Doyle and Teddy Wilburn, country music’s Wilburn Brothers, were born in Hardy — Doyle in 1930, Teddy in 1931 — to Benjamin and Katie Wilburn. Although Doyle and Teddy made their mark as a duo, they got their start at ages 5 and 6 singing with the Wilburn Family.
There were two older brothers, Lester and Leslie, and an older sister, Geraldine. In 1940, when the Wilburn Family performed at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Doyle and Teddy weren’t even teen-agers. Father Benjamin acted as agent, manager, promoter and ticket seller for the group back in the late 1930s and early ’40s, according to Doyle.
(The Wilburn Brothers aren’t to be confused with the Willis Brothers, one of whom was born in Alex, Ark. The Willis Brothers were the first to record with Hank Williams in 1946 and were born 10 or 15 years before the Wilburns.)
Established near the Arkansas-Missouri border, the Wilburn Family played on bootheel-area radio stations such as KLCN in Blytheville and KWOC in Poplar Bluff, Mo. The Wilburn Family later recorded several singles for the Four-Star label.
In the late 1940s through the early ’50s, the four Wilburn brothers — sister Geraldine had left the group to marry and return to Arkansas — had a show on KWKH in Shreveport, La. KWKH was home of the newly established “Louisiana Hayride” program, which helped establish (and vice-versa) Hank Williams, Elvis Presley and Arkansans like the Browns, Floyd Cramer, Patsy Montana and T. Texas Tyler.
In 1951, Doyle and Teddy were drafted for the Korean War; Webb Pierce filled their shoes with the remaining Wilburns. This helped further the career of Pierce, who became a country superstar. When Doyle and Teddy returned to the States, they toured with Pierce, and played guitar and bass on Pierce’s first session for Decca Records. Pierce with the Wilburns hit No. 4 in 1954 with “Sparkling Brown Eyes.”
By 1954, Doyle and Teddy signed with Decca Records themselves as the Wilburn Brothers. In 1956, the Wilburn Brothers appeared on Arthur Godfrey’s CBS-TV show, toured with Ernest Tubb — and joined the Grand Ole Opry.
Besides their dozens of chart hits, mainly from the late 1950s and mid-1960s, the Wilburns were involved in publishing, booking and artist representation. Their Sure-Fire group published Loretta Lynn early in her career, and their agency negotiated her contract with Decca Records. She later sued the Wilburns to get artistic freedom, but Lynn and the Wilburns were said to have eventually renewed their friendship.
Doyle and Teddy launched a country music television program in 1963, the first of its kind in color. The show helped expose new artists, including Loretta Lynn and Jean Shepherd. The show ran until 1974, and featured their brothers, Lester and Leslie, as regulars.
Though touring and other means, the Wilburn Brothers continued to develop new generations of country music talent. Patty Loveless also got early exposure thanks to the Wilburn Brothers, as did Lynn’s youngest sister, Crystal Gayle, and others.
Doyle died Oct. 16, 1982. The brothers had performed at the Opry the month before. Teddy died Nov. 24, 2003, just shy of his 72nd birthday. He had a public funeral at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville — the same building where he and the Wilburn family had sang at before Teddy was in even double digits. He was a member of the Opry at his death.
The 31st and final chart hit by Hardy’s Wilburn Brothers charted in 1972: “Arkansas.”
Hear more about the Wilburns on this week’s “Arkansongs,” heard Fridays at 6:40 a.m and 6:20 p.m. on KUAR-FM, 89.1, in Little Rock. E-mail: email@example.com.