About the Group
Bill and Earl Bolick Remember The Blue Sky Boys
by Wayne W. Daniel
(Note: The article originally appeared in Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine,
September 1981. Used by permission of author.)
Of the many mandolin-guitar groups of the thirties, none was of
greater importance, in terms of tradition, than Bill and
Earl Bolick, popularly known as The Blue Sky Boys. So writes
Bill C. Malone in his book, "Country Music U.S.A., A
Fifty Year History."
Evidence of the importance of the Blue Sky Boys to present-day bluegrass
music is readily available. Bill Foster, leader of
what has been described as "one of the most popular bands on the
southern festival and concert circuit," states that in the early days
of his musical career he and his brother Jim developed a style in which
they tried "to sound just like the Blue Sky Boys."
The Bolick brothers' influence today's bluegrass music is a matter, not
only of style, but of repertoire as well. At any bluegrass festival,
chances are that the audience will hear at least two or three songs
that were recorded and popularized years ago by the Blue Sky Boys.
A Lewis Family set, for example, is likely to feature
such songs as "The Sunny Side of Life" (recorded in 1936 at the
Blue Sky Boys first recording session) and "The Sweetest Gift,
A Mother's Smile" (a post-war release by the Bolicks).
But when you talk to the Blue Sky Boys about their music, there is
one point that they immediately endeavor to make clear-their sound
"was not bluegrass."
"Although we played a number of songs rather fast," Bill explains,
"I don't feel we ever had a bluegrass sound. I associate bluegrass
strictly with the Monroe high-pitched type singing and fast,
hard-driving instrumentals, featuring the Monroe style mandolin
and stereotyped by the Scruggs banjo. If music isn't of
this type, I don't consider it bluegrass. Definitely, we never
had this type sound. Most of our songs were sung at a moderate pace
in a key that fitted our natural voices. We were definitely softer."
In his book, Malone goes on to state that the Blue Sky Boys'
"personal popularity, gained largely through radio and personal
appearances, was exceeded by no other duetnot even the
Monroe Brothersin the southeastern states during the late
The radio and personal appearance career of the Blue Sky Boys
had its beginnings back in 1935 at WWNC, Asheville. North Carolina,
when Bill, born October 29, 1917, was seventeen years
old and Earl, born November 16, 1919, was fifteen. In the
fall of 1935 Bill, Earl, and fiddle player, Homer Sherrill, appeared
on the station as the Good Coffee Boys sponsored by JFG Coffee. To
the radio audience they were John, Frank, and George-names suggested
by the JFG in their sponsor's name.
At first Earl played guitar accompaniment to their singing, and Bill
alternated between the guitar and mandolin. "We both felt our singing
sounded better with the guitar-mandolin combination than with
two guitars," Bill relates, and apparently their listeners shared
this opinion. "People kept requesting that I play the mandolin
more," Bill continues. Eventually he switched completely
to the mandolin as his instrument on all their numbers.
Earlier in 1955 Bill had appeared on WWNC with the Crazy
Hickory Nuts, a Crazy Water Crystals sponsored group consisting
of Homer Sherrill (fiddle); Homer's brother Arthur Sherrill
(mandolin); and Lute Isenhour, a five-string banjo player.
Subsequent pre-war radio concomitant personal appearance engagements
took the Bolicks to WGST in Atlanta, Georgia on three different
occasions (March-June, 1936; February-July 1957;
January 1938-December 1939); WSOC in Charlotte, North Carolina,
and a two or three week stint with J.E. Mainer (August, 1936);
to WPTF in Raleigh, North Carolina (December, 1939-April, 1941);
and to WFBC, Greenville. South Carolina (May-August, 1941).
The Bolick brothers' first appearance on Atlanta's WGST in March
of 1936 followed directly on the heels of Bill and Charlie
Monroe who had been at the station for about a week. The Monroe Brothers
played their last WGST radio show at 12:15p.m. on March 3, and the
Bolicks made their initial appearance at 7 a.m. on March 4. During this
fast Atlanta stint Bill and Earl were known as the
Blue Ridge Hillbillies, a name given them by J.W. Fincher, manager of
the Georgia Carolinas division of Crazy Water Crystals, the Hillbillies'
sponsor at WGST.
