WBT Radio began operations in Charlotte, NC in 1920. By 1933, the wattage of WBT Radio increased to 50,000 watts, making it one of the most powerful radio stations in the United States. That same year, announcer Charles Crutchfield joined the station and quickly worked his way up to station manager. Crutchfield joined WBT in the midst of a rise in popularity in regional string bands. Acts like the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, Mississippi Sheiks and others were driving record sales across the country.
During this time, radio stations were prohibited from playing records on the air. Therefore, string bands were often hired to perform live on the air. WBT had no such band, but Crutchfield, in an effort to appear with the times, said the station had a house band. Shortly thereafter, he began putting one together – the Briarhoppers. By late 1934, the Briarhoppers started performing for WBT. There is some dispute over the creation of the band’s name. Crutchfield claims that during a hunting trip with another advertiser, a rabbit ran out from beneath a thicket and the advertiser yelled, “Look at that briarhopper!” However, two band members, Cecil Campbell and Harry Blair, remember using the name Briarhoppers as a pseudonym to avoid contractual conflicts with their other group, the Tennessee Ramblers Band. Either way, the Briarhoppers were a hit with local listeners.
The band soon hit on a formula for string band music mixed with folksy humor. Products such as Peruna tonic, Radio Girl perfume, Kolar-Bak hair dye, and Zymol Trokeys cough drops were among the products the band sold in those early days. The band’s original lineup included Don White, Big Bill Davis, Johnnie McAllister, Clarence Etters, Thorpe Westerfield, and Jane Bartlett. The group even had junior members in Homer Drye (later renamed Homer Briarhopper) and Billie Burton.
In the early 1940s, the Briarhoppers continued expanding with new members. During their busiest times, the Briarhoppers had two different versions playing throughout the state, one dubbed Unit One and the other Unit Two. New stars such as Cecil Campbell, Claude Casey, and Fred Kirby emerged through the ranks, becoming stars on their own. Earl Scruggs found his way to the Briarhoppers through other bands near his native Shelby, NC, and played with the band a few times before finding fame with Bill Monroe’s band.
Two other local stars that joined the Briarhoppers during this time were Roy “Whitey” Grant and Orval Hogan, who started playing together in Gastonia as the Spindle City Boys. By 1939, the duo recorded their first songs at Decca Records in New York City. The boys returned to North Carolina in 1941, joined the Briarhoppers, and remained with the group for the next six decades. The popularity of the Briarhoppers on WBT was so large that when the legendary Carter Family gave their final radio shows at WBT in 1942 and 1943, they received second billing to the Briarhoppers.
In the summer of 1945, WBT began broadcasting the Carolina Hayride show. The Saturday afternoon show featured the popular Briarhoppers, along with Charlotteans Arthur Smith, Fred Kirby and other special guests. Following the show’s popularity, Crutchfield was confident that Charlotte could be as big a home for country music as Nashville, Tennessee. While Charlotte never reached those heights, the Briarhoppers, who at their height received around 10,000 fan mail letters a week, brought a lot of attention to the city.
By 1951, times and music tastes were changing, and WBT took the Briarhoppers off the air. Many of their stars, including Grant and Hogan, Don White, and Shannon
Grayson, left for opportunities elsewhere. Others, such as one-time music director Fiddlin’ Hank Warren, stayed at WBT as the staff photographer. Slowly, several members of the Briarhoppers returned to Charlotte, and a new version of the band emerged in the early 1970s, based around Grant & Hogan, Don White, Grayson and Warren.
Soon, the band received requests from across the state to play again. An episode of Prairie Home Companion followed, along with other TV and radio appearances. By the 1980s, historians named Grant and Hogan as the longest-running duo in country music. Seeing an opportunity to bring the old music to a new audience, the North Carolina Arts Council started the “Folk Arts In The Schools” campaign in 1978, which the band took part in throughout the state for a number of years.
After the passing of Grayson and Warren during the 1990s, the band continued with David Deese and Dwight Moody. The band received the NC Folklife Society award in 2002, and the prestigious Brown-Hudson Award in 2003. The past several years have also seen the passing of Grant, Hogan, White, Deese and Moody, but the band recently celebrated its 80th anniversary. Tom Warlick now leads the band, with some help from the Flowers Family Band. Just like in the 1940s, when Tom Warlick asks the crowd “Do you know what time hit is?” they reply, “Hit’s Briarhopper Time!”
George Holt, ed., The Charlotte Country Music Story (Spirit Square Arts Center and North Carolina Arts Council, 1985)
Tom and Lucy Warlick, WBT Briarhoppers: Eight Decades of a Bluegrass Band Made for Radio (McFarland Publications 2007).