old daughter Susan died. He lost interest in music and already a heavy drinker, turned increasingly to the bottle.

Rabon became seriously ill with lung cancer. He returned to Athens where he died on December 4, 1952. Alton also moved back to Alabama, settling in Huntsville. He worked as a postman and salesman and continued to work infrequent show dates and recorded some material as a solo act, in both the gospel and rockabilly fields. He wrote the hard-to-find autobiography Truth Is Stranger than Fiction (published posthumously in 1977 by CMF) before dying on June 9, 1964 from a haemorrhage brought on by a liver disorder due to his heavy drinking. By that time The Delmore Brothers’ work had already proven extremely influential, particularly on the harmonies of fellow sibling acts The Everly Brothers and The Louvin Brothers. The latter duo recorded A TRIBUTE TO THE DELMORE BROTHERS album in 1960. Since that time there have been numerous Delmore Brothers compilations and reissues. Whether performing their own songs, traditional ones, or gospel, they brought a strong bluesy feeling to both their music and their vocals. It is that element, perhaps, that enables The Delmores, more than many other acts of the time, to speak to listeners of subsequent generations. Not to be underestimated either are their down-to-earth lyrical concerns, which addressed commonplace struggles and lost love with grace and redeeming, good-natured humour, rarely resorting to maudlin tears.

Recommended Listening

Sand Mountain Blues (County 1986)
Brown's Ferry Blues (County 1988)
Classic Cuts: 1933-1941 (JSP 2003)
Fifty Miles to Travel (Ace 2005)
The Delmore Brothers, Vol. 2: The Later Years 1933-1952 (JSP 2007)
Blues Stay Away from Me (Jasmine 2008)
Classic Cuts, Vol. 3: More from the 1930s Plus (JSP 2008)
Freight Train Boogie (Ace 2012)