The Delmore Brothers
Brown’s Ferry Blues
review by Art Menius
The Delmore Brothers, Alton and Rabon, demonstrated such a facility for career self-destruction that it remains a wonder that among the binges and disagreements they managed to record some of the very best music in three different country subgenres–brother duets, gospel quartets, and hillbilly boogie. The latter fed directly into rock ‘n’ roll and modern country, while the first two forms provided the basis for bluegrass.
Brown’s Ferry Blues, named for one of their best known compositions, collects 18 titles recorded for RCA Victor during their most successful days, 1933-1940. In 1932, only two years after poverty had directed them into the music business, they joined the Grand Ole Opry. By 1938 they had worn out their welcome in Nashville, beginning a peripatetic existence moving from one radio station to another. The killer recordings and original songs, kept right on coming until 1950.
The music on Brown’s Ferry Blues absolutely defined brother duet, lead and tenor, singing, even though their two guitar arrangement quickly lost favor to the mandolin and guitar setup used to this day by Jim & Jesse. Even a casual listen to this disc demonstrates their marked influence on the Monroe Brothers, Louvin Brothers, and Blue Sky Boys. Rabon’s clean guitar work likewise helped shape the approach of such future stars as Doc Watson and Norman Blake.
Many of the songs heard here in generally their first recorded versions have survived until the end of the 20th century. Bluegrass fans certainly will recognize the title song, “Blue Railroad Train,” “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar,” “Blow Yo’ Whistle, Freight Train,” and, recently covered by the Nashville Bluegrass Band, “Happy On The Mississippi Shore.” Even had these songs not survived, these recordings radiate a definite timelessness. Their harmonies achieve a perfect naturalness, a seemingly effortless blend that reached celestial heights. Yet that beauty belies the tragedy, restlessness, and lonesome feelings of their lyrics. Consider that when they wrote and waxed “Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar,” clearly an old man’s lament, Alton was all of 25, and Rabon had just turned 17.
It only takes one listen to Brown’s Ferry Blues to realize that the Delmore Brothers rank among the most unfairly overlooked American recording artists.