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