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The Piedmont Tradition

Delia Coulter is a folklorist on the staff of the Folklife Section of the North Carolina Arts Council. This article draws on the research of Wayne Martin, John Rumble, Archie Green, Ed Kahn, Pat Ahrens, Glenn Hinson, Mike Paris, Donald Lee Nelson, Wesley Wallace, Allen Tullos, and Tom Hanchett and was completed with the assistance of Homer Sherrill, Claude Casey, Roy Grant, Arval Hogan, Hank Warren, Pauline Grant, Dorothy Sherrill, William E. Dixon, Beatrice Dixon Smith, Hayden Dean Dixon, Dorsey M. Dixon, Jr., Margaret Martin, Bill Mansfield, George Holt, Chris Mayfield, Monroe Brinson, Metrotape, Inc., the John Edwards Memorial Collection and the North Carolina Collection at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, the Country Music Foundation and the North Carolina Museum of History.

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Family with calf, Wylie Mill, Chester, SC, November, 1908

In the decades before the advent of commercial broadcasting and recording, several generations of gifted musicians and singers entertained family and friends in piedmont communities from Danville to Greenville with hoedowns, waltzes, ballads, and popular sentimental songs. There were many influences on these developing piedmont musical styles. Sunday church services, camp meetings, and sacred singing schools nurtured the spiritual growth and the musical abilities of piedmont singers from the towns of most rural areas. The travelling medicine shows, which crisscrossed the back roads, brought entertainers with new songs and old songs in new styles to rural communities all over the piedmont.

In the late 1880s and early 1900s, with the expansion of the railroad through the piedmont crescent, the coming of the textile mills to the region, and the growth of the furniture and tobacco industries, the number of small towns and villages increased dramatically. The sons and daughters of farmers, loggers, and sawmill operatives moved into the piedmont towns where mill work or furniture factory jobs would supplement the family’s income. In many cases, whole families moved into piedmont textile towns where father, mother, and children all took mill jobs to stave off destitution. The rapid growth of small towns and the frequent movement of people between mill jobs and communities created a variety of opportunities and places for piedmont musicians to play, swap tunes, and entertain fellow workers. Music flourished in the villages and towns as well as the countryside where it was born.

Gregtown, Augusta, Georgia
Gregtown, Augusta, Georgia

Before records and radio, music in the Carolinas was homemade entertainment. Claude Casey, who was born in Enoree, South Carolina, at the southern tip of the piedmont and raised in the Danville area at the piedmont’s north end, remembers the local square dances where his father played the fiddle. While his father bowed, someone else beat time on the fiddle strings with a couple of straws. “In the old days, the fiddle and banjo was it,” remembers Claude. “That’s the good stuff.” And the “good stuff” was also found in Sherrills Ford, about twenty-five miles north of Charlotte, where Homer Sherrill was born. “Back then you played on the porch or in the yard, or wherever you could play,” says Homer. “You’d get together and play all day or half of a night. For square dances, you’d play in one room with a high ceiling in an old-time country house. You’d put meal on the floor, make it slick for the dancers, and you’d play in there. Just a fiddle and banjo, or maybe fiddle and guitar. That’s all you’d have. You’d take up a collection each set, and maybe get a nickle apiece out of the dancers. You’d be covered in corn meal by the end; your eyebrows all full of it and everything else, too.”

Dorsey Dixon and Dorsey Dixon, Jr.
Dorsey Dixon and Dorsey Dixon, Jr.

The musicians who played for these get-togethers were special people to their neighbors. Good fiddlers like J. E. Mainer of Concord and his brother-in-law Roscoe Banks, or Wilmer Watts in Belmont, or Homer Sherrill in Hickory were much in demand for local dances. If a piedmont singer or musician had a talent for songwriting, like Dorsey Dixon of East Rockingham, he could be expected to entertain friends gathered at his house with humorous songs about local people, places, and events. In times of tragedy or suffering, a well-known local songwriter like Dixon might be asked to compose a song or set a poetic tribute to music in memory of his neighbor’s lost loved one.

