The Delmore Brothers, Classic Cuts 1933 – 1941

John Morthland

By John Morthland

on 04.22.11 in Reviews

The Delmores were arguably the best of the original country brother duets, and undeniably the most resourceful. They continued to evolve over nearly three decades, providing a bridge between traditional and commercial country.

The Alabama sharecropper brothers began performing together in 1926, when Alton was 18 and Rabon was 10, and first recorded in 1931; this four-disc box gathers most of their earliest work, for Bluebird and Decca, and is an indispensable window into the era as well as great listening. Alton was the creative force behind the team, writing most of the songs and singing and playing most of the leads. Unlike many brother groups, the Delmores specialized in close harmonies and each could handle either the high or low parts. Though their complex harmonies could be as melancholy as those of the most tortured and fatalistic mountain duos, they favored a softer, sweeter style. They also sang with more precision and clarity, a useful skill in the early days of radio. The brightness of their sound was accentuated by the fact that Rabon played four-string tenor guitar; the tenor eliminates the two bottom (lower-pitched) strings of the standard guitar. Not that the Delmores were all sweetness and light; indeed, Alton had a much bluesier, driving guitar style than most of his peers, being heavily influenced by such ragtimey Piedmont bluesmen as Blind Blake and Blind Boy Fuller, as well as by jazz and pop guitarists like Eddie Lang and Nick Lucas.

The Delmores 'repertoire was diverse; they sang tragic songs of love and loss that echoed traditional country and songs of marital strife that anticipated postwar honky-tonk; they sang gospel, rambling, drinking, cowboy, and nostalgic and sentimental songs, as well as novelties and songs clearly influenced by vaudeville and minstrel and medicine shows. Records like "Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar," "Brown's Ferry Blues," "The Nashville Blues," "Southern Moon" and "Blue Railroad Train" helped shape the styles of everyone from the Blue Sky Boys and the Monroe Brothers to the Louvin Brothers and Everly Brothers (and are often still sung today, by bluegrass groups in particular). By the late '40s, the Delmores were playing hot, electric hillbilly boogie with a full band, and paving the way for rockabilly. With any luck, that era will soon be documented as extensively as this one.