Early country stars, the Delmore Brothers were huge influences on not only bluegrass and country music, but blues, folk, rock and roll, and more. The Delmore Brothers received a long overdue Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association in 2014, recognizing their lasting impact on bluegrass music. In order to celebrate the legacy of the Delmore Brothers, I will be featuring a “Delmore Dedication” leading up to what would have been Alton Delmore’s 106th birthday on December 25th. Each day, I will showcase a different Delmore Brothers song and its popular bluegrass interpretations.
Without a doubt, Blues Stay Away From Me is the Delmore Brothers’ signature song. Hitting #1 on the Billboard Country & Western chart in January of 1950, it is embedded in the American musical canon. A popular song in not only country and bluegrass music, but also in blues, folk, rock, and more, Blues Stay Away From Me was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2007.
Blues stay away from me
Blues why don’t you let me be
I don’t know why you keep on haunting me
Love was never meant for me
True love was never meant for me
It seems somehow we never can agree
Life is full of misery
Dreams are like a memory
Bringing back your love that used to be
Tears so many I can’t see
Years don’t mean a thing to me
Time goes by and still I can’t be free
Twelve lines. That’s it. Twelve lines.
One of the most well-known songs in The Great American Songbook, and it’s only twelve stinking lines.
Blues Stay Away From Me serves as a real slap in the face to many modern day songwriters who seem to be cramming as many words as possible into today’s songs. One of my favorite Earl Scruggs quotes is “The beauty of simplicity shall never be surpassed,” and this song is a fine example. Truly exemplifying quality over quantity, Blues Stay Away From Me is an absolute masterpiece.
Recorded later in their career for Cincinnati’s King Records, Alton Delmore constructed the song after label founder, Syd Nathan, requested Alton write a “hillbilly Hucklebuck” (a hit dance song at the time). Alton had Rabon help with the lyrics, and Henry Glover assisted the brothers with the melody. Glover was an African American blues pianist, who played on several Delmore Brothers sessions, and worked a lot with King’s rhythm and blues artists. This melding of country and blues proved to be lightning in a bottle. Ahead of its time, Blues Stay Away From Me sounds eerily similar to some of the rockabilly music to be recorded a few years later by Sam Phillips at Memphis’ Sun Records.
Blues Stay Away From Me is just so cool. The original recording sucks you in right from the get-go. The record begins with the well known boom-ba-bum-bum-ba-boom riff of the electric guitar, then in come twin harmonicas from Wayne Raney and Lonnie Glosson. The combination of guitar and harmonicas is mesmerizing. You’re hooked before Alton and Rabon sing their first notes. Once that signature brother harmony begins, you are absorbed into this American classic.
Blues Stay Away From Me has since been recorded by artists in all genres of music, including The Everly Brothers, The Browns, The Band, Bob Dylan, Merle Haggard, Les Paul and Mary Ford, The Louvin Brothers, and more. While it has been included many times in bluegrass, by everyone from Raymond Fairchild to Jim & Jesse, there are two bluegrass icons whose renditions of Blues Stay Away From Me are by far the most popular.
Doc Watson is well-known for his interpretation of the country blues, as were The Delmore Brothers. It should come as no surprise that some of Doc’s most successful blues songs came from the Delmore catalog. Of bluegrass artists, Doc probably recorded more Delmore songs than anyone, save for maybe Doyle Lawson. Songs such as Freight Train Boogie, Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar, and Deep River Blues were all standards in Doc’s repertoire.
Doc’s Blues Stay Away From Me is about as bluesy as you can get. Doc kicks things off with the song’s signature guitar intro, and then it turns into a straight Watson blues number. Doc’s powerful guitar and emotional voice lead the way on Blues Stay Away From Me. The slide guitar and piano are great bluesy compliments to the lonesome harmonica playing on this cut.
Larry Sparks is also known for being a bluesy bluegrass singer. Heralded as the “King of Bluegrass Soul,” this future hall of famer (How much longer will I have to keep saying “future” in front of that? For real, why isn’t he in there yet?) is known for drawing feeling out of lyrics. When Sparks sings, it’s like someone grabbing you by the shirt collar and saying “Pay attention! This is GREAT!” You’re forced to listen, and you’re glad to be doing so.
There are several Sparks renditions of Blues Stay Away From Me, but his most popular version was included on his award-winning 40 album. Featuring country superstar Vince Gill, Sparks kicks the song into overdrive, turning Blues Stay Away From Me into a full-fledged, hard-driving bluegrass number. Vince Gill singing tenor to Larry Sparks needs to happen more often, because it’s absolutely killer! Gill and Sparks both sing their hearts out on this old American classic. This version is blazing fast, and allows all of the pickers to show off a little bit. Blues Stay Away From Me was one of the most popular songs on 40, and for good reason.
If the Delmore Brothers had only recorded Blues Stay Away From Me, their place in the history of American music would have been secure, but thankfully, they left us with a myriad of great recordings.
The Delmore Brothers’ influence on bluegrass music is undeniable. Their brother-style duets have influenced generations, but their songwriting cemented their stamp on bluegrass history. Dozens of their songs have been recorded by over sixty bluegrass artists, both classic and contemporary. The music of the Delmore Brothers continues to have a profound impact on bluegrass music today. From their “hillbilly boogie” guitar stylings, lasting compositions, and that unmistakeable brother harmony, the Delmore Brothers created a legacy that has inspired bluegrass musicians for generations. On what would have been Alton Delmore’s 106th birthday, I encourage you to dig back and take a listen to some Delmore Brothers songs; you won’t be disappointed!
For those who are interested in learning more about the Delmore Brothers and their music, I highly encourage you to check out Alton Delmore’s memoir, Truth Is Stranger Than Publicity. Not only does it provide a great history of the Delmore Brothers and their music, but it also serves as one of the only first-hand accounts on early country music history. It is definitely a worthwhile read for anyone serious about roots music history.
Do you have a favorite Delmore Brothers song? Let me know in the comments below. Merry Christmas, everyone!