Although a few musicians were socially suspect “rounders” whose drinking habits and rambling urges were on the outside edge of acceptable behavior, far more Carolina musicians were hard-working farmers, mill hands, or mechanics by trade. Their love of music filled their hours off from work, bringing good times, good tunes, and good friends together. Memories of these local musicians linger on in the piedmont communities around Charlotte fifty and sixty years after they played and sang. Gwen Foster, the harmonica virtuoso who lived in and worked at the mills of Gastonia, Belmont. and Dallas, is seldom remembered by his given name, but those who witnessed his playing still marvel at how the slight man of Oriental complexion they called “China” drew such inventive melodies from his harmonica. To the long-time residents of Hannah Pickett, Entwhistle, and Midway mill villages of Rockingham, sixty miles east of Charlotte, the guitar songs and duets of mill workers Howard and Dorsey Dixon linger with the memories of front-porch gatherings and all-day church singings in the 1920s and 1930s.

This widespread musical talent in the Carolina piedmont was a significant source for North and South Carolina radio stations and Charlotte-based recording of the 1930s. The advent of radio and recordings widened the audience for piedmont musicians like Gwen Foster, Wilmer Watts, J. E. Mainer, Dave McCarn of Belmont, and George Wade, Luther Baucom, and Reid Summey, the Three Tobacco Tags of Gastonia, who were already recognized in their communities as popular and gifted entertainers.

Smaller, local radio stations (up to 500 watts of broadcasting power) were among the first commercial media to recognize the talent in their own back yards. In competition with the more powerful and better-financed metropolitan stations that were usually affiliated with a national network, these smaller stations played on their hometown image by broadcasting local talent. Short, live musical programs featuring musicians from the area who played for the exposure and the fun of it helped attract listeners within the broad­casting radius of the smaller stations.

Dave McCarn, son of a McAdenville card room hand, played and sang with a band called the Yellow Jackets over radio station WRBU (100 watts) in Gastonia, while working his regular shift in a Belmont Mill in the late 1920s. Playing initially without commercial sponsors and just for the air time, musicians like McCarn and his fellow mill hands quickly demonstrated that there were plenty of listeners for “hillbilly” music as well as the light classical and popular sounds served up by metropolitan stations and the national networks. Fiddler Homer Sherrill’s first experience in front of the microphone was also in Gastonia in the late twenties. He was just thirteen when he played over WRBU (which would soon change its call letters to WSOC (“We Serve Our City”). Describing the sound he and his fellow musicians brought to the air waves, Homer remembers where it came from and why it was so popular: “Most everything came out of the hills, or out of the country in those days. We built on that base, you know—the old-time folk songs—dressed ’em up and got ’em listenable.”

Bill and Earl Bolick, June 1936
Bill and Earl Bolick, June 1936

People in the piedmont were listening to records in the 1920s, too. By the late twenties, both musicians and listeners in the Carolinas figured it was high time the Carolina talent had a chance to record. The earliest piedmont musicians to record commercially struck out on their own or at the prompting of friends and family who believed they could pass the record company audition. In 1927 Gwen Foster and two fellow mill hands from the Gastonia area joined with Doc Walsh of North Wilkesboro and travelled to Atlanta to audition for Ralph Peer of Victor records. Foster and Walsh recorded together for the first time as the Carolina Tar Heels during that trip. Six months later when Peer held the first Charlotte recording sessions, Foster and Walsh recorded again, this time much closer to home. A year later Foster hitch­hiked back to Atlanta with his friend Dave Fletcher to record guitar duets as the Carolina Twins. Stopping in small towns along the way, they earned money for their meals by playing in barbershops or for local dances, relying on people they met to put them up for a night as they made their way toward Atlanta.

