BEFORE BLUEGRASS... were the Brother Duets. During the 20s, 30s and 40s, before bluegrass had developed, one of the most popular styles was the brother duet. It was simple, clean-sounding, using only a guitar and mandolin and two-part "close harmony" singing style. Bill Monroe invented bluegrass around 1945, but for the previous decade he had played with his brother Charlie in one of the most influential of the duet acts - the Monroe Brothers - founded on the Scotch-Irish folk music traditions of their home state of Kentucky, and a heavy influence of their rural Baptist upbringing.
"...(Bill) Monroe used only guitar and mandolin accompaniment on religious songs… all emphasis was placed on the total performance of the song in a reverent and ritualistic way; this is the hymn, it’s treated seriously..." (ref. Bluegrass p 236-237)
"...Hillbilly music achieved a level of purity and simplicity with the development of brother duets. It was generally held that those of the same blood would naturally empathise musically... The best of the early brother duets were the Blue Sky Boys, the Delmore Brothers and the Monroe Brothers. Where much hillbilly music was considered to be coarse, vulgar and badly presented, brother duets were more acceptably clean and precise. The singing was high-pitched, with one voice carrying the melody and the other harmonising a third or fifth above. Instrumentation was a strummed guitar and mandolin playing rhythm on the off-beat, with the occasional punctuated riff or "turnaround". The finest and most commerically successful of the brother duets were the Louvin Brothers, Ira and Charlie (pictured above). Many of the songs they wrote and recorded during the 1940s and 1950s, such as "I Don't Believe You've Ever Met My Baby", and "When I Start Dreaming", became big country hits and part of the repertoires of singers such as Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons two decades later. The brother duet form went on to influence the way popular music was to develop. Ricky Skaggs claims that the Monroe Brothers had "the greatest influence on twentieth-century music". This bold statement starts to hold some water when he goes on to explain: "the Monroe Brothers influenced the Louvin Brothers, the Louvin Brothers infuenced the Everly Brothers, the Everly Brothers influenced John Lennon and Paul McCartney..." from World Music, the Rough Guide.
As Bill C Malone puts it in the best book on the subject, these early musical styles emerged from the cultural fusion of "...rural folkways, evangelical Protestantism, and political individualism...". Even solo performers like Hank Williams demonstrated this: ".. neither Williams nor his music can be understood apart from the religious context in which he was born and raised... the Baptist church... All of Hank's religious material was deep-dyed fundamentalist fare, basically no different from the songs favoured by the Louvin and Bailes Brothers..."
Today, you can hear echoes of the brother duet style throughout most forms of folk and country music, right up to the altCountry style pioneered during the 1990s by bands like the Jayhawks, to the 2008 IBMA bluegrass award winners Dailey and Vincent, and present-day brother duets like the Gibson Brothers. It's a proud legacy and an enduring tradition - we hope that in some way we're helping to carry it on.
Here's a rare archive clip of the Louvin Brothers: