COUNTRY MUSIC IN THE TRIANGLE
(These are my notes for a guest appearance on WXYC-FM’s “Orange County Special” around 1990)
Radio and country music were intertwined from the beginning. Until the mid-1950s revolution brought on by Elvis and TV, radio had no format concept. Radio stations tended to be full service, playing all kinds of music. Playing records on the air, vehemently opposed by the AFM, did not become common until the late 1940s. Radio had live, in the studio musicians, esp. in early AM and at dinner time, and network programming at night.
During the late 1930s the development of 16 inch, 33 1/3 transcription disks permitted artists to syndicate live-sounding programs. To give you a feel for what radio sounded like in those days, we’ll play a few minutes from a transcription made in 1944 by Charlie Monroe & His Kentucky Pardners, including Lester Flatt on mandolin and vocals. Cut at studios of WSJS in Winston-Salem. Monroe bought time on several radio stations as he had the Man-O-Ree distributorship for the region.
1. Charlie Monroe: “Opening Theme” through “Man-O-Ree Commercial” C.M. on the Noonday Jamboree–1944, side 1 from beginning.
Saturday night became hillbilly music night on stations throughout the southeast and midwest. WSJS had the North Winston String Band, the Marlow Brothers, & the Turner Twins between 1927 & 1934. WBIG had the Atlanta Washboard Orchestra, the Carolina Melody Boys, Vance Cobb String Band. Artists were amateurs.
WPTF, which had begun as WFBQ on 10/24/24, became the dominant station in eastern and central NC, featuring between the mid-30s and the mid-50s many of the most important country musicians of the era. In May 1933 WPTF went to 50,000 watts giving it vast coverage. Lewis Family, in southeastern GA, first heard bluegrass music from Flatt & Scruggs on WPTF.
While local groups such as the Chatham Rabbits and Charlie Poole Swingbillies had performed on WPTF, among the first major groups to appear on the station were the Monroe Brothers, sponsored by the Crazy Water Crystals. They came from WBT and had recorded a major hit, “What Would You Give.” Their final recording session took place in Charlotte on 1/28/38.
2. Monroe Brothers: “Have A Feast Here Tonight” Are You From Dixie? CD, track 15.
“I believe we went to WPTF, Charlie & Me, the Monroe Brothers, around 1937….We was there 1937 and 1938,” Bill told me in a 1983 interview. “There was wonderful people there at WPTF. We done two radio shows a day there. They treated us awful good, and we played a lot of shows, schoolhouses, back in those days, down in that country.”
In 1973 interview Charlie recalled, “We was in Raleigh when we split up….He was living in a house trailer and I was living in a house trailer. I went down that morning….I says, ‘I’m going to go out back to my trailer. I’ve already got it jacked up. If you’re not there in 10 minutes, I’m going to let her down on my car, and I’m going to pull her out of here.’ Oh, it made him hot!…He told me, ‘You wouldn’t leave me…You’d starve to death!’
Another brother group which had broken up at this time was the Mainer Brothers. Wade Mainer formed the Sons of the Mountaineers, who appeared on WPTF between 1937 and 1939, garnering tons of mail. 3. Wade Mainer: “Mitchell Blues” Ragged But Right CD, track 18, recorded 1/27/38.
The Delmore Brothers, who had just left the Opry under something of a cloud, came to WPTF on 13 September 1938 and stayed until New Years Eve. “I called Raleigh, NC at WPTF. There was no salary offered, but we figured we could make it on personals,” Alton Delmore wrote in his autobiography.
“We began our program on WPTF early Monday morning and then we had another show somewhere around 12:00. So you just had to brace up and take it the best you could. Misery can hurt you If I had had more confidence, it would have helped me tremendously.”
