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
sportSo, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Arts and Entertainment
Dennis speaks to his French teacher
tvThe Boy in the Dress, TV review
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
The Plaza Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the 300 US cinemas screening
filmTim Walker settles down to watch the controversial gross-out satire
Arts and Entertainment
Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz in Tim Burton's Big Eyes
film reviewThis is Tim Burton’s most intimate and subtle film for a decade
Life and Style
Mark's crab tarts are just the right size
food + drinkMark Hix cooks up some snacks that pack a punch
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

£70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

Day In a Page

A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

Autism-friendly theatre

Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all