Remembering the Wilburn Brothers

Remembering the Wilburn Brothers

by Larry Alderman for Country Music News International

Top row, Pop Wilburn, Lester, Leslie, Mom Wilburn, Geraldine, Bottom row, Teddy, Doyle.

Perhaps it is good sometimes to remember the roads traveled in the past that brought us to where we are today. If it is in our personal life or as a nation, or in the business of Country Music. Today we jet to our personal appearances, we ride in air-conditioned buses and perform in an air-conditioned Opry house. In the 60s they had to open the windows on the Ryman Auditorium in the hot summertime. Come with me to a time when those attending the Grand Ole Opry had Opry fans and Jesus fans to cool themselves. Let’s go back for a few minutes to how this music business we love was built on sweat and tears for a few minutes and celebrate some of the pioneers of our beloved industry.

The Wilburn Brothers are all long gone now. The last strains of their music echo only in memories of Friday and Saturday nights at the Ryman Auditorium on the Grand ole Opry show and on the turntables of fans, and the mp3s of the computer age. A group of children were brought out on stage by Roy Acuff and introduced to the world on the old War Memorial Auditorium stage in Nashville and on the Grand Ole Opry. Lester 13, Leslie 12, Theodore 6, and Doyle 7 with their sister Geraldine 10 years old, were just children. Those children got huge mail from all over the world and the Grand Ole Opry welcomed them for many weeks on the big show!

It did not start that night with Roy at the Opry. No, like all who try to make it in show business, they had started out in very humble settings. Their house had burned in Hardy Arkansas, and they had to go out back and live in an old chicken house. They never had much money, like Merle Haggards song, Mamas Hungry Eyes talks about. However, Benjamin, known as Pop Wilburn and Katie, who became the beloved Mom Wilburn, their mother and father, did all they could to feed the kids and take care of them. Pop Wilburn trapped furs and worked at any job he could find.

One day Pop Wilburn saw a family singing on a street corner and had the idea that his kids could do the same thing to help them survive. It was the Great Depression years and times were hard. He saw the family on the street get tips and right away used some money he made selling a load of logs to order a guitar and fiddle and mandolin. Katie began teaching the children and soon they were ready to give it a try.

On Christmas Eve, 1937, the children stood on a street corner in nearby Thayer Missouri. They called themselves the Shirt Tail Children’s Band. The starting show of what would be the world-famous Wilburn Brothers made $6.40 and a legendary act of Country Music was born shivering as they sang on that chilly December night.

The Grand Ole Opry had them come back repeatedly to play the great show, but then came under pressure from groups concerned about the welfare of children, who thought the kids were being kept up too late and used to make money. They had to remove the kids from the Opry, well for a while.

World War Two struck with Pearl Harbor and Leslie was drafted. Several years would pass with the next war, the Korean War taking Teddy and Doyle away to serve. The boys all survived, with Leslie wounded by a mortar shell that would trouble him the rest of his life.

But history would not be denied, and neither would the talent of this family. They were reunited after the Korean War and worked with Webb Peirce, the hottest act in Country Music in the 1950s. Webb started calling Theodore, by a nickname Teddy and it stuck. The two singers, Teddy and Doyle were exposed to the big crowds and shows with Webb Peirce. They went on to perform on the road with Faron Young, the Singing Sherriff.

As fate and their talent and hard work would have it, they would not always stay under the wings of other big stars. In 1953 they were back on the Opry, with Leslie and Lester working on stage with them as side men. They recorded over the next few years with Ernest Tubb as well as Webb Peirce. Their magnificent sibling harmonies were featured on hit records with other stars.

In 1962, they hit paydirt with the big hit, Troubles Back in Town and it was now the sounds of Teddy and Doyle the Wilburn Brothers that topped the charts, all on their own. They rolled out hit after hit on Decca Records. Roll Muddy River, Knoxville Girl, Hurt Her Once for Me and many more. For five straight years in a row, they were voted Top Country Vocal Group. They were working 250 plus dates a year, they opened a talent agency, Wilhelm Talent, and Leslie oversaw the publishing company called Sure-Fire Music. Lester worked in the administration of the agencies and publishing company, it was truly, a family business, this Wilburn Brothers family. Sure-Fire took it’s place with the big boys on music row with hit after hit. The catalog would house evergreens as classics are called, like Statue of Fool, and the songs of a new sensation Loretta Lynn and the company would nurture future stars like Johnny Russel and Patty Lovelace.

From 1963 until 1974 they hosted one of the most important pioneering tv shows of country music, the Wilburn Brother Show. They exposed Country Music to the world on tv sets everywhere, and the shows still run today on cable channels like RFD TV. Their guest would all go on to say how important the help of the Wilburn Brothers was to their careers. Guests like, Porter Wagoner, Dolly Parton, the Oak Ridge Boys, and Tammy Wynette and Barbara Mandrell, Mel McDaniel or Bill Monroe, all paid homage to the influence and help the show was to them, including their special weekly featured artist, miss Loretta Lynn. The boys discovered Loretta and Doyle took her to Owen Bradley and got her a deal on Decca, later MCA Records. They had the biggest new sensation in County Music on their show.  Loretta and Teddy would sit in a porch swing on the set of the show and sing duets. Leslie played rhythm guitar and they had Don Helms who was the steel player in the Drifting Cowboys for Hank Williams and was a business pardner in the Wilburn company. One of the all-time great fiddle players, Buddy Speicher was a regular band member. Spec Rhodes was the comedy relief on the show. Spec had been part of the family that Pop Wilburn saw performing on the street corner, that gave him the idea his children could do that too, so many years before.

The Wilburn Brothers came from humble and hard beginnings and made it to the top of the music industry. Their legacy lives on, as the kind and helping hands that they were. Teddy became well known as a song doctor, that helped polish the songwriting of greats like Loretta Lynn, humbly, he never took credit, he saw it as part of the work as a publisher. He polished songs his writers brought, much like Fred Rose did for Hank Williams. The brothers exuded everything good in country people, honest, everyday hardworking people, that made good.  Today, Leslie Wilburn’s son, Jason Wilburn carries on the Sure-Fire Music company and legacy of the Wilburn Brothers. Jason was too young to remember well the Opry days, but he remembers the TV set of the Wilburn Brothers TV Show and told me that Bozo the Clown show was filmed there also, as a kid he would find cookies left on the set and he remembers Opryland the theme park and how Mr. Bell, the guard there would stamp his hand and he and his cousins would run all over the park all day. Jason Wilburn proudly carries on the legacy today with Sure-Fire Music. Their catalog is filled with great standards and hit songs. He can be contacted at as he oversees the day-to-day operations.

Yes, once in a while it is good to remember the popcorn and cokes in the movie drive-in style boxes and the kids shining shoes for people waiting for blocks in line outside the old Ryman on Grand Ole Opry nights in those long-ago sultry summer nights and the sounds of Don Helms steel guitar moaning as Teddy and Doyle step up to mic and strum the guitar and say, Uh oh, Troubles Back in Town!


*Credits to Darryl Hicks, interview with Teddy Wilburn, and Robert Shelton, History of Country Music and the Wilburn Brothers song & memorabilia book I ordered as a kid from the Wilburn Brothers TV show.

Larry Alderman

Nashville Tennessee



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