The first time I heard Bill and Earl Bolick, the legendary duo known as The Blue Sky Boys, I was stopped flat in my tracks. The Bolicks were one of the great Depression-era "brother acts," inspiration for future stars such as the Delmores and The Louvin Brothers, whose high, tight harmonies and devotion to stark, often gloomy gospel material derived from the same rural wellsprings. Chances are that once you've checked them out, you'll become a lifelong fan as well -- few folks ever combined the fatalistic, hardshell fundamentalist religious message with such compelling melodies and soulful, haunting vocal performances. Sadly, most of the best of the classic Blue Sky Boys recordings are out of print, but whatever you're able to find of their old stuff will prove a real eye-opener. Here's a quick look at their work...
The Blue Sky Boys "A Treasury Of Rare Song Gems" (Starday, 1962)
When the folks at Starday heard that Bill Bolick had kept an archive of radio transcription discs documenting the Blue Sky Boys postwar career, they finagled to have him loan them a few discs and put together this selection of live performances, material probably recorded around 1946. This disc, in turn, led the Bolicks -- who had called it quits in 1951 -- to reform and start rehearsing again. The next year, they recorded two album's worth of material for Starday, the two albums listed below.
The Blue Sky Boys "Together Again" (Starday, 1963) (LP)
The Blue Sky Boys "Precious Moments" (Starday, 1963) (LP)
Blue Sky Boys "Presenting The Blue Sky Boys" (Capitol, 1965) (LP)
This LP came in the wake of their rediscovery in the early '60s folk boom, when "authentic" artists from the Depression era were hot items on college campuses across the country. Although this isn't the first album of theirs you should try out, it's a fine record, showing the Bolick brothers still in fine form, and still as staid and soulful as ever. This one is a bit hard to find, but it's worth looking for, particularly for the devoted fan.
The Blue Sky Boys "The Sunny Side Of Life" (Rounder, 1974)
The bluegrass mavens at Rounder Records certainly hit the nail on the head with this lovely, compact collection of fourteen of the best songs by Bill and Earl Bolick, aka the Blue Sky Boys. Songs such as "Alabama," "Banks Of The Ohio," "Turn Your Radio On," "Katie Dear," and my personal favorite, "S-A-V-E-D," remain highwater marks of the Depression-era old-timey scene, and following their reissue on this LP and the RCA collection that followed, became standards in the newgrass/truegrass canon. There are also resonant, haunting tunes such as "Pictures From Life's Other Side" and "Don't Say Goodbye If You Love Me" that'll make even the gruffest of us a little misty and weepy. Great stuff -- it's a real mystery why this disc isn't still in print!
Blue Sky Boys "The Sunny Side Of Life" (RCA/Bluebird, 1975)
This is really the true Blue Sky Boys motherlode... what the Rounder album reviewed above hinted at, this 2-LP set delivers in full: dozens of spine-tinglingly great, classic recordings made by the Bollicks in their 1930s-'40s heyday. All their best-known songs are on here, along with numerous grittier, spookier gospel tunes and harrowing story songs that never seem to make it onto CD reissues. This was a Holy Grail album for me, many, many years ago, when I first set out to build up my hick music collection, and I remain as thrilled now as I was back then that I tracked a copy down. Sure would be cool if someone, somewhere, at BMG would reissue this collection in its entirety. The world sure could use it back again!
Blue Sky Boys "On The Radio, v.1" (Copper Creek, 1996)
These four volumes cull through extensive collection of radio transcription discs that Bill Bolick saved as keepsakes, and made available to record labels after the Blue Sky Boys regrouped in the early '60s. It's a great glimpse at their performance style during the post-WWII era. Mighty fine.
