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Bill Bolick: Last of Blue Sky Boys

by Hannah Mitchell
Sunday, March 23, 2008

The harmonies of Bill and Earl Bolick, the brother duet known as the Blue Sky Boys, blended together in the funeral home chapel where friends and family remembered Bill Bolick last week.

The scratchy recording took the mourners back to the years when country music sounded like country music, simple and real.

Bill Bolick died March 13 in Hickory at 90, the last one living of the Blue Sky Boys. His brother Earl died in 1998.

They helped develop the brother duet singing style in the earlier days of country music, influencing generations of musicians after them, including the Louvin Brothers and the Everly Brothers.

Some say the Bolicks rose above all other duets like them because of their extraordinarily close harmony.

At Bill's memorial service Monday, Chatham County-based old-time musician Libby Hicks called the sound "a language."

"You could be in Japan and the person may not know any English, but if they're into traditional American music, they could perfectly, phonetically sing a Blue Sky Boys Song."

The Bolicks made their first record in 1936 in Charlotte for RCA Victor when they were teenagers.

They sang and played the music their parents and neighbors sang and that they heard on radio: old hymns, ballads and love songs, writing some of their own material, including "Behind These Prison Walls of Love."

Earl played guitar. Bill played mandolin, coaxing from it a melodious sound mindful of its Italian roots instead of the popular bluegrass instrument it later became.

Once, Jethro Burns of the Homer and Jethro country music duo, upon meeting Bill Bolick, asked him if he played the mandolin, said Ralph Keller, a musician friend of Bill's.

"Bill says, `I try to,' and Jethro, who probably played the mandolin better than anybody who ever lived said, `You're doing things that nobody else can do on the mandolin.' "

Most Blue Sky Boys songs could best be described as somber, befitting of the dark subjects the brothers often explored in their music: unrequited love, murder and prison life. But they sometimes invited a fiddler to accompany them on recordings and live radio performances of upbeat tunes such as "Soldier's Joy."

They played throughout the Southeast and recorded more than 100 albums and singles.

"Everybody liked the Blue Sky Boys," said Roy "Whitey" Grant, half of the Whitey and Hogan duet and a member of the old Briarhoppers string group. "Nobody could sing like the Blue Sky Boys. They had a way of delivering their words that nobody else could do. It wasn't country and it wasn't bluegrass. It was kind of in-between."

Grant knew the Bolicks through their music and phone conversations since they started out, but met Bill Bolick only last year.

"I figured he'd be a big shot and wouldn't want to converse with a little old country boy like me," Grant said, "but he was just as proud to see me as I was him."

The Bolicks' producer wanted them to avoid using the word "brother" in their name in order to be different, so they took their professional name from the Blue Ridge mountains of Western North Carolina, sometimes referred to as the "land of the sky," wrote Bill Malone, a Tulane University professor emeritus and author of "Country Music USA," in the liner notes to a Bear Family Records box set of their music.

They both served in World War II at what would have been the height of their career, Malone said, then resumed making music after the war.

Malone said accounts that they retired because RCA Victor wanted them to electrify their instruments to keep up with the changing country music scene aren't true. He and others say that after Earl married, it became harder for them to keep up their touring schedule and so they retired in 1951.

"Bill seemed to resent the fact that Earl broke the group up, in his opinion," Malone said.

The folk music revival of the 1960s brought their style back into popularity, taking it beyond the South to worldwide. The brothers reunited to perform at various colleges and at Carnegie Hall and even recorded again.

But they otherwise rarely saw each other, as Earl lived in Georgia and Bill in North Carolina, said Bill's widow, Doris.

"He would've kept on, but his brother wanted to spend more time with his family," Doris said.

In his later years, Bill suffered from a nerve disease and eventually had to use a wheelchair, but he would reflect on the Blue Sky Boys days whenever there was anyone around who was interested.

Bill continued to play his mandolin until he shook too much and couldn't hold his pick, Doris said. He died in a Hickory assisted-living center.

But the brothers' contribution survives them.

"The brother harmony sound is one of the defining sounds of 20th-century American music," said Tom Hanchett, historian at the Levine Museum of the New South in Charlotte, "and they were one of the best."

Bill & Libby's "Beautiful" from their CD South of Nowhere came from the Blue Sky Boys.

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March 25, 2008