Charlotte Country a Sixty Year Tradition
John Rumble directs the Oral History Project for the Nashville-based Country Music Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization that operates the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Many of the quotations used in this article come from interviews made for the Foundation's archives.
On a warm southern evening early in the 1940s, a country band stood waiting in a small schoolhouse in Patrick, South Carolina. It was a quarter till eight, but so far only the janitor was there to see the Briarhoppers, radio stars of Charlotte, North Carolina station WBT. "Come on, boys," sighed Roy "Whitey" Grant, one of the bandmembers."Let's put these instruments in the car and go back home." The janitor cautioned him: "Don't leave. This building'll be full." Just then, Grant recalls, "I started seeing wagons and lanterns and lights coming through the woods from different directions. Believe it or not, at eight o'clock that building was full, and people was sitting in the windows."
The incident speaks volumes about WBT country performers, the loyalty of their fans, and a fascinating era of music history. Back then there was no television, of course, only radio. Many rural or small-town folks set their watches by the Briarhoppers' weekday programs, and neighbors often gathered on Saturday nights to hear WBT barn dance shows featuring the station's country talent. When fans did see entertainers in person, it was often in a one- or two-room schoolhouse. Even concerts held in civic auditoriums were relatively homespun affairs compared to modern package shows with their banks of loudspeakers and complex lighting panels. Many of the schools had no electricity at all, explains mandolin player Arval Hogan: "We would just hit the stage and perform natural, without a p.a. system."
The Briarhoppers (L to R) Sam Briarhopper, Bill, Elmer, Minnie, Zeb, Dad, Charlie Crutchfield, Billie and Homer.
To those who haven't lived through it, the country music world of 1940 or 1950 may seem like another planet. But in those days of poor roads and limited incomes, a radio barn dance or school-house show could be as exciting as Christmas or the Fourth of July. What's more, that world has left us a vital legacy. As Charlotte's 1985 country music festival proves, WBT veterans still know how to hold an audience with picking, singing, and all-around good times.
Radio was the key to country music in Charlotte from the 1920s to the 1950s. WBT, the city's flagship station, was founded in 1922, just two years after commercial radio broadcasting began. During the decade of the twenties, WBT changed hands at least three times, finally becoming a Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) affiliate owned by the network itself. Along the way, the station upped its power from 100 watts to 25,000; by 1933 it was a 50,000-watt giant, as strong as any radio outlet in the United States. Since WBT lacked clear-channel status (assigned by the federal government), there were gaps in its coverage caused by interference from other stations. Yet millions of listeners lived within its umbrella, and the Charlotte powerhouse gave musicians the exposure they needed to book personal appearances or negotiate recording contracts.
Charlotte's country artists found acceptance within a context of variety programming. Like other stations—then sprouting like mushrooms—WBT sought broad audiences in order to win sponsors. As a result, early broadcasts used everything from local dance bands and pop singers to minstrel shows or storytellers. In contrast to CBS originations from New York or Chicago, which usually showcased pop orchestras and vocalists, WBT's country programs offered homespun fare in the form of the Woodlawn String Band, Fisher Hendley's Carolina Tar Heels, the Hawaiian Serenaders, or other Carolina-based acts.
Charlotte's country music scene expanded during the 1930s despite a nationwide economic depression. As falling prices let more and more families buy radio sets, radio stations proliferated, with some six hundred outlets in service by mid-decade. Just as important, demographics were right for country music broadcasting. Most southerners—and a great many northerners—still lived on farms or in rural villages where Saturday-night hoedowns were a part of everyday life. For sponsors marketing products to such down-to-earth audiences, country music was a natural advertising medium.