After a three month's stay in Atlanta, Bill and Earl, on June 16, 1938,
entered an RCA Victor recording studio in Charlotte, North Carolina, to
make their first phonograph records. The session director,
Eli Oberstein, was surprised to see the Bolick brothers when they
made their appearance at the studio. As Bill recalls, "When we quit
in Atlanta (shortly before the recording session), Mr. J.W. Fincher
or members of his company (the Crazy Water Crystals Company)
informed RCA that Earl and I weren't working together anymore, and
wouldn't be fulfilling our recording agreement. Earl and I thought
our agreement was still in effect as we hadn't been notified differently.
Homer Sherrill and two fellows, Shorty and Mack, who replaced us in
Atlanta, recorded in our stead as the Blue Ridge Hillbillies, the name
we had used in Atlanta. Thinking we had cancelled our engagement, and
thinking we were only curious onlookers, Eli became a bit upset when
he noticed our presence."
Once the misunderstanding was cleared up, however, Bill and Earl were
allowed to record, and ten sides from the session were released on
the Bluebird label: "I'm Just Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail" "Sunny
Side of Life," "There'll Come a Time," "Where the Soul Never Dies,"
"Midnight on the Stormy Sea," "Take Up Thy Cress," "Row Us Over the Tide," "Down on the Banks of Ohio," "I'm Troubled, I'm Troubled," and "The Dying Boy's Prayer."
When the question arose regarding a name to put on the Bolick brothers'
records, Oberstein expressed the opinion that it would be better to
adopt some name other than the logical "Bolick Brothers," since so many
brother acts were already recording. "We kicked the idea around a bit,"
Bill says, "and came up with the Blue Sky Boys, a name taken from
the Blue Ridge Mountains and higher elevations near Hickory, North Carolina,
area commonly referred to as the 'Land of the Sky.' So as not to lose
our identity, our recordings came out with our names, Bill and Earl
Bolick, listed in parentheses, beneath The Blue Sky Boys."
Between their first recording session and their entrance into military
service, the Blue Sky Boys, at seven different Victor sessions, recorded
eighty additional sides, all but three of which were subsequently
issued. Of those not issued, one was because of a lost master, and
another could not be issued because the master was broken.
The Blue Sky Boys had been at WFBC, Greenville. South Carolina, only a
couple of months in 1941 when World War II intruded upon their lives.
Fan mail was heavy, and requests for personal appearance engagements
were coming in at a gratifying pace. "I'm sure we would have been
booked solid within another month," says Bill, speaking of this stage
in the Blue Sky Boys' career. "I gathered up several days mail
and carried it in to Jim Reid (program director at WFBC). I told him I
felt that with response like that (at the time the Blue Sky Boys were
drawing more mail than any act that had ever appeared on the station),
we should certainly have no trouble in getting a sponsor. He readily
agreed with me and said he would get to work on it immediately. He also
agreed to allow us to sell pictures, books or anything along that
line on our radio programs.
"Not long after that, Jim called me where I was rooming and asked
me if I could come to the station and talk with him. When I arrived
he told me we would be given 'a substantial raise beginning next week.
His offer was, by far, the largest amount we had ever been paid. I know
of no outfit that had been offered that high a salary prior to
World War II-not in the south. Most worked as we did, on a sustaining
basis. Sadly, I reached in my pocket and handed him a notice from the
draft board telling me to report for duty on August 11, 1941. In no more
than two weeks we were in the armed forces and didn't return to
entertaining for over four and a half years."
Eighteen months of Bill's military duty was served in the Pacific
theater where he participated in the initial landings on Leyte Island
in the Philippines and Okinawa. Earl, who was a medical paratrooper with
the 82nd Airborne Division, won several medals and decorations, including the
Purple Heart with Oak Leaf Cluster and the Silver Star.
