Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Big River Blues

More from Billy Altman's notes to ARE YOU FROM DIXIE?:
Elkmont Alabama’s Delmore Brothers, Alton and Rabon, occupy a very special niche in the history of country music. As singers their intimate, graceful harmonies quickly became the standard by which all other brother teams would be compared; as instrumentalists, their interlocking guitar arrangements, played with perfection-seeking clarity and care, quickly became required study in the curriculum of anyone aspiring to graduate from the clean-picking school of country guitar playing. Few artists of their generation achieved the kind of widespread and long-lasting popularity enjoyed by the Delmores during their twenty-plus-years together, a partnership ended only by Rabon’s untimely cancer related death in 1952. Then again, few artists of any generation captured the sound and feel of their changing surroundings and changing times as accurately and as engagingly as the Delmores.

Like the Attleseys, the Delmore Brothers came from a sharecropping family, on the younger end of a family of six boys and two girls. It was the brothers’ fiddle-playing, gospel singing mother who taught Alton how to read music, and it was Alton who, in turn, after mastering the six-string guitar, passed his knowledge – and a four-string tenor guitar – on to a younger brother Rabon so the two could play together. Compliments from the neighbors eventually buoyed the brothers’ confidence enough for them to take part in local amateur contests, where they were soon winning top honors. A chance meeting with Austin Allen, who advised them to work up original material if they were serious about becoming professionals, led them to begin composing the first few of what would ultimately be a recorded catalogue of more than two hundred songs – almost half of which were made for Victor’s Bluebird subsidiary during the duo’s seven-year association with the label.

Of the three songs included here, perhaps “Big River Blues” is the best known. A staple of Delmore disciple Doc Watson (who has performed it for years as “Deep River Blues”), it is one of those eternal songs that remains forever fresh and new, with a brightness that half a century of wear still hasn’t tarnished. “Nashville Blues,” with its intricate, fast-paced guitar lines, is a fine example of the duo’s craftmanslike attention to instrumental detail, while “Blow Yo’ Whistle, Freight Train” – one of the pair’s many songs using the image of the train as a symbol for man’s undying curiosity about what’s beyond his horizon’s – beautifully demonstrates their deft and highly expressive harmonic vocal style.


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