Two firms played crucial roles in financing Charlotte country shows of the thirties and forties: Chicago's Consolidated Drug Trade Products Company and the Crazy Water Crystals Company, a laxative manufacturer headquartered in Mineral Wells, Texas. Both organizations sponsored country programs throughout much of the nation, and both lent early country radio a medicine-show format. ("For fifty-six years," read one advertisement, " 'Crazy' water has come to the aid of the weak and the ailing, and it has made of them men and women ready to face life's hardships.") Crazy Crystals maintained a Charlotte office, whose managers recruited a multitude of artists for WBT and other Carolina stations. Probably the best-known acts were Dick Hartman's Tennessee Ramblers—who had worked Crazy Crystals shows in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and Rochester, New York, before coming to WBT—and Mainer's Mountaineers, famed for their hit song Maple on the Hill. Charlotte's first Crazy Crystals programs began in 1933. A year later, the firm organized WBT's Crazy Barn Dance, which lasted into the late 1930s and set precedents for similar WBT shows of the next decade. About this same time, Consolidated Drug Trade Products launched the Briarhoppers program, a staple of WBT's schedule for years. Just as most American stations had daily shows like Briarhopper Time, weekly jamborees like the Crazy Barn Dance were taking hold in several cities, North and South. In Nashville, for example, the Grand Ole Opry was going strong, while Chicago's National Barn Dance was already an NBC network sensation. Everywhere country radio was growing by leaps and bounds, and Charlotte was fast becoming a vibrant regional music center.
Much of the credit for the Briarhoppers' popularity belongs to announcer Charles Crutchfield, who eventually became WBT's program director and later its station manager. His magnetic voice and warm, personal style were as much a part of the show as the music itself, lending continuity to the broadcast throughout many changes in personnel. "Crutch," as he's known to friends, injected parody into the Briarhoppers' broad rube comedy, then common in the country music field. Tongue-in-cheek, he'd poke fun at Radio Girl perfume, Kolorbak hair dye, and Zymole Trokeys cough drops, all part of the Drug Trade line. Crutchfield was at his best, though, when heaping scorn upon Peruna, an all-purpose tonic with a high alcohol content. "We don't care what you do with it," he's say. "Put it in the radiator of your car—it'll clean it out." During their run at WBT, Crutchfield and the Briarhoppers sold railroad carloads of the stuff, partly because fans could trade a "Pee-roo-ny" boxtop for a picture of the band. "About half of the Piedmont Carolinas went around with half a buzz on most of the time," says Crutchfield with a wink, "but they were happy."
All in all, commercial radio gave amateur performers the chance to become full-time musicians. To be sure, some WBT artists were seasoned professionals by the time they arrived at the station. Johnny McAllister, for instance, came to the Briarhopper cast from vaudeville and the New York theatrical stage. But country radio took many Carolinians straight from farms or cotton mills. "I picked peaches (before I got in the music business) for a dollar a day-ten hours a day for a dollar," remembers Cecil Campbell. (With the Tennessee Ramblers, his starting daily salary was eighteen dollars.) "Picking the guitar was not quite as bad as that, even if you had to ride all night (to show dates)." Claude Casey, a Briarhopper star of the forties, likewise recalls the lure of radio talent fees, but for him the sheer joy of performing was just as big as a thrill: "To play music and make money for it-man! That was better than working in a factory somewhere, cooped up."
Radio stardom also gave musicians the chance to make records. During the Depression years, WBT supplied a vast pool of talent for country recording sessions. National firms had begun to market country music in the mid-1920s, but the onset of the Great Depression virtually wiped out sales. By 1936, however, things were looking up again. RCA Victor, the most active label in the Carolina territory, cut dozens of sides in Charlotte over the next four years. Southern Radio Corporation—RCA's Carolina distributor for radios, recordings, and record players-furnished warehouse space where New York executives set up temporary studios, using portable equipment shipped by truck or train. Musicians generally considered recording a sideline, for radio and personal appearances were their bread and butter. Nevertheless, as Southern Radio's Thomas Jamison stressed, the Carolinas were a natural market for country music, and RCA did quite well with WBT acts like the Mainers or the Monroe Brothers. The company also held Charlotte sessions with performers from other stations, like Grand Ole Opry star Uncle Dave Macon. Although New York and Chicago dominated the pre-World War II recording industry, record-making thrived in Charlotte and other southern cities, including Knoxville, Atlanta, Dallas, and Memphis. With a bit more effort and a bit more luck, Cecil Campbell argues, Charlotte might have pre-empted Nashville's later claim to the title "Music City, U.S.A."