After World War II (Earl was discharged in September and Bill on
Christmas Day of 1946), the Blue Sky Boys resumed their singing career
in March 1946, at WGST in Atlanta where they stayed until February of
1948. For six as eight months their Atlanta programs were heard also
via transcriptions on radio stations in Macon and Savannah, Georgia.
The Atlanta tour was followed by engagements on WNAO, Raleigh, North
Carolina (March, 1948-March, 1949): WCYB, Bristol, Virginia
(March-December, 1949); WROM, Rome, Georgia (December, 1949-April,
19b(1); KWKH, Shreveport, Louisiana (April-August, 19601; and a second
tour of duty at Raleigh's WNAO (August, 1960-February, 1961).
Before disbanding in February of 1961, the Blue Sky Boys, after
the war, recorded some thirty-six sides for RCA Victor at recording
sessions in Atlanta (September, 1916,; January, 1949), New York City
(May and December, 1947) and Nashville (March, 1950). From this period
of their career came the Blue Sky Boys' biggest hit, "Kentucky," a
song composed by Karl Davis and Harty Taylor. "As nearly as I can
estimate," Bill, states, "we sold approximately a half million copies
of that record."
Country music historian, Douglas B. Green, has stated that "The Blue Sky
Boys were famous for their religious songs and sentimental tunes of
the 1890s and earlier, as well as for their well known versions of
American and British folk songs." Commenting an the Blue Sky Boys
repertoire. Bill says it consisted of "a good fifty per cent religious
type conga. The rest of our programs were split between traditional
and contemporary folk music."
The Blue Sky Boys learned their material from a variety of
sources. "I learned the tunes of a few songs from my maternal
grandmother," Bill notes. "When she would visit with us, I continually
aggravated her to sing me some of the old songs she knew. I remember her
singing songs such as 'Sing a Song, Kitty' and `Cindy.' I cannot
recall, however, learning the complete words to any song from her.
"My mother was much the same way," Bill continues. "She was the first
person I can ever recall hearing sing 'Bonnie Blue Eyes,' but she only
knew a verse or two."
According to Earl, his and Bill's father frequently sang around
the house. Especially on Sunday mornings we'd wake up hearing him
singing hymns," Earl recalls. "We definitely )earned a lot of our
hymns from him," Bill adds. "I can directly associate him with songs
like "When the Ransomed Get Home," The HMIs of Home.' "Only Let Me Walk
With Thee," "No Disappointment in Heaven," "An Old Account Was Settled,"
and many, many more."
The song, "Are Yon From Dixie," so closely identified with the
Blue Sky Boys, and adopted as their theme song in 1988, was learned
from Lloyd Price, a singer who lived near Bill and Earl while they were
growing up and with whom they did some occasional singing. Bill also
points out that a lot of the Blue Sky Boys songs were learned from
Lute Isenhour, the five-string banjo player with the Crazy Hickory
Nuts. In addition, Bill says, "our radio audience sent us a lot
of songs, and publishers continuously sent us hundreds, even
thousands, of published songs. I learned to read music to a certain
degree, and in this manner learned a lot of songs."
"Sometimes we would rewrite old songs, making up a little here and
there, and maybe adding a verse when we knew only part
of a song," Earl explains. "Many of the old-timers sang a song exactly
as it sounded to them." Bill elaborates. "There were many times a
lot of the words just didn't make sense. When this happened I always
tried to rewrite it enough to make it understandable."
Ed Davis in a 1974 article in the Greensboro (North Cardinal Daily News,
writes that "Bill and Earl Bolick developed a style of close
harmony singing that is at the very foundation of a great deal
of what is called country music today, and they perfected it
to the point that their music served to define the style."
Bill Bolick explains how he and Earl developed their style. "Both of us
realized from the very beginning that in order to produce good,
clear harmony, one had to sing at a moderate pace in order to
be understood, and softly if your voices were to blend. From the
first, we strove to keep the harmony and lead separate. Many of
the early duets did what we termed `ran together.' In other words, they
sang identical notes instead of lead and harmony. This is one thing
we were very careful about. If you will listen to any song we ever
recorded. I don't think you will find one where we sang portions
of a song without clearly separating the lead and harmony.
