About The Group
The Bailes Brothers consisted of four brothers from Kanawha County, West Virginia who usually worked in combinations of two brothers at a time. Only for a short spell in early 1947 were all four of them together. The four were:
During their prime years, their band—the West Virginia Home Folks—included such musical notables as Ernest Ferguson and Shot Jackson, and for briefer times Fiddlin' Arthur Smith, Clyde Baum, Tillman Franks, Del Heck, and Ramona Jones. When their minister-carpenter father died in 1925, the family found themselves in poverty which deepened after the Great Depression hit. Their struggle and survival were described in Walter's song "Give Mother My Crown" which reached hit status in the Columbia recording by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs.
In the late 1930's, various combinations of two brothers struggled for success on smaller radio stations, barely managing to survive; sometimes with other musical figures such as Jimmie Dickens, Red Sovine, and Molly O'Day.
The originator of this article, Ivan Tribe, also wrote a lengthier biography of the Bailes Brothers for Old Time Magazine in 1975 and published by Tony Russell in the United Kingdom, a copy of which we have. He provided some background of the family's early days before music became their way in life.
Their father, Homer Abraham Bailes, was a carpenter and preacher, practicing his efforts in Kanawha County where they lived. Their mother, Ellen Butler Bailes had other children from a previous marriage, Minnie and Pearl. While it may seem like they were aiming to be middle class, all indications were the family was poor. Singing at church and at home was one of their outlets.
The elder Bailes passed away on August 19, 1925; he was born on December 16, 1871. An already simple, poor life became even more so. Their mom took in washings, ironings and other work that allowed the family to make ends meet. But it was not easy and Mr. Tribe reports that there were nights when the family went to bed hungry. Kyle left home to work on projects and to help keep his brothers in school. Their mother bought the boys a guitar for $2.95; she paid for it with payments of 50 cents a week. Years later Mr. Tribe notes, Walter paid tribute to his mom when he wrote the song, "Give Mother My Crown."
Finally about 1942, Johnnie and Walter began to do well at WSAZ Huntington. They were doing 3 or 4 quarter-hour shows a day, selling their song books and doing a lot of personal appearances. Roy Acuff played a show in Huntington and saw them in 1943; Roy thought they were good enough to be on the Opry. When he returned to Nashville, he was persistent with George D. Hay and Harry Stone trying to convince them to give the brothers a spot on WSM. He later became a close friend of Johnnie and Walter. They moved to Nashville that October. Within a few weeks they were members of the Grand Ole Opry. Their early band included Del Heck on fiddle, Ernest Ferguson on mandolin, and Evelyn Thomas (Little Evy) on bass. Johnnie and Walter also did early morning shows on WSM that were sponsored by Martha White Flour — one of the first groups to advertise the product that later Flatt & Scruggs made world famous with their jingle.
One of their most famous songs was "Dust On The Bible." Walter wrote the lyrics to the song in 1940. He got his inspiration from a sermon he had heard preached in 1937 by the Rev. Willard Carney of the Prayer and Faith Tabernacle in Charleston, WV. They sang the tune often on their radio shows in earlier years. The song has since been recorded by a multitude of artists.
In February 1945, the Brothers then consisting of John and Walter had their first record session for Columbia doing eight numbers of which their own "Searching for a Soldier's Grave"/As Long As I Live" (written by Jim Anglin, but sold to Roy Acuff) and "Dust on the Bible" b/w "I've Got My One Way Ticket" were released fairly rapidly. The others languished for several months, partly because some had World War II themes which made them somewhat obsolete. At any rate the Brothers signed with King, doing a lengthy session in the fall of 1946 with new band member Ramona Jones (Mrs. Grandpa Jones) on bass fiddle, Homer Bailes on fiddle, along with Ferguson and recently released from the service Shot Jackson on steel. Eventually all of their recordings on both labels were released.
Unfortunately, Johnnie Bailes became involved in a romantic scandal which resulted in their dismissal from the Opry when one of his girlfriends, Juanita (later wife and widow), after an argument stabbed herself and jumped out of a window on the night of October 22, 1946. Although she survived and they later married, their career at WSM did not last. A friend—former Vagabond Dean Upson—soon came to their rescue landing them a job at 50,000 watt KWKH in Shreveport. Their popularity continued as strong as before and they did two more sessions for Columbia in 1947. By the time of their last session, Walter had left in July to enter the ministry, replaced by brother Homer on vocals while Clyde Baum played mandolin and Tillman Franks played bass fiddle.
In July of 1947, Walter Bailes joined the church and was subsequently called into the ministry. From that point on, his appearances with the group were seldom. But he did appear with his brothers on the Louisiana Hayride once. Homer and Johnnie were then co-leaders of the group. This caused a change in their singing arrangements. With Walter in the group, he usually sang lead in the duets with Johnnie doing the tenor voice. With just Homer and Johnnie, they switched roles depending on the song.