The persistence and adventurous spirit of Foster and Fletcher in seeking out recording opportunities were not uncommon among the first generation of piedmont musicians who succeeded in getting their tunes and songs down on wax. Before the late thirties when Victor began recording regularly in Charlotte, the business of getting a crack at recording often took piedmont musicians days away from the job and miles away from home. Wilmer Watts travelled to Chicago to record in 1927 and then to New York in 1929 with his band the Lonely Eagles (formerly the Gastonia Serenaders). In between jobs in the Gaston county mills, Dave McCarn happened onto a Memphis recording session in 1930 while he was hoboing across the country with his brother. He auditioned on the spot and recorded one of his most requested numbers back home, Cotton Mill Colic. Gradually, both the field recording crews and the newly established radio stations of the piedmont came to see what folks in the area had known all along: there were dozens of fine musicians in the piedmont, and thousands of eager listeners on farms, in small towns, and in the mill villages of the region.

For many Carolina musicians in the generation that included Wilmer Watts, Gwen Foster, Dorsey and Howard Dixon, and Dave McCarn, the advent of radio and records never fundamentally altered their working lives. Many of them had been born in the 1890s and by the late 1920s had long-established trades (Dorsey Dixon and Dave McCarn followed family members into mill work at the age of twelve; Wilmer Watts began working in the mills as a young teenager) or growing families (both Wilmer Watts and Howard Dixon supported families of eight children). A skilled loom fixer or weaver—even a doffer, card room hand, or sweeper-could find regular employment at one mill or another, if not always for the best of wages. The opportunities for steady pay through radio and recording were few, if any, from the late 1920s to the early 1930s. Artists’ recording fees were often only one-time payments; the concept of royalty payments was understood but much abused, invariably to the artists’ disadvantage. Radio appearances rarely paid anything at all. Earning a living from music was a risky business, particularly in the years of the Depression. Many of the earliest piedmont musicians to gain wider commercial exposure left their jobs at the mills and factories only sporadically to perform on local radio stations or record for a national company.

Those young enough or eager enough to set out on musical careers knew well the risks involved in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Before fiddler J. E. Mainer left his doffing job at Cannon Mill Plant Number Six in Concord for a twice-daily program on WBT in 1934, he checked with the superintendent of the mill to be sure his job would still be waiting for him if he didn’t make a go of it as an entertainer. Hank Warren, the Mount Airy fiddler who learned his violin techniques in the high school orchestra, in dance bands, and at fiddlers conventions throughout North Carolina and Virginia, received the promise of a job from a friend back home before setting out on a career which included tours with Jack Richie’s Blue Ridge Mountaineers, Warren’s Four Aces, Dick Hartman’s Tennessee Ramblers, the Swingbillies, and the Briarhoppers. Crucial to many a musician was the knowledge that there were people to turn to and a place to go, if one’s hopes of earning a living in music didn’t work out.

By the mid- to late-thirties, new opportunities opened up for Carolina musicians because of the increasing interest of commercial sponsors in using local musicians in live radio programs to sell their products. Hubert Fincher, son of J. W. Fincher, general manager of the Crazy Water Crystals programs throughout the Carolinas and Georgia, recalls his father’s rationale for linking over-the-air sales of health tonic with performances by Carolina musicians: “Hillbilly music was used from the beginning because of its great popularity, wide acceptance, and the availability of talent.” And talent was available in extraordinary numbers. A 1934 Crazy Water Crystals program book featured articles on over a hundred musicians and singers, primarily from piedmont and western North and South Carolina. The Crazy Water Crystals performers appeared on broadcasts from fourteen radio stations including WWNC Asheville, WBIG Greensboro, WBT Charlotte, WPTF Raleigh, WIS Columbia, WAIM Anderson and WFBC Greenville. From this collection of talented and musically ambitious amateurs emerged a new generation of professional singers and musicians. They made music a living by combining the exposure which radio gave them with a continuous round of personal appearances in hundreds of school-houses, movie theaters, community auditoriums, and town halls across North and South Carolina.