"We always tried to sing in our natural God-given voices. We never attempted
to copy anyone's style, or sound like them. We didn't try to see
how high we could sing, or how loud we could sing. We tried to sing
in a key that we felt would suit our voices beat, without yelling
or straining. We didn't play our instruments loud. When it was necessary
that the harmony reach a high pitch, I learned to reach these notes
without increasing the volume of my voice so the sound that
I attained wouldn't be any louder than Earl's lower-pitched voice. We
must have been pretty successful at this, because over practically
all the radio stations we ever worked, the control men would tell
us that we were easier to 'ride gain' with than anyone they had ever
worked with, regardless of who it was. This simply meant that they
seldom had to touch the controls to bring us up or down. Our voices and
music usually stayed within an acceptable level."
All of the Blue Sky Boys' pre-war recordings were vocal duets by
Bill and Earl accompanying themselves on guitar and mandolin.
When asked to describe his mandolin style, Bill replies that it
is "altogether different from the bluegrass" style. "From the very
first I never simply chorded while we sang. Over the years I worked
constantly to develop a sound that would be similar to a third
voice of fiddle background while I was singing harmony with Earl. I felt
it was a very difficult style. Even the few duets that have been
influenced by us have never tried to duplicate my style while singing.
I didn't always accomplish, on every song, what I really wanted to do,
but had we continued playing, I think I could have. If you will listen
to the mandolin on our Victor recordings of "Kentucky," "I'm Glad," "Sold
Down the River," "Behind These Prison Walls of Love," "The Unfinished Rug,"
and "Where Our Darling Sleeps Tonight," I think you will get a pretty
good idea of what I was trying to do, how difficult it was to do, and
the distinct difference from the bluegrass style. We always felt the
singing was more important that the instrumentals, and for that reason
didn't try to make the instrumental work outstanding. We tried to
develop a style of playing that would enhance our voices."
At the Blue Sky Boys first two recording sessions Bill played a
homemade mandolin he had bought in an Atlanta pawn shop. "I think I paid
eighteen dollars for it," Bill reminisces. "I understand it was made
by a fellow named Hembree. It was made of oak with F holes and
curved top. It sounded so much better than the mandolin I was playing,
which was a cheap one, I simply thought the tone was beautiful. The mandolin
I had been playing was a production-line job that could have been
equaled anywhere for six to ten dollars."
The mandolin heard on Bill's later recordings is a Martin, Model 20,
made in 1929. Bill purchased the instrument new in 193?, for seventy-five
dollars, from the Cable Piano Company, a then popular Atlanta music store.
"I understand that less than three hundred of this model were ever
produced," Bill notes. The instrument's sides and back (which is curved)
are made of curly maple and the arched top is spruce. The pick guard,
fret board, and bridge are all made of genuine ebony.
On all Blue Sky Boys radio programs, personal appearances, and recordings prior
to 1940, as well as on the records made at their first 1940
session (February 6, 1940), Earl played an 0-28 herringbone Martin
guitar that belonged to Bill. Made in 1929, the guitar was purchased
by Bill in 1935 for seventy-five dollars. In 1940 Earl purchased a D-28
herringbone Martin which he still owns. Through his father's connections
he was able to obtain the instrument at a wholesale price of
Throughout their career Bill and Earl Bolick performed with a
third person in their act. During the Good Coffee Boys days and
the first two jobs at WGST in Atlanta, the third musician was
Homer Sherrill, a fiddle player, who served as emcee at personal appearances.
According to Bill, he, Homer, and Earl sang very little, if any,
together. When Sherrill left the Blue Sky Boys in 1937 he joined the
Richard "Red" Hicks, like the Bolicks, a native of North Carolina, joined
the Blue Sky Boys in 1938 and performed with them until October
of 1940. "When Red joined us," Bill relates, "We immediately started
working on the trite and usually included at least one on
each program." Hicks sang lead to Earl's bass and Bill's tenor. Many,
perhaps half, of the hymns heard on Blue Sky Boys programs during
this period were done by the trio. Hicks, who played guitar and mandolin, sometimes
played mandolin duets with Bill and sang two or three solos each week
on the radio programs. As Bill recalls, Hicks usually sang western
and semi-pop songs like "Home in Wyoming," "Riding Down the Canyon,"
"Silvery Moon," "Gold Mine in the Sky," and "Red Sails In The Sunset."
