In 1934, a potential advertiser called WBT radio in Charlotte and inquired about the existence of a “hilbilly band” to promote its products. The station hastily grabbed a handful of studio musicians who played the guitar, banjo and fiddle, and the band was born.
That same weekend, the WBT station manager went rabbit hunting with a companion, said Clover musician Tom Warlick. “A rabbit jumped out of the brush and the other person said, ‘Look at that briarhopper,’” Warlick said. “And he knew the name of the band.”
The WBT Briarhoppers became, according to Warlick, the world’s longest-lived bluegrass band. The band had its own radio show, “Briarhopper Time,” that was broadcast from 1934 until 1951. And even after that, the band continued to perform, adding new members as older ones retired or died.
“This is our 78th year of being a group,” Warlick said of the WBT Briarhoppers. On Saturday, present-day members will perform at York’s McCelvey Center, during a the finale of the traveling “New Harmonies” exhibit that has been sponsored by the Smithsonian Museum.
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Warlick said 42 people have played in the WBT Briarhoppers in the years since it was formed. He and his wife, Lucy, traveled to Nashville to conduct extensive research and have published a book on the group, “The WBT Briarhoppers — Eight Decades of a Bluegrass Band Made for Radio.”
Warlick said members of the group called him in 2005 and asked him to write the book. He was on dialysis at the time, waiting for a kidney transplant that he received in 2007. The project kept him alive, he said.
The year the book was published, Warlick, now 50, also became a member of the WBT Briarhoppers, following the death of the last original Briarhopper member from 1934.
Warlick, who plays bass, said the band emulates an old-time radio show, using scripts of the original commercials. And its American roots music appeals to a broad sector of people, he said.
“We’ll sing a little bit and then we’ll do these funny commercials they used to do 80 years ago,” he said. “It’s nostalgic, we do the old shows, but we also do new songs, because we’re reaching a younger fan base.”
Alana Flowers, 23, of Mount Holly, N.C., and three of her siblings are also performers in the five-member group. Flowers said she was an intern at WBT in 2008, and came to appreciate the history of the station and the group.
Flowers, who has played the banjo since she was 8 years old, said that when Warlick asked her to become a member of the Briarhoppers in 2008, she was ecstatic.
“It was amazing,” said Flowers, a paralegal who works in Charlotte. “For them to ask me to become a member of the Briarhoppers was like them asking me to join the wall of fame.”
Other members are her siblings Hannah Flowers, 17, who plays the fiddle, Dillon Flowers, 14, who plays mandolin, and Ellie Flowers, 8, who plays the guitar and also sings.
The oldest current member, Dwight Moody, 83, is not able to perform at this time. The Briarhoppers will be joined by a guest performer, Donnie Little of Shelby, N.C., who plays guitar and sings.
Alana Flowers said she loves traditional music and the connection it makes with an audience. She said the family bond between herself and her three siblings — who all joined within the past year — is an added benefit.
“We have a chemistry as a family unit already,” she said. “To bring that to the Briarhoppers makes it more of a cohesive unit. There’s just a special gift that family musicians have together.”
Warlick said during the years of the Briarhoppers radio broadcast, anyone from Miami to Maine could hear it. The show was broadcast six days a week, Warlick said.
To record the original radio show, Warlick said, CBS created transcription discs — because there were no tape recorders during that time — and the discs would be played to soldiers during World War II.
“It was a good show. They were always a good group. It was always people who worked in the mills, ordinary everyday people, who were musicans,” he said. “And the audience can see that. They can sense it. They know if you’re true to what you are doing.”