Blue Sky Boys "On The Radio, v.2" (Copper Creek, 1996)
Blue Sky Boys "On The Radio, v.3" (Copper Creek, 1999)
Blue Sky Boys "On The Radio, v.4" (Copper Creek, 1999)
Blue Sky Boys "Farm And Fun Time Favorites, v.1" (Copper Creek, 1996)
Blue Sky Boys "Farm And Fun Time Favorites, v.2" (Copper Creek, 1996)
Blue Sky Boys "In Concert, 1964" (Rounder, 1989)
Imagine the ecstasy of folk festival organizers at finding the Bolick brothers still in fine form and rarin' to go, with all their best (and corniest) crowd pleasers on the tips of their tounges, and able to pick their instruments as well as any of the kids they'd be up on stage with. This live album gives a great sense of the polished, professionalism and showmanship of the greatest of brother acts, and their canny handling of live audiences. Of course, the folkie crowd of the early '60s was well-primed to adore and venerate a pair of old-timers like this, and the warmth goes both ways. Still, they're mainly retreading material that was covered with greater intensity on their original studio recordings of the Great Depression era... It's nice to hear them crack a smile and loosen up a bit, but other than the addition of the cornball punning of the "Uncle Josh" comedy routine, this is mostly material that long-time fans will have already heard. Hardcore fans will definitely want to check this out, to get a feel for the brother's personalities; folks who can't track down the old stuff should also enjoy this album, since it pretty much covers the same bases. A good record, with plenty of fun moments.
Blue Sky Boys "The Blue Sky Boys" (Rounder, 1976)
As with the '60s concerts, these later recordings show the Bolicks still sounding professional and musically solid, although they don't really illuminate anything new about their sound, or offer much in the way of new approaches or material. They were still sounding great, and only a little long in the tooth, but if you've already heard their classic 1930s and '40s material, this disc is pretty superfluous.
Blue Sky Boys "The Sunny Side Of Life" (Bear Family, 2003)
Leave it to Bear Family...! In a world criminally devoid of Blue Sky Boys albums, they come out with the ultimate, authoritative 5-CD box set of the Bolick Brothers work... Admittedly, this may be a bit much more than even the most devoted fan can handle, but with the flawless sound quality, and generously informative, LP-sized booklet, this is a real class act. Bear Family stuff is always the way to go... and this collection is no exception! [Footnote: I finally picked up my own copy of this, and it's amazing. In addition to the music (sublime) there is a great booklet, which not only has the standard Bear Family level of scholarship and archival graphics, but it's actually a hardbound volume (!) representing the upward evolution of BF product. It's amazing.]
Blue Sky Boys "The Very Best Of Classic Country Remastered" (JSP, 2007)
This budget-priced 5-CD set is also available as separate download albums, which are listed below...
Blue Sky Boys "Classic Country Remastered: Charlotte, NC 1936-1937" (JSP, 2007)
Blue Sky Boys "Classic Country Remastered: Charlotte, NC - Rock Hills, SC 1937-1938" (JSP, 2007)
Blue Sky Boys "Classic Country Remastered: Rock Hill, SC - Atlanta, GA 1938-1940" (JSP, 2007)
Blue Sky Boys "Classic Country Remastered: Atlanta, GA - New York City 1940-1947" (JSP, 2007)
Blue Sky Boys "Classic Country Remastered: New York City - Atlanta, GA - Nashville, TN 1947-1950" (JSP, 2007)
The MP3 versions of the 5-CD box set listed above... mysteriously listed as individual "albums" online... Still great stuff, though!
Blue Sky Boys "Presenting The Blue Sky Boys" (Arhoolie, 2012)
This disc is a reissue of an excellent old JEMF album originally recorded in 1965, when they were making a splash on the folk circuit. It's an extraordinary set, touching on their gospel roots but leaning heavily on secular material drawn from the catalogs of old-timey greats such as Jimmie Rodgers and Leadbelly. Many of the songs are well-known classics, such as "Corrina, Corrina," "Midnight Special," "Jack O'Diamonds" and "Greenback Dollar," familiar themes that take on new life in the unique Blue Sky Boys style: Their clipped high-harmonies, unfussy arrangements and intriguing variations on well-known versions by better-known artists all make this a richly, deeply rewarding record. If you enjoy the Louvin Brothers more stripped-down stuff, or the early recordings of the original Carter Family, then you owe it to yourself to check this out. Highly, emphatically recommended.
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