Harmony Duets

Written by Alyssa Hazen, Tori Horvath, Jessica Jakobeit & Alina Monzon.

Davis Sisters

The Davis Sisters

Although the 1930’s was a tough time for people across the US, something good came about to help people through it. This was when the boom of brother groups started along with other harmony duets. Throughout the history of country music, there has been so much influence of different people and their instruments. Although country is a genre itself, the subgenre of harmony duets is one of those genres that is so diverse. There were some people like the Monroe Brothers and the Dixon Brothers that had a major impact in the country music world as well as impact on the people who listened to the music. Of course there were not just these brother duets that were popular. There were also duets like the Davis Sisters and then the couple Lulu Belle and Scotty Wiseman.

The thing that sets these groups of people apart is that they not only used their instruments to make a certain sound, but it was the way that their voices harmonized together that made harmony duets so popular. There had been duets before, and a combination of guitars before. Ronnie Pugh states that when the 1930s hit that people started “combining these two traditions with stylistic touches all their own.” The Callahan Brothers used yodeling and incorporated it into their duet sound. Several other brother duets used two guitars as their instruments, yet sometimes one would play a standard guitar and the other brother would either play the steel guitar or tenor guitar. Sometimes there would be a mandolin as an instrument as well. Because there were so many different harmony duets in the 1930’s, there had to be something that set each of them apart besides the instruments themselves. The Blue Sky Boys were unique because they played more gospel music and hymnal songs. The Delmore Brothers started off as a blues type of music, but they eventually changed to a more rock type of sound.

Harmony duets were popular in those days, but it is clear that there are still popular harmony duets today. The groups like Brooks and Dunn, or even the marriage duet of Thompson Square are pretty popular in the country music world. Brooks and Dunn are different because they have the sound of classic country, and Thompson Square is more of a modern country sound. Harmony duets are different because there is not one main leader in the group. It takes more than just one person sometimes to make music even greater. According to Richie Unterberger “close, tight harmonies more than doubled the impact of hearing a singer on his own.”

Key Figures

  • Delmore Brothers: Comprised of brothers Alton (1908 – 1964) and Rabon (1916 – 1952), the Delmore Brothers began their career in 1931. These pioneers of country music combined the sounds of gospel, folk, and blues music to push forward the creation of still-emerging country music. The popularity of their music earned them the opportunity to be regulars on the Grand Old Opry, and they eventually became the most popular act on the show.
  • The Louvin Brothers

    The Louvin Brothers

    Louvin Brothers: Beginning in 1940, the Louvin Brothers were composed of brothers Ira (1924 – 1965) and Charlie (1927 – 2011) Loudermilk who paved the way for close harmonies in country music. Like the Delmore Brothers, they joined the Grand Old Opry and quickly gained popularity. However, their career was tumultuous due to Ira’s drinking and violent temper, and they ultimately started solo careers in 1963.

  • Dixon Brothers: Dorsey (1897 – 1968) and Howard (1903 – 1960) Dixon made up the Dixon Brothers, taking flight in their music career in the 1930s. The fiddle and steel guitar duo performed on the Saturday Night Jamboree, a popular show that allowed them more musical opportunities. However, the Dixon Brothers not only played music but also worked in textile mills in order to making a living. Throughout their career, they often had to return to the mills, even though their music recordings proved to be popular.
  • Lulu Belle and Scotty

    Lulu Belle and Scotty

    Lulu Belle and Scotty: Differing from most harmony duets during their time period, Myrtle Cooper, known as Lulu Belle (1913 – 1999) and Scott Wiseman, best known as Scotty (1903 – 1981) were a husband-wife duo. They made regular appearances on the National Barn Dance show and attracted fans both in country and pop music. They were two of the first country stars to make appearances in films, including Shine on Harvest Moon and County Fair.

  • Blue Sky Boys: The Blue Sky Boys are another brother duo, composed of Earl (1919 – 1998) and Bill (1917 – 2008) Bolick. They excelled in playing the mandolin and guitar, and made their debut on the radio in 1935. After being signed to RCA records, they took a stand against the company when asked to play with an electric guitar in 1941, and stopped recording until 1949. The duo eventually retired in 1951, blaming their early retirement on personal issues.
  • Everly Brothers: This duo, consisting of Don (b. 1937) and Phil (1939 – 2014) were known for their mix of country and rock and roll music. Their career took off both in the United States and in the United Kingdom with their steel-guitar playing and close harmony singing. They sold millions of copies of their records, but eventually hit a very rough patch in their career and ultimately went their separate ways to record solo albums.

