After nine decades, legendary WBT Radio bluegrass group the Briarhoppers have joined the ranks of Doc Watson, Randy Travis, Nina Simone and Thelonious Monk, soon to be inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame.
The group joins other notable North Carolina musicians, including Jermaine Dupri, Charles Whitfield and the Squirrel Nut Zippers, in the 2020 class.
History of Briarhoppers
WBT Radio began operating in Charlotte in the early 1920s. A little over a decade later, power rose to 50,000, making it one of the most powerful radio stations in the country.
âWBT radio waves stretched from Maine to Miami, and there were only a few powerful stations like it at the time,â said bassist Tom Warlick, 59, current Briarhopper member.
In the 1930s, Charles Crutchfield joined WBT as an announcer, at a time when country and bluegrass groups like the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers and Mississippi Sheiks were generating record sales across the country.
In 1934, a potential advertiser called the station and asked if WBT had a group to advertise their products. The studio didn’t, but Crutchfield said yes.
According to the story, station announcer Bill Bivens was on a hunting trip with Crutchfield when they were surprised by a rabbit. Bivens shouted: âLook at that heather!â, And the name stuck.
The original band members included Johnny McAllister, Big Bill Davis, Don White, Thorpe Westerfield, Clarence Etters and Jane Bartlett. Only singer Billie Burton Daniel, who joined the group in 1936, still lives today in a house on the coast of North Carolina.
âIt was during the Depression,â Warlick said. âPeople had no money. But they had radios, and most of the radios in that area were tuned to WBT, âespecially at 4 pm when the Briarhoppers show started.
He remembers his father telling him about the program.
âAt that point, you were going to school, coming home, doing your housework and warming up the Delco radio,â he said. “And then you would listen to the Briarhoppers.”
Much like then, Briarhoppers concerts today consist of original songs, new songs and original scripted commercials for the patented drug Peruna, Kolor-Bak hair dye, Zymole Trokeys throat lozenges and the Radio Girl perfume.
Celebrated Cleveland County banjoist Earl Scruggs performed with the Briarhoppers before joining Bill Monroe’s band. Other notables who sang with the group included songwriter and TV star Arthur Smith and Fred Kirby, who went on to become the beloved cowboy of children’s shows on WBTV.
“Before Nashville became the national center for country music recording after World War II, the Charlotte WBT nurtured top talent,” said historian Tom Hanchett. “In fact, more country and gospel records were recorded here in the mid-1930s than in Nashville.”
The legend continues
Warlick joined the Briarhoppers in 2007, but his connection with the group began in 2002.
Warlick, whose father grew up listening to the Brairhoppers, invited the group to perform in a bluegrass show in York, SC, for his father’s birthday. âThey liked me and they said we would like to keep in touch,â Warlick said.
After the death of the last original member, Don White, longtime duo Roy “Whitey” Grant and Arval Hogan – who were members in the 1940s – felt the band’s history was dying, Warlick said. . They contacted him and asked if he and his wife would write a book about the group.
In 2007, they released “The WBT Briarhoppers: Eight Decades of a Band Made For Radio”.
Today, when requested, Warlick still plays McAllister’s ukulele. âHis daughter had sent it to me,â Warlick said. “She wanted me to have her for safekeeping.”
As for the legend of the group, he also brings it to life.
âWe strive to continue the golden age of radio,â said Warlick. âWe do all the old ads. We make the old songs and we also make new ones. But our goal is to imitate as closely as possible the Briarhoppers Radio Show of the 1930s and 1940s. â
NC Music Hall of Fame
The North Carolina Music Hall of Fame plans to induct its 2020 and 2021 members on October 21, at a public event at the historic Gem Theater in Kannapolis.
Roberta Flack, who received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2020, will be recognized for her lifetime of achievement in the music industry with Tony Brown, a Grammy Award-winning record producer and pianist who co-founded Universal South Records and is the former president of MCA Records Nashville.
Other inductees include:
Donald Lawrence, a Grammy-winning gospel music songwriter, record producer, vocal coach and recording artist.
Charles Whitfield, music producer and director of Hidden Beach Recordings.
Jermaine Dupri, Grammy Award-winning producer, hip-hop artist, songwriter and record director at So So Def.
Michael T. Mauldin, co-founder of the Black American Music Association and the Black Music Entertainment Walk of Fame, former president of the Black Music division at Columbia Records and former senior vice president of Columbia Record Group. He is also Dupri’s father.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers, a jazz band that achieved commercial success during the swing revival in the late 1990s.
Tony Rice, guitarist, bluegrass musician, singer and songwriter.
Robert Moog, inventor of the first commercial synthesizer, the Moog Synthesizer, which debuted in 1964 and revolutionized all genres of music.
More artistic coverage
Want to see more stories like this? You can join our Facebook group, âInside Charlotte Artsâ, at https://www.facebook.com/groups/insidecharlottearts/