Bill Bolick: Half of the hillbilly Blue Sky Boys

Bill and Earl Bolick, known as the Blue Sky Boys, were among the greatest of the many brother acts of the hillbilly music scene of the 1930s. Their astonishingly beautiful and complex harmonies remain great treasures of the genre.

Influenced by earlier duet acts such as Karl and Harty, and by the emotionally charged hymns of the Holiness movement at that time flourishing in the American South, they tapped into a rich vein of folk song and ballad, and evolved a repertoire that continues to form the basis of much of today's bluegrass and "old-time" music. Their vocals, anchored by Earl's thumb-pick guitar work and adorned by Bill's mandolin runs, influenced not only later brother acts such as the Louvins and the Everlys, but also the country rock pioneers of the Sixties.

Natives of North Carolina, the Bolicks' parents were "lint heads", working in the local cotton mills, and the brothers could reasonably have been expected to follow them. Instead, encouraged by their father's interest in hymn-singing, they turned to music. Bill learned to play the guitar and, having taught it to his younger brother, eventually took up the mandolin.

By 1935, Bill Bolick was working professionally alongside Homer Sherrill and Lute Isenhour out of Asheville, North Carolina, in an outfit that gained a regional following as the Crazy Hickory Nuts, sponsored by the Crazy Water Crystal Company. The group split following a dispute with the Crazy Water executive J.W. Fincher, but within months Bolick and Sherrill, this time joined by Earl, were back in Asheville, performing as the JFG Coffee-sponsored Good Coffee Boys.

They moved on to the Atlanta radio station WGST, successfully working for a while as the Blue Ridge Hillbillies, but in 1936 the Bolicks and Sherrill parted company. Returning to North Carolina the brothers headed for Charlotte, where Fincher had arranged a recording session for the Hillbillies prior to their bust-up. Although RCA Victor's A&R man, Eli Oberstein, had received notice that they weren't to record, he afforded them an audition and, after just a verse and chorus of "Sunny Side of Life", decided to let them cut 10 sides. Bill was 18 and Earl just 16 years old.

The numbers they recorded included not only "Sunny Side of Life", which they had learned from an old hymnal, but also their classic version of Karl Davis's "I'm Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail" and "Midnight on the Stormy Sea", a song popularised by the blind duo Mac and Bob. Oberstein suggested they change their name to prevent confusion with other acts and the Bolicks settled on the Blue Sky Boys – "blue" from the neighbouring Blue Ridge Mountains and "sky" because the area was known as "The Land of the Sky".

The Blue Sky Boys then took a break from performing while Bill recovered from a tonsillectomy, and when they once again took up music it was as members of J.E. Mainer's Mountaineers, a situation engineered by Fincher that proved unsatisfactory to all. They reformed the duo and went back to Charlotte for a second recording session. Over the next few years they cut a series of classic sides, including "Can't You Hear That Nightbird Crying?" (1936), "Katie Dear" (1938) and "Are You From Dixie?" (1939).

Both brothers served during the Second World War and on returning found that tastes were changing. Although they continued to come up with classics – "Kentucky" and "Garden in the Sky" (both 1947) among them – RCA began to pressure them into using an electric guitar, a situation neither was prepared to accept. It was that, coupled with public indifference, that led them to disband in 1951. Bill joined the postal service, while Earl worked for Lockheed.

Although the Blue Sky Boys must have thought themselves forgotten, in 1962, on the back of the folk boom, Starday issued an album of radio transcriptions, rekindling an interest that resulted in two further discs for the label: Together Again and Precious Moments. A 1965 album on Capitol of a concert recorded at UCLA was followed 10 years later by an LP of new recordings for Rounder. In April 1975 the Blue Sky Boys gave their last concert together at Duke University, before retiring. Earl Bolick died in 1998.

Paul Wadey

William Bolick, singer and mandolinist: born Hickory, North Carolina 28 October 1917; married 1957 Doris Wallace; died Hickory 14 March 2008.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
News
Bill Gates, founder of Microsoft and co-chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation
businessUber, Snapchat and Facebook founders among those on the 2015 Forbes Billionaire List
News
news... and what your reaction to the creatures above says about you
News
Jihadi John
newsMonikers like 'Jihadi John' make the grim sound glamorous
News
music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003