Recommended Listening

  • Dubbed the “New Hillbilly Kings,” the Blue Sky Boys dared to be different by not using the brother title. If you prefer the style of George Jones and Tammy Wynette, Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn, and the Judds, listen to where the beautiful simplicity of harmonies began. Start with their most popular record, Sunny Side of Life (1936).
  • To hear the impact the Louvin Brothers had on music today listen to Livin’, Lovin’, Losin’: Songs of the Louvin Brothers (2003). This tribute album was produced by Ira Louvin’s daughter Kathy and bluegrass musician Carl Jackson. In 2004, it won the Grammy Award for Best Country Album.
  • Created by Alton’s youngest daughter Debby Delmore, Songs & Stories of The Delmore Brothers (2011) highlights the brothers’ most popular songs such as ‘Brown’s Ferry Blues’ and ‘ Blues Stay Away from Me.’ The album also features personal experiences and stories Debby shares about her famous father and uncle.

  • The “Sweethearts of Country Music,” Lulu Belle and Scotty were known more for their appearances on radio and in movies such as “Shine on Harvest Moon” (1944). However, their song “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?” (above) became one of the first country songs to reach across genres.  It has been recorded by many artists including Elvis Presley. Their song “Remember Me”  was also covered by other artists, such as Willie Nelson in 1975.
  • The Everly Brothers crossed borders and boundaries, becoming the first country music rock n’ rollers. To unravel the genius that is the Everly Brothers, start with Forever Gold: The Everly Brothers (2002), which features their first million record seller “Bye Bye Love.” For the most polished versions of their songs, you have to start from the beginning with “The Everly Brothers [Cadence]” (1958). The Everly Brothers had a major influence on acts such as the Beatles, the Beach Boys and Simon and Garfunkel. The Beatles even referred to themselves as “the English Everly Brothers.”
  • Green Day front man Billy Joe Armstrong and Norah Jones collaborated on a cover album Foreverly (2013), paying tribute to the Everly Brothers. Both musicians recently stated the Everly Brothers “had a huge influence on all of music” and their “harmonies live on forever.”

Annotated Bibliography

1. Dawidoff, Nicholas. In the Country of Country: A Journey to the Roots of American Music. New York: Vintage Books, 1998. Print.

In the Country of Country is written by Nicholas Dawidoff, an award-winning author who interviews note-worthy country artists. His book recounts the timeline of the Louvin Brothers’ rise to fame. Dawidoff highlights their road to popularity through story and interview with the Louvin Brothers. The Louvin Brothers, as stated by Dawidoff “devised possibly the most beautiful and sophisticated harmony arrangements in country music” (135). Dawidoff argued that being brothers gave them a great advantage over other harmony duos, as their voices and intonation blended so closely. The Louvin Brothers often looked to other harmony duos for inspiration, such as the Delmore Brothers and The Blue Sky Boys.

2. Erlewine, Michael. All Music Guide to Country: the Experts’ Guide to the Best Recordings in Country Music. San Francisco: Miller Freeman, 1997. 558- 559. Print.

Erlewine, a former musician and creator of the All Music Guide, gives a more detailed explanation of the importance of country harmony duets in the All Music Guide to Country: the Experts’ Guide to the Best Recordings in Country Music. Erlewine starts this journey in the 1930s, highlighting several brother acts, like the Delmore Brothers and Monroe Brothers. He explains how the “homespun, gut- level sincerity” of the brother duets’ harmonies opened doors for many other acts (558). The author lightly touches on acts that influenced the dynamic of country duets through the years. Although he does not go in depth, Erlewine demonstrates the transition of country duets from bare vocalists to rockers to collaborations. He explains the importance of acts like The Everly Brothers, who transformed the idea of country harmonizing. Erlewine reiterates how country harmonies have evolved from vocals to performance.  

3. Huber, Patrick. Linthead Stomp. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2008. Print.

In Linthead Stomp, Patrick Huber offers an insight on the popular country duo The Dixon Brothers in a chapter titled “A Blessing To People: The Dixon Brothers, Howard and Dorsey.” Huber primarily focuses on the history of Dorsey Dixon, and his struggles to simply make a living, whether it was by playing music or working in a textile mill. He also highlights the change that occurred in the Dixon Brothers’ music over the years, and how that change allowed them to become a country music sensation in the Carolina Piedmont. Huber notes that although the Dixon Brothers’ popularity was primarily concentrated in the Carolina Piedmont, they did succeed in creating a relatively successful recording career through a major record label. After two years of struggles and hardships, the brothers achieved a moderate amount of fame and “are now considered country and bluegrass standards” (218). 

4. Kinsgbury, Paul. et al. The Encyclopedia of Country Music. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012. Print.

