Imagining the Delmore Brothers

By  William Gay |  November 30, 2010

This is rural Limestone County farmland in the 1930s, around Athens, Alabama. It is summer, July maybe, hot and dry. Dusk. You can smell the trees and the heat from the fields. Everyone's in from the cottonfield and supper's been eaten and they're waiting for the night to bring cooler air. They're gathered on the porch that encircles the frame farmhouse, eight or nine young men and women arranged informally in chairs, leaning against porch stanchions, or sitting on the edge of the porch itself. They are all watching two young men—Alton and Rabon Delmore—approach from the road. This must be a Friday or Saturday, because the Delmore brothers have their boxes with them; apparently they intend to make a little music.

A box was my maternal grandmother's euphemism for a guitar. This used to be common terminology among old folks. In the early twentieth century a fiddle was called a devil's box for the evil it engendered—dancing led inevitably to other sins—and my grandmother probably saw guitars as roomier containers capable of carrying a larger number of plagues to loose upon the world.

She is in the front room, bent slightly forward at the window, hand holding the curtain aside to watch them come. Eyes of washed-out blue, hair already going iron-grey. Her stern face set in an expression of suspicion and outrage. The list of things that outrage her is long and varied. It includes Republicans, mixed bathing, dancing, secular music, and any social function that does not inch her along toward her rendezvous with Jesus.

They've already tuned and kicked off "Deep Elm Blues," a song that they played but never recorded, and she can envision them silhouetted against the hellish glow of the imaginary red-light district called Deep Elm where bootleggers and speakeasies and city-slicker pimps and wanton women writhe in flames. The Delmores themselves are beginning to char and smoke around the edges.

The song cautions innocents venturing into the world of pleasurable sin: "If you go down to Deep Elm, keep your money in your shoes, 'cause them women in Deep Elm, Lord they got them Deep Elm Blues." It's a warning made with an implied wink; the assumption is, you're going down there anyway.

This music is early white blues, a combination of what white string bands of the late '20s played, and acoustic country blues from the Mississippi Delta. The Georgia Crackers, a white string band, had a song around this time called "Black Bottom Blues" with the identical melody and a lot of the same words.

There was a great deal of Southern music recorded in the '20s and early '30s, until the Depression threw the skids to it. There were string bands beyond counting, and in Mississippi everyone seemed to have a guitar, and the blues seemed to be seeping out of the earth itself. This early Southern music had a common ancestry: endlessly recycled lines of poetry that had become a sort of archetype, or a code you could decipher with a guitar and a little skill.

The Delmores fused all these elements and brought something new to the mix—a tight, sweet harmony that had never been recorded before.

A long time ago I asked my mother, "What were they like back then?"

"Well," she said, "they were just nice soft-spoken country boys. Except when they played music. Then it was like they were...taken over or something."

Taken over. All right, that's as good a term as anything else. You have to wonder at the ambition that drove them, from that background, at that time and place, that made them see the music as something other than entertainment for front porches or Baptist suppers. You imagine them at night lying awake in sweaty darkness, hardly daring to put their plans into words or images—a kind of desperate, unarticulated obsession. The same hunger that drove Willie Stark to the capitol of his mythic state, that made Elvis peer through the glass, then push open the door to Sun Records.

My Uncle William owned a car. In the early years of the Depression, in an area only geographically removed from the places in the photographs of Walker Evans and the poetry of James Agee, cars were not that common, but my uncle was ambitious. He wanted to live better, to wear nice clothes, to have money that actually folded in his pocket. So he had his car, and the Delmores asked him to drive them to Atlanta to make a record.

That drive would have been something. A sliding landscape of dusty trees and red-clay fields between Athens and Atlanta, windows cranked down for what breeze there was. I like to picture my uncle driving, one of his own brothers beside him. Occasionally they glance at each other, their eyes meet, but neither is talking very much. They are slightly amused, and somewhat cynical about the hubris involved in all this: two good old boys making a record. There's a feeling that the Delmores may be getting a little above their raising, trying to transcend the expectations of time and place and upbringing, flying too close to the sun.

There's definitely a road diverging here, and the four of them know that no matter how this turns out, they will never be at this juncture again.

The Delmores are in the back seat, their boxes balanced on their Sunday shoes, held upright between their knees. This set of brothers is also keeping quiet. Don't speak too soon while the wheel's still in spin, Dylan would advise decades later, and they know they're setting the wheel in motion, but where it will stop is anybody's guess.

Yet there have been portents in the heavens. Ralph Peer had, a scant few years before, recorded both The Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers at one historic session in Bristol, Tennessee. Tennessee is just across the state line, and there's a feeling that lightning can strike anywhere.

The Delmores have wet-combed their hair and they're wearing their town clothes, but they didn't fall off any hay truck. They're not fools. They know the place they're bound for is an unknown country where the maps are suspect, the borders in question, an area beyond which the old cartographers used to draw dragons.

But they never glance back. Clutching their guitar necks, sitting slightly hunched forward into the future, they are striking out for the territories. In a moment caught between what may be and what will be, they cannot know that they are already characters in an old blues song, outward bound, one foot on the platform, the other foot on the train, or that they will be carried far from Limestone County, where they will never pick cotton again.

The Delmore Brothers changed the Grand Ole Opry forever. The Opry had been the enclave of fiddlers, white string bands, rustic country comedians not far removed from vaudeville. The Delmores' harmony was smoother, more sophisticated and urbane. It was the sound of the first great brother act, and it influenced everything in country music that followed. You could draw a straight line from the Delmores to the early Beatles, and the line would intersect acts like The Louvin Brothers, Johnnie and Jack, and The Everly Brothers.

The record industry, especially in the South, was almost destroyed by the Depression. Phonograph records were a luxury to folks hard-pressed to feed their families, and there were a lot of casualties: Dock Boggs went back to the coal mines, Frank Hutchison put aside his guitar and bottleneck and ran a grocery store, Mississippi John Hurt returned to the cotton fields. But along with Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family, the Delmores not only made it through but prospered. Along the way, they never lost their feel for the blues, and always seemed to be ahead of the trends: "Boogie Woogie Baby," recorded in 1946, had a rhythm that presaged Bill Haley and early Elvis and all of rockabilly.

Hard times came and went. The farm days were behind them, but there were other lessons to learn. As Woody Guthrie sang, "Some folks rob you with a six-gun, others with a fountain pen." They dealt with people like Syd Nathan of King Records, who got rich by seizing song copyrights and whatever other assets might be laying about. It became apparent that the mapmakers had been right about the dragons after all, and that Deep Elm was not the only place where keeping your money in your shoes might be a good idea.

In later years, Alton moved in and out of the music business. Rabon's health failed. He died in 1952, Alton in 1964.

But the music lingered on: All those songs with blues in the title—"Big River Blues," "Brown's Ferry Blues," "Blues, Stay Away From Me"—they were good songs, too good to fade away. But ultimately they were more than just songs. They were the realization of that old unarticulated hunger, the need to bring something into the world that was not there before them, and that would hang around long after they were gone.