Initially, radio offered little more than free advertising for a band’s upcoming personal appearance. A group’s real bread and butter was the fifteen, twenty or twenty-five cent admission to their schoolhouse show date, and in the case of the true musical entrepreneurs, the sale of nickle-a-sheet lyrics to their most popular songs. Homer Sherrill, who performed on the original Crazy Water Crystals program over WBT in 1934, recalls the days of the “kerosene circuit,” the round of show dates in rural areas so small that only a kerosene lantern lit the stage:


Back in those days you just rode and rode and played and played. It didn’t matter how small the buildings were, you played ’em anyway, and just put on the full show. And you got up there and picked your heart out—with no p.a. system, sweat running off your elbows, you couldn’t hardly feel the strings on the fiddle. Man, that was rough days then. We played many a place that had no electricity. They’d have an old gas lantern, setting on each side of the stage; that’s all the light you had. The windows would be setting full of people, and you just had ’em crowded around the walls. You couldn’t even get your breath hardly. And it being so hot inside. You’d just almost suffocate, that’s how hot it was. We’d put on two shows some times, and it’d be midnight before we even got away from there. Maybe crack of day we’d get in. No necktie, no hair combed, shoes not tied, and your eyes half shut (and on the radio that morning) you sounded like you’re having the most fun in the world!
Whitey and Hogan
Whitey and Hogan

The thousands of nickels, dimes, and quarters paid by men and women across the piedmont were the coin which kept piedmont musicians on the road and on the radio. The emotional spur which kept piedmont musicians to six-nights-a-week personal appearance schedules and daily radio broadcasts was invariably tneir deep attachment to the music they played. Arval Hogan remembers, “The real thing was that we loved the music. After a while we seen that we could make a living off of it.”

Gradually, as stations like WBT began paying local musicians more, the living that musicians could make compared favorably with that of their Carolina neighbors. In 1935 seventeen-year-old Bill Bolick, later of the Blue Sky Boys, was making $4.50 a week in an auto body shop. He jumped at the chance to earn ten dollars a week playing over WBT’s Crazy Water Crystals show. Whitey and Hogan, who played their first radio jobs over WSPA Spartanburg in 1938 and WGNC Gastonia in 1939, initially kept their jobs on the mill’s second shift. Whitey recalls their unbelievable job offer from Charles Crutchfield at WBT in 1941: “At the Firestone Cotton Mill in Gastonia we had fifteen dollars a week for forty hours at the mill. When Mr. Crutchfield called us up and offered us twenty-five dollars a week, we could hardly speak to each other. We was rich!” Twenty-five dollars a week for half an hour of air time a day convinced Whitey and Hogan it was time to leave the mill behind. Although the pay was better, the work was still hard. Early mornings or middays in the studio, hours in rehearsal, and long late road trips were the rule.

As grueling as the schedule of daily radio broadcasts and nightly personal appearances was, the Carolina musicians of the thirties and forties got through the lean times and the good with the support of family, friends, and fans. The understanding and encouragement of family members at home were critical for Carolina musicians who chose the risky, hard road of a musical career. Although the desire to play music was an individual passion, for every individual musician of the thirties who survived by his singing or playing, there seems to have been a father, mother, brother, sister, cousin, uncle, aunt, or wife who shared or respected that passion and encouraged it to grow. The wives and children of the piedmont’s travelling radio musicians were especially important to them. Whitey recalls with pride and awe how often he would arrive home after a show date at one or two o’clock in the morning to find his wife Polly sewing clothes for the children while she waited up for him. “I sewed to pass the time and stretch the budget,” laughs Polly while remembering. “And by the time he’d be home, why I’d have another couple of little dresses for the girls.” The strain of long hours in rehearsal, on the air, and on the road were mitigated by hundreds of similar acts of patient dedication or words of encouragement from wives and family over the years.

