Alton and Rabon Delmore are two of our music’s greatest contributors, but for far too many bluegrass fans, they are all but lost to the liner notes of time. Alton Delmore (December 25, 1908 – June 8, 1964) and Rabon Delmore (December 3, 1906 – December 4, 1952) were the sons of poor tenant farmers in Elkmont, Alabama. Growing up singing gospel music, they learned to sing and write music from their mother, Mollie. The brothers played the traditional six-string acoustic guitar and the obscure four-stringed tenor guitar. They perfected the art of close-knit brother harmonies, and their unique arrangement of folk and blues with original material made them a great success.
In 1931, they began recording for the Bluebird record label – a division of Columbia Records – and so began their great rise to success. By 1933, they were regular members on the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, TN and quickly became the show’s most popular act. Run-in’s with management led to the brothers departure from the Opry cast in 1939. Interestingly enough, what former member of a popular brother duet auditioned in 1939? Why none other than the Father of Bluegrass himself, Mr. William Smith Monroe! While The Delmore Brothers were the most popular Opry act of the thirties, Monroe held that title for the forties.
The brothers still performed and put out some great music following the Opry departure, but they failed to match the success they had reached on WSM. This is a real representation of the time, when the key to success in country music was to be member of the Grand Ole Opry. Radio was the most powerful form of media the world had ever seen at the time, and without the most popular country radio show of all time and its fans at their fingertips, it was nearly impossible to find the success they had seen known in the ’30s.
The Delmore Brothers were monumental influences on the careers of Charlie and Ira Louvin, as evidenced by their timeless brother duets. The Louvin Brothers even recorded a nice tribute to the Delmore Brothers during their career. They have also been cited as influences of Bob Dylan: “The Delmore Brothers, God, I really loved them! I think they’ve influenced every harmony I’ve ever tried to sing.” They have been inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Alabama Country Music Hall of Fame, Alabama Music Hall of Fame, and even have a song in the Grammy Hall of Fame. The Delmore Brothers joined the unbroken circle of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
During their career, they wrote many tunes that are now bluegrass standards. Early in their careers, Alton and Rabon sent a song to Ralph Peer (the man who hosted The Bristol Sessions which discovered Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family) to be specifically recorded by Rodgers, The Father of Country Music. The song would have fit Rodgers’ unique style like a glove, and would have undoubtedly been a hit. Apparently, Peer accepted the tune, but due to Rodgers’ untimely death from tuberculosis, he never had the chance to recorded it. That song was Blue Railroad Train, which was one of the Delmore Brothers most popular tunes, and has now become a timeless classic. The Tony Rice Unit cemented the song’s place in bluegrass history on Manzanita in 1979.
Another Delmore tune which has become a bluegrass favorite is Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar. Recorded by Doc & Merle Watson, The Traditional Grass, and, most recently, by Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out. Russell and the boys also made a modern classic out of the Delmore’s Broken Hearted Lover.
One of country and bluegrass’ most iconic tunes is a Delmore Brothers’ song; Freight Train Boogie has become a standard in the industry. My favorite version of the song is on Don Reno’s Family & Friends album, where Reno is joined by Tony Rice for one of the most electrifying bluegrass recordings I’ve ever heard. The picking is completely mind-blowing, and you can hear that they had a blast recording it. Freight Train Boogie is simply a fun song, cut by Willie Nelson, Doc Watson, and most everyone in between. Marty Stuart & the Superlatives with special guest Paul Shaffer have even performed the tune on the Grand Ole Opry and The Marty Stuart Show. It’s just one of those songs that causes everyone to pat their foot.
Bluegrass fans may not know that the bluegrass favorite, Will You Be Lonesome, Too?, is a Delmore original. Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs dug the song out of Alton and Rabon’s catalog for their near-definitive version. Other memorable cuts of this classic are J.D. Crowe and Keith Whitley’s version on My Home Ain’t In The Hall Of Fame, and Ronnie Bowman’s on Cold Virginia Night.
Possibly the brothers’ most famous song is Blues Stay Away From Me, regarded by some music historians as the first rock and roll song. It was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame, alongside Jimmie Rodgers’ Blue Yodel #9 (Standing On The Corner), which featured a young Louis Armstrong on trumpet, in 2007. Merle Haggard, The Everly Brothers and Bob Dylan, are just a few of the many artists who have taken a crack at this classic tune. A real standout version of this song is on Larry Sparks’ IBMA-winning album, 40, with Vince Gill joining Larry for one of the album’s most memorable performances.
These are just a few of the myriad songs that the Delmores wrote. In their time, they composed over one thousand songs! In addition to the ones mentioned above, they also wrote The Frozen Girl (aka The Orphan Girl), Brown’s Ferry Blues, I’ve Got The Railroad Blues, No One (To Welcome Me Home), and Southern Moon.
For fun, let’s look at a short list of artists who have recorded Delmore Brothers songs:
- B.B. King
- Bob Dylan
- Crowe Brothers
- Doc Watson
- Don Reno
- Everly Brothers
- Flatt & Scruggs
- Hot Rize
- IIIrd Tyme Out
- J.D. Crowe & The New South
- Josh Williams
- Kenny Baker
- Larry Sparks
- Louvin Brothers
- Marty Stuart
- Merle Haggard
- Merle Travis
- Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper
- Ralph Stanley
- Ray Price
- Raymond Fairchild
- Reno & Smiley
- Ronnie Bowman
- The Tony Rice Unit
- The Traditional Grass
- Vassar Clements
- Willie Nelson
- Woody Guthrie
Following Rabon’s death, Alton further expanded his writing abilities from songs to other works. He wrote some short stories, but most importantly, he wrote his memoirs. Truth Is Stranger Than Publicity, chronicles the Delmore Brothers’ career. It was published posthumously following Alton’s death, to much critical acclaim.
There are some great collections of the Delmore Brothers’ recordings available. For my money, the best ones I have found are from JSP Records out of the United Kingdom. They have a few different sets which feature multiple discs encompassing different years from the brothers’ career. I have the first set, Classic Cuts: 1933-41, and thoroughly enjoy it. They can be ordered from the Classic Country Connection and County Sales. These can also be a great stockpile of material for bands looking for songs that haven’t been worked to death.
It’s can be startling when looking in retrospect at the impressive legacy the Delmore Brothers have left for us. Their body of songs stacks up quite nicely against other pioneers. All too often, however, this brother duet from Alabama is overlooked in bluegrass history.
It is long past time we recognize the contributions Alton and Rabon Delmore have made to our music. Hopefully, we can see them receive a posthumous Distinguished Achievement Award from the International Bluegrass Music Association. That they have not already received one astounds me.
If this article leads you to research their music, I’ll consider it a job well done.