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