The Bailes Brothers were also involved in helping organize the Louisiana Hayride which debuted on April 3, 1948. Walter returned for the first performance. For a time in 1948, they even had a second unit led by King artist Jimmie Osborne. The Bailes popularity continued into 1949, but by the end of the year internal problems returned. That September Johnnie had a falling out with the son-in-law of the KWKH owner and left the station and went to the rival but smaller 12,000 watt KTBS which proved to be a mistake.
Then Johnnie and Homer fell out. Homer left, going to KARK Little Rock where Kyle soon joined him after working briefly with Charlie Cope on mandolin. Johnnie then hired non-relative Dalton Henderson whom he may have tried to pass off as a Bailes. Former West Virginia friends Sleepy Jeffers and the Davis Twins came down for a time. With the cash intake declining rapidly, Ernest Ferguson went to Washington, DC to work with Grandpa Jones and Shot Jackson rejoined Johnnie and Jack. The great days of the Bailes Brothers had come to an end, drowning in a sea of internal dissension. To make matters worse Johnnie was soon arrested, tried and convicted for violation of the Mann Act. He spent time in the federal prison in Terre Haute, Indiana until being released in 1952.
Walter was then pastoring a church in Baytown, Texas. Apparently forgiven for past transgressions, he and Johnnie soon had a program on KCRT in Baytown and the next year they did three sessions on King Records, resulting in a dozen numbers some of which (e.g. "Muddy Sea of Sin" and "Avenue of Prayer") were as good as any of their earlier classics but not as successful. Johnnie considered this phase of their career to be less of a show business effort and more of an evangelistic effort.
Johnnie seemingly worked in sales until 1958 when he went to Swainsboro, Georgia and managed radio stations owned by Webb Pierce and Jim Denny. Walter continued preaching in various locales. Johnnie spent about a year at WJAT as station manager and later became general manager for three stations owned by Webb
Although their commercial success was limited, various Bailes combinations continued to record. In 1956, Walter Bailes and his wife Frankie cut a single for Sarg Records of Luling,Texas. Johnnie, aided by Webb Pierce, did four singles solo in 1957 and 1959 — three on Decca and one on Dollie. Homer and Kyle, based in Bucyrus, Ohio — did a single on the Brier label. Walter, working either with Frankie or Homer, recorded several numbers for Birmingham based Loyal Records in the 1960's.
Their mother had traveled with the boys from Nashville to Shreveport through the years and when they moved to Ohio, she stayed with Homer. She died in Mansfield, several years after they had moved to Ohio. Kyle related to Mr. Tribe that she did not owe anyone a dime at her passing and was well respected by all who knew her. She got to know many of the Opry artists and several of them, including Roy Acuff, sent flowers to her last rites.
This pattern continued in later decades. In 1972, Johnnie and Homer did a Gospel Reunion (SLP 476) for Starday which soon vanished as the company again had financial troubles. The Walter Bailes Singers (Walter, Frankie, and Dorothy Jo Hope) recorded another one which came out on Starlit and they played for about six months at WWVA's Jamboree U. S. A.
Meanwhile, Old Homestead Records, having just done a reissue of Molly O'Day records, wanted to do some Bailes Brothers music. John Morris, finding that Johnnie had some transcriptions of his and Homer's 1949 morning shows from KWKH, obtained copies from him which made up one and one half LPs (OH 103 and 104), with the second LP filled with some of the cuts from the December 1947 Columbia releases. This prompted Kyle and Walter to want an LP which happened, but it did not say "Bailes Brothers" on the cover. This was followed by a September 1977 LP in which all four brothers and half sister Minnie Thomas Fisher participated as well as Ernest Ferguson and Arthur Ball. It took place at Johnnie's home in Swainsboro, Georgia. I was personally involved as the middle person in these transactions and found the Brothers music that I loved was made by people who were difficult to work with. Since the album had not been released yet in 1979 when I again met Minnie Fisher, she commented that John Morris must be a very patient man. I could only agree. Thereafter, only Homer Bailes continued to record for Old Homestead. Johnnie did not record again after that. Kyle, Walter, and Ernest recorded some more on White Dove, a company that belonged to Walter.
Interview of Walter Bailes
Billie Cheney Speed interviewed Walter Bailes ('the music industry chaplain') in 1979. Back then, Walter held revival meetings year round in churches across the country. Ms. Speed told readers he would attend the Grand Ole Opry Family Reunion in Nashville and he was always asked to lead the prayer.
Readers learned that about four or five times a year, Walter, Kyle, John and Homer would team up Ernest Ferguson (Abner Abbernacky) and perform as the Bailes Brothers at fairs and festivals.
