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
election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA celebration of British elections
  • Get to the point
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: Marketing Manager (B2B) - Romford - £40,000 + car

£35000 - £40000 per annum + car and benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager...

Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000

£18000 - £20000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Helpdesk Analyst - Devon - £20,000 ...

Ashdown Group: Data Scientist - London - £50,000 + bonus

£35000 - £50000 per annum + generous bonus: Ashdown Group: Business Analytics ...

Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Development) - Kingston

£45000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: IT Project Coordinator (Software Dev...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

Typefaces still matter in the digital age

A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

Crisp sales are in decline

As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

Ronald McDonald the muse

A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
13 best picnic blankets

13 best picnic blankets

Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

On the margins

From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

Why patients must rely less on doctors

Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'