It turned out that the advance man they’d sent to Raleigh had double-crossed them by lying to station management, so their stay at WPTF was not too happy. They did cut 14 songs while working off of WPTF. Six weeks after leaving WPTF, the Delmores cut
4. Delmore Brothers: “I Loved You More Than You Knew” Classic Country Duets Side 1, track 3 2/5/39.
The Blue Sky Boys had a much happier tenure at WPTF from 12/27/39 through April 1941. “We really made more money there than anyplace else,” Bill Bolick told Ed Davis on 4/19/1974 before there final concert at Duke University. “The station had a good reputation and terrific coverage, as good as any 50KW station at that time….It reached up into VA and clear down the coast into SC and as far west as maybe Morganton. We played a lot of dates we had to travel 300 miles to reach, and within 6 weeks by mail we were booked up for six months solid on dates, six nights a week….The Delmores, the Monroes, the Mainers, the Morris Brothers, all the big acts had been there, and the program director told us we drew more fan mail than any act that had ever been on that station.” While at WPTF, they cut one of their signature songs:
5. Blue Sky Boys: “Are You From Dixie?” Are You From Dixie? CD, track 18, recorded 8/21/39.
The Bolicks returned to Raleigh early in 1948, but not to WPTF. “We went to WNAO in Raleigh. That was a new 5KW station that the Raleigh News & Observer had opened….I think we did pretty good, but things didn’t work out the way we had planned it.” With an agreement that they would be the only country act on WNAO, the Blue Sky Boys did well with mail and personal appearances, but when the station hired Lonzo & Oscar, they moved on to Bristol. While back in Raleigh, they recorded one of their most enduring post-war songs:
6. The Blue Sky Boys: “Kentucky” Bluegrass Mountain Music, side B, track 1
Perhaps the most popular regional group on WPTF in the pre-war era was the Tobacco Tags, who came to Raleigh from WBT in 1938, moved on to Richmond WRVA, and then returned to WPTF for 12:45 PM show, MON-SAT, from late 1940 into 1943. The first of these two Tobacco Tag pieces suggests the sound of their broadcasts.
7. The Tobacco Tags: “The Red Patch” & “Honey, Where You Been So Long?” The Tobacco Tags, side 2, tracks 2 & 3.
Some of the artists headed for greatest popularity of any WPTF staffers played on the station during the post-war years with Johnnie & Jack and the TN Hillbillies: Kitty Wells (Mrs. Johnnie Wright), Chet Atkins, fiddler Paul Warren, and Red Rector. Rector spent 9 months with them on WPTF in 1946, replacing Chet. J&J had an early morning and a noon day show and worked tent shows with two other WPTF groups: the Loden Family, with young fiddler Sonny Loden who later achieved fame as Sonny James, and Homer Briarhopper. Ten years would pass before the big hits, “Poison Love” and “Ashes of Love” among them, began coming for J&J. Left WPTF in 1950.
8. Johnny & Jack: “What About You” Souvenier Songs, side 2, track 1
In 1949 the Stanley Brothers came east to WPTF for two months and returned to WCBY in Bristol. During that short span, however, they cut their first Columbia records on 3/1/49. Ralph remembers: “We were playing in Raleigh, NC, WPTF, at that time and Uncle Art Satherly flew down to Raleigh and signed us to a contract….Art Satherly rented a room or two in the hotel there and we went to see him there and we signed the contract.” From that first Columbia session:
9. Stanley Brothers: “The Angels Are Singing” The Angels Are Singing, Side 1, track 1
Bluegrass superstars Flatt & Scruggs came to WPTF from Mt. Airy’s WPAQ in January 1952, remaining until autumn, when they left for the WNOX Merry-Go-Round in Knoxville. Shortly afterwards, on 11/9/52, they made one of their most controversial recordings.
10. Flatt & Scruggs: “Dim Lights, Thick Smoke” The Golden Era
Side 2, track 2
The post-war group most associated with WPTF would be the Bailey Brothers, who came to Raleigh in 1949 and remained until January 1952. They operated their own record company, Canary Records, in Raleigh and cut six sides at the WPTF studios in 1950 and 1951.
11. Bailey Brothers: “Have You Forgotten?” Have You Forgotten?, Side 2, track 1
12. Bailey Brothers: “Beautiful Blue Eyes” Have You FOrgotten?, side 2, track 6
Banjo legend Allen Shelton recalls listening to WPTF while coming of age in Reidsville, NC at that time. He listened to Flatt & Scruggs on WPTF from 1:30 until 2 PM each day. He went to WPTF in 1953 with Hack Johnson & the Tennesseans, occupying that same time slot. Worked shows all over eastern NC and southern VA and part of SC. The band backed Jim Eanes in December 1956 on one of the last hillbilly recording sessions at WPTF.
13. Jim Eanes: “Your Old Standby” Log Cabin in the Lane, Side 1, track 3