Gordon Buford, Gwen Foster, Avery Keever, A.O. Fletcher, and unidentified farm owner (ca. 1930)
Gordon Buford, Gwen Foster, Avery Keever, A.O. Fletcher, and unidentified farm owner (ca. 1930)

A spirit of mutual help and good-natured ribbing among the musicians themselves fostered camaraderie and kept them going through discouraging, stressful, or boring times. Claude Casey was on the verge of throwing away his guitar and going back to the Schoolfield cotton mills after his midwestern tour with Fat Sanders’ Country Cousins and Effie the Hillbilly Striptease Dancer (who peeled off to reveal a red union suit). The Rouse Brothers encouraged him to give singing another try and asked him to join them on a Miami engagement. Schoolfield lost a potential hand, and later when Claude returned to North Carolina WBT gained a singing star. Friends pitched in, too, when Hank Warren needed a helping hand. Working for a time at WPTF in Raleigh, the home station of the Swingbillies, Warren found himself too broke to get back to his family in Mount Airy for Christmas. Swingbillies Dunk Poole, Harvey Ellington, Sam Pridgen, and Ray Williams took up a collection to get Hank home for Christmas Day.

The musicians’ generosity and compassion toward one another were well mixed with pure devilment, especially on road trips. Snuffy Jenkins and Homer Sherrill of the WIS Hillbillies wore out two Lincolns a year touring the small towns of South and North Carolina. The long hours on the road coming back from show dates with five men and a bass fiddle stuffed into one car were golden opportunities for pranks. Sleeping band members might awake to find their shoelaces tied together, or stumble into a restaurant for a late night supper before noticing their clothes had been disarranged while they slept. Even the radio studio was practical joke territory. More than one Briarhopper has glanced down in the midst of a live broadcast to find his script or shoe on fire.

While they enjoyed and helped one another, the Carolina piedmont radio musicians lived on the attention and dedication of their audiences. In the early years, radios were not plentiful in the villages and towns of the piedmont, but radio listeners were everywhere. Bea Smith, Howard Dixon’s daughter, recalls the excitement generated all over East Rockingham by the home-town Dixon Brothers’ appearance on the Crazy Water Crystals shows: “That was back in the thirties, they’d be on the radio on Saturday nights. And our house would just fill up, people all out in the yard listening to them on the radio. ‘Cause everybody didn’t have a radio in those days.” Those who listened felt close to the music and the performers in ways not familiar to present-day country music fans. Letters came in by the thousands. While at WWNC in Asheville in 1941, Wade Mainer and the Sons of the Mountaineers received over eight thousand pieces of mail in response to a free picture offer. Whitey remembers the kinds of personal requests the Briarhoppers would receive. People would ask what key particular songs were in, so that they could play along at home with the Briarhoppers on the air. Others would ask them to play a certain song on a day when their friend was coming over to listen to their radio. If the Briarhoppers announced a show date in a little town like Enoree, South Carolina, someone would write in and invite them to supper on the night of their appearance.

At that time, you had two classes of people—one that listened to the pop music, which was supposed to be the higher-class people, and then we had the country people that listened to the country music. — Arval Hogan

The musicians knew how close they were to the people who enjoyed their music and came out to their shows.The Carolina radio musicians of the 1930s and 1940s valued the support of their listeners and the people who came to their shows, because it meant their living; the audience was their bread and butter. They shared with this audience both a dedication to the music which grew out of the region and the experience of a hard-won livelihood in the piedmont. They also shared a knowledge of themselves independent of stereotypes which others might foist upon them. In the words of Homer Sherrill, “Those were hillbillies playing, but they were down-to-earth people, good people. They weren’t sots, or tramps, or bums; they were people who worked hard for a living.”

Delia Coulter

 

Sweeper and doffer boys, Lancaster Cotton Mills, Lancaster SC, December, 1908
Sweeper and doffer boys, Lancaster Cotton Mills, Lancaster SC, December, 1908

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More about the Charlotte Country Music Story

Check out the musicians who took part in the Charlotte Country Music Story concerts:

 

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