This was to be a story about the Briarhoppers, and it is, but it’s also about the culture that was the Briarhoppers, the music that they play and how they are still playing that same music 85 years later.
It’s about a man who grew up hearing his father say, “’Hit’s’ Briarhopper Time,” more times than he could count. A father who grew up in times where he’d come home from school, eat a cold sausage link left over from breakfast and fill up the wood box, which was one of his chores. Then he’d warm up the radio, sit down and listen to “Briarhopper Time” live on the radio, because “it came on before the ‘Lone Ranger.’” After the “Lone Ranger” was over, he’d go out and do the rest of his chores, which included milking the cows.
Unlike the “binge-worthy” television shows that are so popular today, these radio shows were short, 15 to 30 minutes long, geared toward the limited amount of time most people had to sit down and listen.
William Reeves Warlick, 86, has lived on the same land on Reepsville Road his entire life. His son, Tom Warlick, joined the Briarhoppers in 2007 and is now their manager and historian. The Briarhoppers have a new CD coming out, the first CD that’s been put out in about 15 years. The cover features a picture of William Warlick sitting on the same front porch he used to tune in to Briarhopper Time from the 1930s through the 1950s.
Father’s Day found William Warlick and his two sons, Tom and William Warlick Jr., sitting on the front porch of the farmhouse where the elder Warlick listened to Briarhopper Time so many years ago.
“He’s the only person I could find who wouldn’t charge me but dad’s a big reason why I’m involved with the Briarhoppers today,” Tom Warlick said. “He’d get us up early in the morning and fix us French toast and we’d listen to Arthur Smith on the radio. It was my dad’s stories about the Briarhoppers that got me interested in them.”
The farmhouse didn’t have regular electricity until 1938 but used a radio powered by a Delco battery.
“I’ll bet there wasn’t five phones between here and Lincolnton and we were on a party line,” William Warlick said. “We had a phone and people would come here to call the veterinarian or whatever. These people up on June Bug Road got smart and put up some cedar poles and strung a line down here and got onto the line by themselves.”
A science and math teacher through Lincoln County Schools for 18 years, 12 at West Lincoln High School and six years at what is now Union Elementary, Warlick has farmed his entire life. The outbuildings behind the more than 100-year-old farmhouse, which is in the process of being restored by William Warlick Jr., are full of antique tractors and farm implements. The former Grade A milk parlor is still there, as is the smoke house.
William Warlick was able to see some of the original members of the Briarhoppers and Arthur Smith when they came to Union School to put on a show. He also saw them one time in Hickory. The group got their start when a potential advertiser called WBT's Charles “Crutch” Crutchfield to ask if the station had a “hillbilly” band to help advertise its products. Telling a fib, Crutch said "yes," which led to the birth of the WBT Briarhoppers. The name comes from WBT announcer Bill Bivens who, during a hunting trip with Crutch, was startled by a rabbit jumping out of a thicket, yelling, "look at that briarhopper!" At that moment, Crutch found the name for his hillbilly band.
The original band members were Johnny McAllister, Big Bill Davis, Don White, Thorpe Westerfield, Clarence Etters and Jane Bartlett. The last original member of the Briarhoppers, Don White, died in 2003. It was then that the Briarhoppers asked Tom Warlick and his wife, Lucy, to write a book on the history of the band. It took five years to finish. Throughout that time, the Briarhoppers were also asking Tom Warlick to join the group, but he was in kidney failure and on dialysis and couldn’t accept the offer. By the time the book was completed, however, Warlick had received a transplant and agreed to join the Briarhoppers as the bass player.
“Months after that happened, a couple of the group members passed away and then, in 2013, the rest of them died and here I was by myself,” he said. “The general manager of WBT Radio wanted me to keep it going so we started hiring musicians. Since 1934, the Briarhoppers have had 64 members. I didn’t feel right putting the current members on the cover of the new CD, thinking this would be a good transition from dad and me growing up here and the Briarhoppers.”
It is likely that the Briarhoppers wouldn’t have become as popular as they did if it were not for the clear airway that Charlotte-based WBT had at the time. The radio station could be heard from Maine to Miami. During World War II, radio programs, including the Briarhoppers, were recorded on transcription disks, shipped to CBS in New York and they would beam the show over to the European theater during WWII.
“The soldiers would write letters asking for certain songs to be played, addressing the envelopes to ‘Briarhoppers WBT Charlotte’ and they would make it,” Tom Warlick said. “They’d get 10,000 letters a day.”
Bill Monroe is often referred to as the “father of Bluegrass” but before Monroe got his start, the Briarhoppers had a three-finger (considered the Bluegrass style of playing) banjo player named Shannon Grayson in 1943. Earl Scruggs was also a fill-in banjo player for the Briarhoppers. This was all before Monroe and Scruggs got together.
“If Bill Monroe is the father of Bluegrass, then the Briarhoppers are probably the grandfather of Bluegrass,” Tom Warlick said. “We had that ensemble before Bill Monroe ever thought of hiring a banjo player.”
All Bill Monroe did was come up with the name, William Warlick added.
“Bluegrass is the same as mountain music,” he said. “I hate when I hear them call Monroe the ‘father of Bluegrass’ and gets credit for it.”
Music runs in the Warlick family and it all started with William Warlick’s father-in-law, Dave Abernethy who could “play just about anything by ear.”
“Dave Abernethy was a drinking buddy of Don Gibson who is now in the Songwriters Hall of Fame,” Tom Warlick said. “We wanted to get ‘Papa’ Dave to play at the church, but we were always afraid that he’d start with ‘Amazing Grace’ and end up with the ‘Beer Barrel Polka’ or ‘Under the Double Eagle.’”
Of course, the Briarhoppers are no longer played on the radio and the group only does a few shows a year because Tom Warlick is back on dialysis. The kidney that was transplanted in 2007 has failed and he’s been on dialysis for about two years now.
“I just don’t have the strength to do promotion and get gigs and hardly anyone wants to pay anymore,” he said. “They’ll say, ‘come out and we’ll feed you,’ and I say, well, ‘I can eat at home.’ We’re still seeing some young folks come to our shows and maybe this type of music will keep on going. It’s not hip-hop or the stuff that they play now on the radio or the internet. They dance a little bit, look at the instruments and get interested. If we can teach one person to like it, that’s our goal. It’s an appreciation of what’s in the past. If it’s good then, it’s good now.”