Various people with knowledge of country music wrote The Encyclopedia of Country Music. According to the encyclopedia, brother duets worked so well because they had similar vocals, word pronunciations, and culture (52). Also found in this section, harmony duets were popular but after the 1940s, there was a decline in the number of duos. However, that did not mean that they were less popular or completely disappeared (52). Although it saw a decline in the number of duets, it says that the “quality and influence of this tradition probably reach its peak in the 1950s” (52). The encyclopedia mainly focused on duos such as the Callahan Brothers, who were “ranked as one of the country music’s leading duos” (68), the Delmore Brothers, the Girls of the Golden West, who were the “first nationally successful all-woman act in country” (191), and the Carter Sisters, who made their mark by singing with Elvis Presley.

5. Pugh, Ronnie. “No Depression In Heaven: Country Music in the 1930s.” Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Ed. Paul Kingsbury and Alanna Nash. New York: DK Publishing, Inc., 2006. 80-84. Print.

From the book Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Ronnie Pugh covers the topic of harmony duets in a chapter called “No Depression in Heaven.” Pugh was the Head of Reference at the Country Music Foundation and has written numerous articles on country music. The text was first published in the United States in 2006 in New York, New York. In his work, Pugh describes the significance and popularity of harmony duets in the 1930s, and how they came to be the “hallmark style” of the time period as a result of the Great Depression (80). As Pugh notes, harmony duets were often called “’brother duets’ because of the many successful sibling pairings” (80). The chapter states that although there had been sibling acts on the scene since country music began, the merger of older musical practices and newer, unique styles of singing and playing brought more success to the field than ever before.  To compare the very different sounds of the duos, he specifically focuses on the styles of the Carlisle Brothers, the Callahan Brothers, the Delmore Brothers, the Monroe Brothers, and the DeZurik Sisters.

6. Russell, Tony. Country Music Originals: The legends and the lost. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2007. Print.

The book Country Music Originals: the Legends and the Lost was published in 2007 and written by author Tony Russell. Primarily, it mentions some of the famous harmony duets that came from the 20s and 30s. Included are the history of the brother duets and their very unique style of conveying their perspective of life through country music. They all came from the same time period, but they were from different areas of the country. Highlighted in the book are the Delmore Brothers, who played a blues-rock setting were originally a blues type of country and along the way their music changed to more of a rock setting. The Callahan brothers Walter “Joe” and Homer “Bill” started off their career from a young age and their unique musical sound included their ability to yodel. However, as much as the other duets expressed their life through song, these two brothers occasionally were inspired by other musical groups to come up with their songs. The Dixon brothers were an old timey harmony duet famous in the 30s. Dorsey and Howard Dixon often wrote songs about the hard work life that they had to endure.

7. Unterberger Richie. Music U.S.A: The Rough Guide. London: Rough Guides Ltd, 1999. Print.

In Music U.S.A: The Rough Guide, author Richie Unterberger gives some details about some of the bluesy brother duets and even the female group the Davis Sisters. The author makes a good point as to the fact that harmony duets developed not just because people could sound great harmoniously, but because singing in a group was a common thing in the churches at those times. With groups such as the Blue Sky Boys and the Dixon Brothers there was a combination of “a hymnal sincerity to the performances – yet there is also a bluesy soul” (82). As more duets came about in the later years, the sound had changed from a bluesy type to a more rock and fast tempo kind of music. The Davis sisters were a duet that was popular because of the back-up instruments that were included during some of their performances.

8. Wolff, Kurt. Country Music: The Rough Guide. Shorts Gardens: Rough Guides Ltd., 2000. Print.

Throughout the 1930s, many of the major harmony duos consisted of two men or two women singing together, but in Country Music: The Rough Guide, Kurt Wolff recalls another type of duo: a husband and wife. Wolff showcases a married couple named Lulu Belle and Scotty who were often called the “Sweethearts of Country Music” (29). In contrast to many other harmony duos at the time, Lulu Belle and Scotty found their fame through radio performances. In addition to their musical talent, the public loved Lulu Belle for her joyous personality and Scotty for his impressive songwriting skills. The two eventually left the music industry, with Scotty heading back to school to earn a master’s degree and Lulu Belle serving on the North Carolina House of Representatives.

Guiding Questions

  1. Why do you think that male duets are more well known than female duets even when they had number one hits like The Davis Sisters?
  2. Do you think that duets from back then, like The Callahan Brothers, are much different than duets from the present day like Lady Antebellum or Brooks and Dunn? Why or why not?
  3. How important do you believe harmony duets are for country now and for other genres of music? Have they made major contributions to music in general? Why or why not?