Sunday, March 02, 2008

Close Harmony

The great country duets of Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, and even the commercial country harmonies of the Judds, the Statler Brothers and the Gatlin Brothers, all owe a debt to one of the very foundations of American music, the close harmony.

While the fiddle was the most important instrument in early America, and very often the only instrument in rural communities, a lack of instruments did not deter the hard working folks that cleared a few acres of rough mountain terrain to make a home in the wilderness from including music in their daily lives.

Just as sailors sung familiar songs to coordinate many hands at an arduous task, song made the chores of the mountain homestead a little easier to accomplish. Long before records or radio, families sang together for both entertainment and to make difficult or repetitive tasks more enjoyable. Music also strengthened the bond between family and community. Families would gather in the evening to join together in song after the days chores were done. Saturday night barn dances provided a sense of community as well as entertainment and every community had singers even if no fiddler was available. On Sunday morning all would come together and raise their voices in song in church, further strengthening the bonds of community, and once again joining together in harmony.

Of all the groups that join in harmony, the family vocal groups have a special sound difficult for unrelated singers to duplicate. Families, especially siblings, have perfected their close, tight harmonies over years of intimacy. It was this special, close harmony of siblings that ushered in the popularity of the brother duets in the 1930s.

The most influential of early country groups was without a doubt the Carter Family. The trio of A.P., Sara, and Maybelle set the standard for all to follow. The Carters had been singing at church and at social gatherings in southwest Virginia for years before that infamous recording session in Bristol in 1927 brought them to national attention.

In the 1930s, brother groups such as the Dixon Brothers, Monroe Brothers, Delmore Brothers, and the Blue Sky Boys (Bill and Earl Bolick) brought the familiar sound of close family harmony to the radio. The influence of these brother groups was far reaching. The most famous rock ā€˜nā€™ roll brother duo, The Everly Brothers credit the music of the Blue Sky Boys as a major influence. After WWII, the Delmore Brothers would further blend the blues into their music and lead the way for rockabilly with their rollicking boogie woogie. The Monroe Brothers blended blues, jazz, and pop with the traditional old-time music of the Appalachians to develop the unique style that would become bluegrass.

There is nothing quite like the wonderful sound of voices in close harmony.

The Carter Family - Theme & The Church In The Wildewood.mp3

The Phipps Family - Red Jacket Mine Explosion.mp3

Coon Creek Girls - Banjo Pickin' Girl.mp3

The Stanley Brothers - Ramshackle Shack On The Hill.mp3

The Delmore Brothers - Brown's Ferry Blues.mp3

Monroe Brothers - New River Train.mp3

Jim & Jesse - Hard Hearted.mp3

The Seldom Scene - Traveling on and On.mp3


Anonymous boyhowdy said...

Wooo-ee! Great premise, great choices, great post.

Surely, the years of familiarity and practice matter. But one of the reasons I think family groups make for such amazing close harmony is that their accents/vocal tone and timbre tend to be closely matched, as well, due in no small part to both genetics and, surely, a common regional upbringing.

March 02, 2008 10:56 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Good point, Boyhowdy. I sure genetics plays a major part.

March 03, 2008 3:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

another nice set, ed. i think it is right that you are taking some personal time between posts ... stay cool, my friend... :)

if you ever do another "brothers" post, i recommend Leclaire.


March 03, 2008 9:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...



March 04, 2008 1:40 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Thanks Ken. I find it very relaxing to write these posts.

March 04, 2008 7:22 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Glad to be back, Joey. I know you are as busy down in Alabama as I am in Virginia. Take some time to enjoy yourself.

March 04, 2008 7:24 PM  
Anonymous Ed Dawson said...

Great post. :)
Your knowledge of the rich history of old country is wonderful.

I just want to mention another close harmony pair that seems to have been neglected: Louvin Bros.

March 04, 2008 11:55 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Ed Dawson, Ira and Charlie are another great example! Although they seem to have fallen in between the two eras of great brother groups. Too late for the first wave of the '30s and a bit early for the '50s.

Their fire and brimstone view of the world was an major influence on many gospel and country artists.

March 05, 2008 2:03 PM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

Another damn fine post, Ed. I'm particularly fond of The Carter Family & The Seldom Scene.

March 11, 2008 12:08 PM  
Blogger Ed said...

Thanks for the kind words, Lucy. I'm glad you enjoyed the post.

March 11, 2008 7:08 PM  

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