Ricky Skaggs’s and Tony Rice’s highly praised 1980 album Skaggs and Rice served notice to a new generation of bluegrass fans that a great deal of bluegrass singing style and repertoire comes from an era in country music history when duet singing reigned supreme. From the early 1930s until World War II, the hottest country acts were radio performers who, accompanying themselves by a mandolin and guitar and little else, crooned soft, well-crafted, plaintive harmonies into radio and record microphones. More often than not, their songs were sentimental or even maudlin, or moralistic and even religious. There was little of the uptempo, off-color, jaunty novelties that characterized the western swing bands developing in the Southwest, for the duet acts found their turf east of the Mississippi. More often than not, the acts consisted of two brothers, since many bookers and program directors felt that two brothers would have voices identical in tone and timbre. Four of the era’s five big duet acts were brothers: the Callahans, the Delmores, the Monroes, and the Bolicks (who performed as the Blue Sky Boys). And, in truth, historians have been kind to these four groups, lavishing on them record reissues, magazine articles, discographies, and even books. Yet the fifth major group of the duet era, the one not composed of brothers, has been almost completely ignored by historians and reissue compilers: This was a duo that held forth for almost twenty years over Chicago radio under the name Karl and Harty, a duo that was one of the first, and most influential, of them all. And this is an attempt to tell their story.
But if historians have overlooked Karl and Harty, the music fans and the musicians themselves certainly have not. Bill Monroe remembers. So does Johnny Cash. So does Grandpa Jones. The Everly Brothers. Gene Autry. They remember the big record hits like “I’m Here to Get My Baby Out of Jail” and “I Need the Prayers of Those I Love” and “The Prisoner’s Dream” and “Wreck on the Highway” and, their best of all,