Walter recounted the story of their big chance when they met Roy Acuff on a personal appearance in Huntington. Walter said, "He reccommended that we come to Nashville for an audition, so we took our vacation time traveled to Nashville and stayed. We became regular performers on the Grand Ole Opry until the latter part of 1946, when we moved on to other pastures."
The Bailes Brothers were there for the start of the KWKH Louisiana Hayride, but Walter only stayed with the group and the show until 1950. Walter recounted that decision, "I got the call to go into the full time ministry and I went right on the road, preaching the Lord's word. And I have never stopped."
He was based in Gatlinburg, TN at the time, where he owned the Walter Bailes Music Co., "Original Records" and "White Dove" record labels.
He was still writing tunes back then, but in the style he grew to be a part of. "It is nothing like the modern stuff they put out today."
Ms. Speed notes he had written over 500 songs, 150 of which had been published and about 100 of those had been recorded. "Dust on the Bible" of course is a standard that dozens of artists have sung and recorded.
Interview of Homer Bailes
Back in 2005, Homer was interviewed by Jordan Blum of The News Star in Monroe, LA.
82 at the time, Homer was the youngest and only living brother of the four Bailes Brothers. He spoke of their style, "When we sang a song we preached it, that was kind of our trademark. We really preached a song and the audience recognized it. We even preached our commercials."
He was interviewed when interest in the group increased after a tribute album had been released. Homer had recorded two songs for that album.
The writer noted that Homer was still alert and had a joke-a-minute personality. Like his thoughts on the day's music. "I was in a restaurant the other day and the waitress dropped a bunch of dishes. Six couples got up and danced. ... The U.S. was settled by criminals from Europe, and West Virginia was settled by the worst of those, he jokingly said to Jordan."
Their father was a Baptist preacher. They found a liking for music in the church. While the other brothers were first on the radio, it was Homer who suggested the brothers' act. Johnnie and Walter became the original "Bailes Brothers." Homer worked full time to be able to tend to their families. He was drafted and after serving his country for a year, he joined his brothers in Nashville. While Homer was in the service, Roy Acuff discovered Johnnie and Walter and helped them get on the Grand Ole Opry.
Kyle did not join the brothers until the 1950's due to problems with alcohol. Walter left the group before their first performance in Shreveport to become a preacher. They met a young singer named Hank Williams. Walter related, "I said he's the best soloist I've ever heard, let's get him. But when we first started the Hayride, he was a big drunk and we didn't know what to do with him. Sometimes we didn't know if he'd make a show or not."
Jordan then writes of how Homer became immersed in his faith and eventually became a minister. Yes, their father was a Baptist preacher, but Homer was inspired by Methodist sermons as a child and began to feel the call to God early in his life. But the family pressured him and he gave up that idea. He turned to alcohol early in his career, but it was religion that made him put the bottle down.
In 1967, he got two invitations. One was to perform at a Methodist revival and he did, just because he was asked. The second invitation was the better one. He was asked to become a preacher.
Homer recalled "When I was 7 years old, I was called to do it and got slapped. They asked when I could start, and I said right now."
Homer was a father of nine children and his ministry took him throughout the state of Louisiana. He retired to Downsville, but later moved to Ruston.
Time eventually caught up with the Bailes Brothers although they did a few concerts thereafter in different combinations. Kyle and Walter toured the Netherlands in 1983. Ernest Ferguson and Shot Jackson sometimes worked with them and managed to get along with all. Johnnie died first in 1989, followed by Kyle in 1996. Walter, who did some religious programs on WSM and became known as the "Chaplain of Music Row," died in 1900, and Homer who was the only survivor when the Bailes Brother entered the West Virginia Music Hall of Fame died in 2009. Homer survived until 2013, leaving gentle kindly Ernest Ferguson as the man who was at the center of their good days and bad, and perhaps understood them better than anyone—and reportedly could sing any of their vocal parts if needed—survived Homer by some ten months. Bear Family Records in 2002 and 2012 respectively, released their entire Columbia and King numbers including several hitherto unreleased masters.
When Walter Bailes passed away in 2000, one of the obituaries cited Eddie Stubbs as stating, "They came along when live radio was king. Legend has it they hold the record for selling the most song books over the station in the shortest amount of time: four months, 175,000 song books.
In retrospect the story of the Bailes Brothers is an account of what they accomplished and what they could have achieved if their egos and habits had not gotten in the way.
Biographical information of members of the Bailes Brothers group:
Credits & Sources
Sound Sample(YouTube Video Format)
Read More About The Group
Yes, Hillbilly Music. You may perhaps wonder why. You may even snicker. But trust us, soon your feet will start tappin' and before you know it, you'll be comin' back for more...Hillbilly Music.
It's about the people, the music, the history.
Copyright © 2000—2023 Hillbilly-Music.com