About The Group
The Barrier Brothers were a trio of West Tennessee natives who migrated to Indiana and played bluegrass music. After some recordings for a small firm in the Hoosier State, they signed to Philips and had three LPs on a major label during the "folk music" boom of the early 1960's. Tiring of traveling, they went back to playing locally and two eventually returned to Tennessee.
The brothers were born and grew up near Savannah, Tennessee where Herman and Ernest learned to play old-time music. By the early 1950's, they had a radio program on a small station in Corinth, Mississippi with Herman playing guitar and Ernest mandolin and banjo. With work scarce, they moved to South Bend, Indiana where they taught younger brother Henry Ray to play guitar while Herman switched to bass fiddle. A friend from Springfield, Missouri named Gene Dykes joined them on fiddle and they became a full bluegrass band, taking the name Ozark Mountain Boys although only Dykes had Ozark connections. Herman's main job was as a cabinet maker while Ernest became a welder.
Sarah Lockerbie filled in readers of the family's migration to South Bend. Ernest had been working as a farm hand and in a sawmill in Tennessee. But the mill began to lay off employees. He took his wife and children north to Osceola, Indiana, a small town between South Bend and Elkhart around 1951, taking with him his five-string banjo. He found work so fast at a local foundry that he sent word to the rest of the family to move up there with him. His parents soon followed along with his brother Ray. A few months later, the oldest brother, Herman followed them with his family.
The brothers gained a reputation for their musicianship. Herman was a "whiz on the bass fiddle" and Ray was "mastering the rhythm guitar." Neighbors began to visit them and slowly the word spread and they began to get invitations to play gigs such as square dances. Ernest and Herman tried to do the vocals, but they knew they needed something else. Ray's voice began to mature and he soon became the lead singer, with Ernest doing tenor and Herman baritone on their harmonies. At some point, Ernest's 18 year old daughter, Carolyn joined the group. Along about that time, the group found the fiddler they needed to complete their sound - Gene Dykes.
Ms. Lockerbie noted, "None of the brothers reads music, but it doesn't matter. Their arrangements, Ernest explained, are felt in the heart." They shunned electrical instruments and stayed with their homespun style. Sarah wrote, "Whatever their message, the Barrier beat is swift and pulsing. Their gospel hymns twitch feet almost as irresistibly as their dance tunes. They observe a personal code of clean-cut as their rhythm. They do not drink and their services have always been bestowed generously on churches which favor music in the evangelistic strain."
The band played semi-professionally on weekends in carnivals, fairs, and parks in northern and central Indiana. By the late 1950's, they made the acquaintance of Ray Earle of Winona Lake who had a small record label called Armoneer. The band recorded eight songs-two singles and a four song extended play-for him. Ernest's daughters Carolyn and Janie also did a 45 rpm single on Armoneer.
For a time, they were staff musicians on WCKY in Cincinnati, Ohio. They also had a 15-week series on radio station WJVA in Mishawaka, Indiana. They were even part of a entertainment package that was headlined by Jay North of television's "Dennis the Menace" fame.
In 1963, they were part of a musical event in South Bend put on by the Partners in Progress organization. At school field, an American Hootenanny show was being put on. The performers included The Greenbriar Boys, The Tanners, Logan English, Joan Myers, Daniel and Dimitri and Merv Shiner. The local acts on the show included the Barrier Brothers, the Tamry Trio, The Coachmen and the Hoosier Sundowners. Master of Ceremonies for the event was Dunny Sims, the host of the Triangle D Roundup program on WSBT.
A meeting at a park with the Wilburn Brothers helped them secure a contract with Mercury Records in 1961. This led to them recording three albums that were released on their subsidiary Philips label. Golden Bluegrass Hits in 1961, More Golden Bluegrass Hits in 1962, and Gospel Songs: Bluegrass Style in 1963. The first album had the services of Benny Martin on fiddle. These recordings resulted in their getting some good bookings on package shows and sufficient work to cause them to feel comfortable enough to give up their day jobs. Philips A & R men chose their songs to record, two thirds of which on their first two albums were covers of Flatt and Scruggs numbers, leaving many to think that was about all they could handle.
Balancing music with regular work became increasing tiring and as the folk music fad began to fade and Mercury did not renew their contract, the Barriers reduced their playing to local and home entertainment. First Herman in 1977 and Ernest in 1978 moved back to Tennessee.
Herman died on September 5, 1988. Ernest retired, but picked a little in jam sessions now and then. He died on February 3, 1994. Ernest died in 1994. Ray remained in Indiana. Ray lived on for several more years; he died on September 2, 2003.
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