The Briarhoppers, sometimes known as the WBT Briarhoppers, have been announced as among the 2020 inductees into the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. This legendary bluegrass and string music group has been performing in some configuration continually since 1934. That’s 86 years for folks that don’t want to do the arithmetic.
Initially formed to perform live on WBT radio in Charlotte, NC by station manager Charles Crutchfield, The Briarhoppers came to the airwaves just as the station was upgraded to 50,000 watt status, and during a time when broadcasters were not permitted to play records over their radio signal. Back then a radio contract was the best thing to happen to performers, as it also allowed them to book live concerts at venues within a station’s broadcast reach several times each week.
The Charlotte Museum of History describes their early days, along with the most famous musician to grace the stage with them, this way.
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.
The Briarhoppers were regulars on WBT until 1951 when the string band sound was no longer suiting the tastes of radio listeners. But utilizing a steady stream of new members over the years, some version of the band has been active in and around Charlotte ever since.
A detailed history of the group was published in 2007, WTB Briarhoppers – Eight Decades of a Bluegrass Band Made for Radio, which is widely available online.
The induction ceremony had originally been planned for October, but has been postponed until next year due to COVID shutdowns.
Also to be inducted in this class are Donald Lawrence, Charles Whitfield, Jermaine Dupri, Michael Mauldin, and The Squirrel Nut Zippers.
Congratulations WBT Briarhoppers!