He was particularly fond of the western songs that were in vogue
at the time.
When Hicks left the Blue Sky Boys be was replaced by a native of
Gilmer County, Georgia, Samuel "Curley" Parker, who was a part of
the act until they were separated by the war. He rejoined Bill and
Earl after the war and remained with them until June of 1949, except
for a brief period from the fall of 194? until January of 1948 when
he was replaced by Joe Tyson whose home was in the Carrollton/Villa Rica,
According to Bill, Curley, whose previous experience had included that
of fiddle player with the Holders Brothers, had not done much
singing before joining the Blue Sky Boys. "But in several months," Bill adds,
"we had him singing s pretty good lead. All in all, I believe his voice
blended with ours better than anyone else that ever sang with us.
We received as many requests for some of our trios as we did for our
Parker, who was the first musician besides Bill and Earl to read as a
member of the Blue Sky Boys, joined the Bolicks for their 1946 and 1949
sessions in Atlanta sad the May 1947 session in New York City. These
sessions produced, in addition to "Kentucky," such other Blue
Sky Boys favorites as "Dust on the Bible," "Sold Down the River,"
and "The Sweetest Gift, A Mother's Smile."
The last musician to perform with the Blue Sky Boys before their
break-up in 1961 was fiddler and bull whip artist, Leslie Keith, who
replaced Curley Parker. Joining the Bolicks in June of 1949 while
they were working at WCYB in Bristol, Virginia, Keith had previously
worked for another entertainer named Curly King. "When we hired him,
we didn't even know he did a bull-whip act," Bill explains. "We learned
later he had presented it with the Stanley Brothers and Curly
King's group. The main thing that surprised me about Leslie was
his ability to do things without practice. He was also an excellent
banjo player, using the old-time clawhammer style. Here again, he
seldom practiced. He didn't have a five-string banjo of his own. When
he played it, he used mine. He told me be could play the harmonica
similar to Wayne Raney, but didn't own one. I bought him several
cheap ones, and surprisingly, he could do selections like "The Fox Chase"
and "Pan-American Blues" very well. I always felt his background
playing was a bit rough for our type of music, but he was
certainly gifted in many ways."
Keith joined the Blue Sky Boys at their last pre-1961 re-recording
session which was held in Nashville. Songs recorded at this session
included "There'll Be No Broken Hearts for Me" and "Where Our
Darling Sleeps Tonight," both of which were written by Bill
and Earl; Karl Davis' "The Unfinished Rug"; and a re-recording
of Bill's arrangement of "Sunny Side of Life."
In 1946 William A. Farr attended a Blue Sky Boys concert at
Tyrone School near Atlanta. In an article in Sing Out! magazine
be recalls that "Unlike others who had come from radioland sporting
cowboy hats, stomping and yelling, they stepped quietly onto
the stage dressed in business suits. Instead of mouthing
ungrammatical greetings..., Bill thanked us for the applause
but requested that we listen to their songs."
"Our stage shows lasted approximately an hour and a half," Earl
explains. "We would sing for thirty-five or forty minutes, then
we'd have our comedy routine, do a fast number, and close with
our theme song." While Earl was dressing for the comedy
part of the show, Bill would usually sing a solo (frequently of
a comic nature), tell a job or two, and do a selection or
so with the other member of the group. It was also at this time
that the third member of the group usually did his
Beginning in 1938, the Blue Sky Boys comedy routine centered around a
character called Uncle Josh, who, recording to Earl, who played
the part, "was an old man who thought he knew everything, but
didn't know anything." Before Uncle Josh came on the scene
the comedy act had consisted of Earl playing blackface and Bill
playing either blackface or a rube character. In creating Uncle Josh,
Bill explains, "we were striving for something different, as most
acts in those days either worked blackface or rube comedian or both."
