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Brown's Ferry Four

Based on their lineup alone, Brown's Ferry Four was a country supergroup from the get-go, with an original membership consisting of Grandpa Jones, the Delmore Brothers, and Merle Travis. Though the group only existed for ten years, and almost never made any personal appearances or gave any concerts, they managed to become one of the most beloved country gospel groups through their radio broadcasts and the nearly four dozen sides they recorded for King Records between 1946 and 1952. What makes them even more extraordinary for listeners in the 21st century -- even veteran country music hands -- is that their main virtue was their singing; the Delmores, of course, were well known for their harmonies, but neither Grandpa Jones nor Merle Travis was primarily known for his singing, except in the context of the Brown's Ferry Four. Complicating any account of their history, however, is the fact that thanks to the way they were put together legally, there were several versions of Brown's Ferry Four, and at least two could exist simultaneously; as they were almost exclusively a broadcasting and recording group, few listeners could keep track of the personnel changes.

The group's origins go back to Cincinnati, Ohio in 1943, when a group called the Drifting Pioneers departed radio station WLW, leaving the station manager with a half-hour hole in his schedule that needed filling. Guitarist/singer Alton Delmore put together a quartet consisting of his guitarist/singer brother Rabon Delmore, banjo man/singer Grandpa Jones, and guitar virtuoso Merle Travis, all of whom had been playing in separate groups at the time. After a few dry runs and an agreement on some kind of repertory, they went on the air the next day, choosing the name from one of the Delmore Brothers' old songs at the suggestion of Merle Travis. The group's repertory consisted almost exclusively of gospel music, but within that context they were far more expansive than most of the white singing groups in that field at the time -- with Alton and Rabon's guidance, they learned the basics of white gospel singing, especially shaped-note singing, but in order to add some range and diversity to their programs (which had to fill 30 minutes of airtime), they decided to do black gospel numbers (what were then called Negro spirituals) as well. This separated them from most of the competition and led to an unexpected area of musical activity for the group, wholly by accident.

It was while acquiring black gospel records at a record store in Cincinnati that they made one of the most important contacts in their history, with the shop's owner, Syd Nathan. Over the ensuing three years, Brown's Ferry Four became one of the top white country gospel groups in the country, all through their radio broadcasts out of Cincinnati. Their reputation grew despite three of the four members' departures for military service within six months of their first performance -- Travis joined the United States Marine Corps, Alton Delmore went into the United States Navy, and Jones joined the United States Army, but the quartet went on. The radio station owned the name and kept the Brown's Ferry Four alive by recruiting other members for the duration of the war, whose broadcasts were more than good enough to maintain their audience. And as a result, the Brown's Ferry Four remained popular enough from 1943 through 1945 to hold the interest of Syd Nathan, who had founded King Records as the war was coming to its end.

The reunion of the original lineup actually took place on an ad hoc basis -- Grandpa Jones and the Delmores were all signed to King and had been flown out to California for recording sessions in the final week of March of 1946, and Travis was one of the session players for Jones' sides. A light bulb went off in Nathan's head as he realized he had the original Brown's Ferry Four there together, and a session was scheduled for March 25, 1946. The two sides, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" b/w "Just a Little Talk with Jesus," with Alton Delmore singing lead while Rabon Delmore handled the tenor vocals, Jones sang baritone, and Travis took the bass vocal part. Both sides were extraordinary in their deceptively light textures, juxtaposed with the quiet musical and vocal virtuosity of the quartet, and the 78 rpm release was an instant hit.

In September of 1946, sensing a potential gold mine in their records, Nathan had the Brown's Ferry Four record a dozen sides at their next session, in October of that year. The results were extraordinary, a dozen sides, all superb, and some of the most affecting white gospel music ever recorded. These included recordings of classic numbers such as "Everybody Will Be Happy (Over There)," several originals by Alton Delmore, and one number credited to (but not actually written by) Grandpa Jones. These yielded a bumper-crop of popular country gospel singles, and portended continued success for the quartet. By the time they'd regrouped for their next session in the fall of 1947, however, a complication ensued over Merle Travis -- Nathan was working out of Chicago by then, but the guitarist/singer was living in California and not all that willing to leave for the sessions; further complicating matters, he was signed to Capitol Records under exclusive contract. Luckily, Red Foley, who was present at the sessions to play upright bass, volunteered to sing Travis' bass part, and 13 songs were recorded with this modified lineup. A broadcast version of the Brown's Ferry Four continued to appear regularly on WLW, but the recording group's next sessions didn't take place until 1951, owing to the 1948 recording ban ordered by the American Federation of Musicians, coupled with the various obligations of the individual members -- when they did re-form in 1951, it was with Red Turner, part of the broadcast version of the group, filling the bass spot. By 1952, the core of the group -- Jones and the Delmores -- were working intermittently with an undesignated fourth man, and in the summer of that year, it was the Delmores with Clyde Moody and an unnamed fourth performer.