The 1940s saw a massive expansion of country music—in Charlotte and elsewhere. World War II revived the American economy and pushed recording and music publishing to new heights. New barn dance shows appeared on every hand. Meanwhile, population shifts and the mingling of people from different regions in military service further nationalized a music that already had large followings on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. And even though more and more rural folks were moving to town, many of them still had a love for rural entertainment.
WBT was quick to take advantage of these trends. While the Briarhoppers continued their weekday programs, the station assembled three big weekly shows for regional or national CBS networks: the Diode Jamboree, a Saturday-morning feature hosted and scripted by Claude Casey; the Carolina Hayride, a Saturday-night barn dance staged at the Charlotte Armory; and Carolina Calling, a Sunday-morning show that sometimes mixed country and pop acts. WBT country talent—both established performers and recent arrivals—worked all of these programs, offering a wide range of sounds and styles. Solo singers Claude Casey and Fred Kirby added soothing love songs to the Briarhoppers basic repertory of hoedowns and frolic tunes. Roy Grant and Arval Hogan (Whitey and Hogan) kept country music's duet harmony tradition alive and well. Now led by Cecil Campbell, the Tennessee Ramblers specialized in western songs, and both the Rangers Quartet and the Johnson Family Singers sang some of the finest gospel music ever heard. Early in the decade, the legendary Carter Family also broadcast over WBT; a little later, versatile instrumentalist Arthur Smith emerged from the Briarhoppers to form his own band, as did Claude Casey. Assisting these performers were a number of top-flight announcers, among them the unforgettable Grady Cole, known far and wide as "Mr. Dixie." As in the 1930s, radio provided a springboard for other music ventures. WBT artists extended the range of their tours and now played to larger crowds than ever before. Although RCA sessions tapered off, smaller firms like Super Disc or Sonora held recording dates in Charlotte after World War II. Some of the records these sessions yielded caught the attention of the national music press; a few became substantial hits. Southern Radio Corporation remained an important RCA distributor, and the Columbia, Decca, and Capital labels all set up distributorships in the Queen City. Similarly, big-time music publishers courted WBT stars in hopes of gaining radio exposure for their song catalogues. Several WBT artists published songs or songbooks through houses like Hill and Range or Acuff-Rose.
After 1950 a series of sweeping changes gradually ended country music's heyday in Charlotte. The Jefferson-Standard Life Insurance Company, which bought WBT in 1945, did continue the Briarhopper show for a time. But the firm wasn't wedded to country music in the manner of Crazy Crystals or Consolidated Drug Trade Products, and these companies too cut back radio advertising as discount drugstore chains captured once-secure markets. As television attracted larger audiences, radio stations were forced to adopt specialized formats in order to survive; many country acts were dropped in the process. Moreover, competition forced the wide-spread use of recorded music instead of expensive live talent. Changing popular tastes, reflected in the upsurge of rock and roll, also dethroned country music as king of Charlotte radio. The simple fact was that Americans were becoming increasingly citified and wanted uptown entertainment. Consequently, some of WBT's pickers retired or took up alternative careers.
But country music in Charlotte never really died. Far from it. Arthur Smith went on to set up publishing and recording operations there and also founded a long-running television show. As a television personality, Fred Kirby found a whole new audience among Charlotte-area children. The Briarhoppers regrouped about ten years ago and still delight listeners at bluegrass festivals around the region. And whatever the transformations in Charlotte's musical landscape, its country entertainers have created a living tradition, one filled with friendliness, humor, and good old-fashioned fun—enduring qualities that have made them heroes to legions of fans, both old and new.
John W. Rumble
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