Those who saw Uncle Josh on stage remember his baggy trousers, more or
less held up by a giant safety pin and untrustworthy looking
suspenders; his floppy felt hat; and his oversized shoes. Wire-rimmed
spectacles perched low on his nose, a corn cob pipe, and a
rummage-sale coat and tie completed his costume. While Leslie Keith
was with the Blue Sky Boys he combined his whip act with the
Uncle Josh routine in a performance which, Bill says, "never failed to
bring the house down."
Unlike so many of the early country music radio shows, whose exact
content and format have long since been forgotten, typical Blue Sky
Boys programs have not only been preserved on electrical transcriptions, but
in manuscript form as wall. For a fall year-from May 9,1939 to May 9,1940-a dedicated
fan sat beside her radio each day and faithfully wrote down
the names of the songs and performers on the Blue Sky Boys' programs
on Atlanta's WGST and Raleigh's WPTF. This daily program log, now
in the possession of Red Hicks, reveals, for example, that on
Tuesday, May 9, 1989, the program featured "I Anchored My Soul,"
"Picture on the Wall," "Treasures Untold (by Red)," and "Some Glad
Day." On Thursday, May 9, 1940, the last day for which a record
was kept, the program consisted of "Just A Little Talk With Jesus,"
"Sunny Hills of Tennessee," "I Dreamed I Searched Heaven for You,"
and "Pharaoh's Army Got Drownded." Also included on the
Blue Sky Boys' radio programs were announcements of personal appearance
dates, a short comedy routine, at tiers dedications, and
commercial announcements on those programs that were sponsored.
Each program usually included one or more religious songs.
Your popularity in our days of entertaining was judged by the
fan mail you received," avers Bill. "This was the only method they
had of judging the aims of your listening audience." The Bolick
Brothers always drew good mail response, despite the fact, as
Bill points off, that they usually performed on small radio
stations in areas dominated by much more powerful stations. "Too,"
says Bill, "Prime time over the air, which we seldom had, meant a
great deal (in determining the amount of mail an act could
expect to receive)."
Continuing, Bill says that "In a short time after we (the Good
Coffee Boys) started at WWNC in Asheville, we were drawing quite a
lot of fan mail every day. The station management, I think, was as
surprised as we were at the volume. They informed us that no group
that had ever performed over the station bad ever come near to
consistently drawing that much fan mail." While they were working
at newly christened WNAO, Raleigh, more than half of the
mail received by the station was addressed to the Blue Sky Boys.
Bill and Earl, since their break-up in 1961, have performed together
only intermittently. They gave a concert in October of 1964
at the University of Illinois, followed in 1966 by concerts at
Carnegie Hall, the University of California in Los Angeles, the city,
auditorium in Atlanta, and at a Saturday night jamboree near Hickory,
North Carolina. In 1974 the Blue Sky Boys appeared at Duke University
and at bluegrass festivals at Camp Springs, North Carolina (two);
Watermelon Park, (Berryville), Virginia; Crazy Horse (Gettysburg),
Pennsylvania; and at Lake Norman, North Carolina. They gave their
last concert in April of 1975 at Duke University.
Since 1961 the Blue Sky Boys have entered recording studios on
three occasions to record four albums. In August of 1963
they recorded two albums in Nashville for Starday and in May of
1975 they returned to Nashville to record a Rounder album which was
also recorded in the Starchy studios. An album recorded by
Capitol in their Hollywood studios in 1966 was reissued in 1978 by
the John Edwards Memorial Foundation at UCLA.
Bill and Earl Bolick are now leading separate private lives. Earl,
who is a machinist at the Lockheed-Georgia Company in the Atlanta
suburb of Marietta, resides with his wife and youngest of three
sons in Tucker, another Atlanta suburb. Bill, recently retired from
the United States Postal Service, and his wife make their home
near Hickory, North Carolina, not too far from the town of
West Hickory where be and Earl were born and spent most of their
Timeline and Trivia Notes