Billie Burton Daniel of WBT Briarhoppers passes

Billie Burton Daniel, who joined the North Carolina Briarhoppers in 1936 as “Little Billie Briarhopper,” died on October 1, 2022, at the age of 98.  

Willie (Billie) Elisabeth Burton Daniel was born on March 8, 1924. She took to singing early in her life and, while traveling with her father in the Carolinas, heard that Charlotte’s WBT Radio was having auditions for children to join the popular radio show, Briarhopper Time. Her parents relented and allowed Billie to audition. She and Homer Drye won the Briarhopper children parts in 1936. From 1936 to 1940, Billie and the group performed on the radio station and in concerts throughout the southeast. Billie and Homer became the Carolinas’ radio teen idols during the Depression.

After Billie left the station in 1941, she continued to entertain at many venues in the Carolinas with her mentor, Clarence Etters, who was a popular pianist and a former Briarhopper family member. She also performed at jazz clubs in the Carolinas with band leader Jimmy Jett. Billie found her way to California where she met up with another Billie – Billie Holliday – who mentored her further in blues singing, becoming great friends in the process.

Billie retired from music and began a second career with the North Carolina Drivers License Bureau in Raleigh. She retired from there and relocated to the North Carolina coast to be near her family and friends. 

Billie was instrumental in providing information for the book, The WBT Briarhoppers – Eight Decades of a Bluegrass Band Made for Radio, written by Tom and Lucy Warlick, published in 2007. She wrote her biography, Sweetheart of the Carolinas: The Youngest of the Blues Singers, in 2007. Daniel was present when the Briarhoppers was inducted into the WBT Radio Hall of Fame. She was also featured in PBS Charlotte’s Country in the Carolinas documentary.

In Warlick’s book, she wrote a letter to her fans, present and past:

December 12, 2005

Dear Folks out there in Radio Land,

I doubt if many of you are still around who remember the little girl who used to be me, the little girl who, more than anything, loved to sing. I was so lucky, because back then, there were so many of you who wrote to me, and wrote to Radio Station WBT and requested songs for me to sing, for Homer to sing, for Dad to sing, for all my “big brothers” to play and sing; it was because of you that Drug Trade Products continued to sponsor our show, and enabled us to perform for you, for the five long years that I was on the show. I say five LONG years, because when you’re very young, five years seems like almost forever. Those five years when I was Little Billie Briarhopper were a wonderful part of my life.

I want to thank you all for the cards and letters and telegrams and packages, for the delicious cookies, for the candy, for the daffodils that came in the mail every March, for everything. And for you “shut-ins” who were out there in Radio Land, I thank you for asking me to dedicate my songs to you. That was a privilege. 

I’m the last, you know, the last of “Dad Briarhopper’s original Briarhoppers.” There’s nobody left to “remember with.” How wonderful it would be if I could go back to then, to just one more time hear Mr. Crutchfield say, “Hey, Pappy, what time is it?” and to hear Dad answer, “Why, Crutch, hit’s Briarhopper time!!!!!”

Billie Daniel

Over the years, the Briarhoppers earned many accolades. They were inducted into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame in October 2021. The string band received a North Carolina Heritage Award in 2003.

Formed in 1934 to perform on Charlotte’s WBT radio, the Briarhoppers are the longest continuously performing band in the United States. Throughout the years, key members of the band have included Arval Hogan (Kristin Scott Benson’s grandfather), Arthur Smith, Fred Kirby, and for a short time, Earl Scruggs (already a North Carolina Music Hall of Fame member) substituted on banjo.

From 1935 to 1951, six days a week, radio listeners across the Carolinas tuned to WBT to hear this group of bluegrass and country/western musicians regale them with fast-paced fiddle breakdowns, inspiring gospel tunes, lively waltzes, and sweet love ballads. Through those early radio broadcasts and thousands of personal appearances, the Briarhoppers continue to keep older musical traditions in the public eye. In April, the current ensemble performed for 100th birthday of WBT. These musicians still charm audiences with the familiar refrain that has opened the band’s performances since the 1930s: “Do y’all know what ‘hit is? ‘Hit’s Briarhopper Time!”

In recent years, Daniel shared, “I am so glad that Tom Warlick keeps the Briarhoppers living on. He is amazing! Has found pictures and write ups, some I never even saw before, of the original cast, pictures that were in radio magazines and newspapers, pictures of us on calendars which Drug Trade Products, our sponsors, sent out to loyal listeners every year, and even more amazing pictures of the products which we advertised. The present-day Briarhoppers still perform; still carry on what has become a tradition in the Queen City and the old North State. Thank you.”

“Billie was the first female radio star at WBT,” stressed Warlick, bassist with the Briarhoppers. “She was the longest-lived Briarhopper.”

R.I.P., Billie Daniel.

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About the Author

Sandy Hatley

Sandy Chrisco Hatley is a free lance writer for several NC newspapers and Bluegrass Unlimited magazine. As a teenager, she picked banjo with an all girl band called the Happy Hollow String Band. Today, she plays dobro with her husband's band, the Hatley Family.