The group's final session took place in the final week of August of 1952, and featured the Delmores, Jones, and Red Turner. The group was popular enough that they might have lasted well into the '50s, but Rabon Delmore's death from cancer late in 1952 ended the existence of the quartet. Alton Delmore tried reviving the name in the mid-'50s but the recordings never sold and the moment had passed -- Grandpa Jones was slightly more successful at reviving the group's repertory for his mid-'60s Monument Records album Grandpa Jones Remembers the Brown's Ferry Four, and he subsequently honored the group's style when he helped form the Hee Haw Gospel Quartet, an outgrowth of the television show Hee Haw, in the following decade. In 1997, King Records released a double-CD, 44-song set entitled Rockin' on the Waves, covering the group's complete sides from 1946 through 1952. ~ Bruce Eder
full bio

Selected Discography

x

Track List: Goodbye, Babylon

Disc 1

3. Woke Up This Morning (With My Mind On Jesus)

4. Present Joys

5. All I Want Is That Pure Religion

6. Satisfied

7. As The Life Of A Flower

8. Thou Carest Lord, For Me

9. Lift Him Up That's All

10. Rock My Soul

12. Crucifixion

13. Crying Holy Unto The Lord

14. I'll Never Go Back

15. God's Gonna Separate The Wheat From The Tares

16. Blessed Are The Poor In Spirit

17. I Belong To The Band - Hallelujah!

18. River Of Jordan

19. Sow Good Seeds

20. I'll Be Satisfied

21. Troubled 'bout My Soul

22. Dry Bones

23. Jesus My All

24. Creep Along, Moses

26. He Gave Me A Heart To Love

27. O Day

Disc 2

1. There Ain't No Grave Gonna Hold My Body Down

3. The Bible's Right

4. Standing In The Need Of Prayer

6. How About You?

7. Jesus Is A Mighty Good Leader

8. Murillo's Lesson

9. Glory, Glory, Glory, Glory To The Lamb

10. Come Over Here

11. I'm Gonna Cross The River Of Jordan

12. Milky White Way

13. Deliverance Will Come

14. Daniel In The Den Of Lions

16. No More, My Lord

17. This World Can't Stand Long

18. God's Getting Worried

19. Get Right Church

20. Move, Members, Move

21. Lover Of The Lord

23. On My Way To Heaven

24. The Bible's True

25. Ship Of Glory

28. When The Saints Go Marching In

Disc 3

1. Down On The Old Camp Ground

2. My Lord's Gonna Move This Wicked Race

4. Ain't Gonna Lay My Armor Down

5. I'll Fly Away

6. Heavenly Vision

7. Lord, I Just Can't Keep From Crying

8. Lower My Dying Head

9. You've Got To Move

11. Golden Gate Gospel Train

12. I'll Be Rested (When The Roll Is Called)

13. Down On Me

14. Goin' To Rest Where Jesus Is

15. Got Heaven In My View

16. Judgment

17. I Want Two Wings To Veil My Face

18. We Got The Same Kinda Power Over Here

19. What Are They Doing In Heaven Today

20. That Great Day

21. I'm Bound For Home

22. I Am In The Heavenly Way

23. Over In The Glory Land

24. Death In The Morning

25. In The Land Where We'll Never Grow Old

26. Bathe In That Beautiful Pool

Disc 4

1. Walking My Lord Up Calvary Hill

2. Christ Arose

3. If You See My Savior

4. Let Jesus Lead You

5. Found A Wonderful Savior

6. He Is My Story

7. I Remember Calvary

8. Take Your Burden To The Lord And Leave It There

10. Hide Me In The Blood Of Jesus

12. Standing On The Promises

13. Jesus Is My Air-O-Plane

15. I Mean To Live For Jesus

16. When Was Jesus Born?

17. Come To The Savior

18. I Want Jesus To Walk With Me

19. He's Coming Soon

20. Return Again

21. I Am The True Vine

22. Sweet Story Of Old

23. I'll Lead A Christian Life

24. I'm Leaning On The Lord

25. Where He Leads Me I Will Follow

26. Jesus Is Getting Us Ready For The Great Day

Disc 5

3. Hallelujah To The Lamb

4. You Need Jesus On Your Side

5. You'd Better Mind

8. Keep On The Firing Line

9. Romans Ten And Nine

10. Standing Outside

11. Sinner You Better Get Ready

12. I Got To Cross The River Of Jordan

13. Free At Last

14. The Whole World In His Hand

15. Amazing Grace

16. Honey In The Rock

17. On Jordan's Stormy Banks We Stand

20. Primrose Hill

21. Keep On The Sunny Side

23. When The Saints Go Marching In

24. We Are Almost Down To The Shore

25. Strange Things Happening Every Day

Disc 6

1. Gettin' Ready For Christmas Day

4. The Downfall Of Nebuchadnezzar

5. The Liar

8. If I Have A Ticket Lord Can I Ride

9. You Must Be Born Again

11. Oh, Lord Remember Me

12. Christ, The Teacher

13. King Of Kings

14. O Lord I'm Your Child

15. Moses Was Rescued By A Negro Woman

16. That White Mule Of Sin

21. The Gambler's Doom

23. God Is Mad With Man

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