Performing Groups (Folklore and Traditional Music) for Encyclopedia of North Carolina

Performing Groups (Folklore and Traditional Music): North Carolina enjoys a rich tradition of musical ensembles performing gospel, blues, old-time, and bluegrass musics. Many other North Carolinians have toured with such groups based out-of-state, while artists from elsewhere, for example the Monroe Brothers and the Stanley Brothers, temporarily located themselves in the state. At the turn of the century, such aggregations proved rare. Among rural whites and blacks at that time a “string band” merely meant a fiddler and banjo player who would perform for dances held in private homes.

This changed rapidly after World War I. Already the fiddlers’ conventions, themselves a byproduct of the New South movement, had served to draw together musicians from different communities. Dances began going public. The heavy investment in school infrastructure after 1900 in North Carolina provided hundreds of potential dance venues. Now dance organizers, often the musicians themselves, could charge a nickel or dime admission fee, which provided pay for the dance band. Two media, however, exerted even greater influence. Recordings of rural artists, beginning in 1920, gave musicians, both blues and hillbilly, a way to establish a name for themselves outside their own local area. By 1924 radio began to exploit the talents of primarily white rural artists via live on the air shows. By the 1930s virtually every radio station in the state featured such shows in the early morning and at lunch time weekdays and often on Saturday night barn dance programs as well. The ensembles learned that they could use their air time to promote their personal appearances. Thus bands would obtain a radio show, play within the broadcast area until their act wore thin, and subsequently move on to another station.

Charlie Poole (1892-1931) and the North Carolina Ramblers stands among the earliest and best known of the Tar Heel hillbilly string bands to gain fame by recordings. Consisting of such artists as banjoist Poole, Posey Rorrer, Norman Woodlief, Roy Harvey, and Lonnie Austin, the North Carolina Ramblers began recording for Columbia Records in 1925, selling more than 100,000 copies of “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down.” That song and several others, including “If I Lose,” “White House Blues,” and “Sweet Sunny South,” entered the folk tradition and remain popular with bluegrass and old-time musicians to this day. Many other North Carolina string bands made records and achieved varied degrees of fame. The most memorable included Al Hoplins’ Hill Billies, who named the genre, from Watauga County, the Piedmont Log Rollers, the Carolina Tarheels with Clarence “Tom” Ashley, and the Carolina Buddies.

The string band sound, often called old-time music, survived in parts of North Carolina only to be discovered by young musicians in the 1960s and 1970s. Groups such as the Camp Creek Boys from Surry County finally received the opportunity to record during that period. The state hosts a number of thriving fiddlers’ conventions today, hosting dozens of bands consisting of younger musicians, for example the Piedmont Hepcats and the Old Hollow String Band. The Toast String Stretchers from Mt. Airy, one of many old-time bands active here in the 1990s, served as the host band for the Cultural Olympiad in Atlanta during July 1996.

The 1930s and 1940s became the decades of the hillbilly radio stars. North Carolina groups such as those led by brothers Wade and J.E. Mainer, the Hired Hands, and the Morris Brothers continued the evolution of the string band genre. The emerging sound of those days, however, was that of brother duets, typically a guitarist singing lead paired with a tenor-singing mandolin player. The Blue Sky Boys, Hickory’s Bill and Earl Bolick, gained such a reputation for playing this style that their recordings remain popular sixty years after their debut. Featuring material heavily weighted toward sentimental songs, the Blue Sky Boys recorded and performed regularly from 1935 through 1951, but only very rarely through 1975 and not at all since. Other Tar Heel performers in the brother duet style included Whitey (Grant) and (Arval) Hogan, who have worked together since 1935, for the last several decades as leaders of the WBT Briarhoppers. North Carolina spouses Lulu Belle and Scotty Wiseman, working in similar style, enjoyed great success in Chicago as stars of the National Barn Dance, where they debuts hits including “Have I Told You Lately That I Love You” and “Old Mountain Dew.”

After 1945 the bluegrass sound, exemplified by Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys on the Grand Ole Opry with the revolutionary western North Carolina three-finger banjo playing of Earl Scruggs from Boiling Springs, swept the state with its exciting new music with strong roots in the brother duet and string band styles. Although virtually every important band from the early days of bluegrass music featured North Carolinians or performed on radio stations in the state, few North Carolina based bands achieved fame then. Among the best known were Hack Johnson & His Tennesseans, the Church Brothers, and the Murphy Brothers. Towards the end of the 1960s Raleigh’s ephemeral New Deal String Band became the first progressive “hippie” bluegrass ensemble to achieve widespread notoriety. Burlington’s Bass Mountain Boys stood among the most popular nationally touring acts in bluegrass from the late 1980s until their 1996 break-up. During the past couple of years New Vintage from Raleigh has earned extensive national airplay.

In North Carolina, unlike some other southern states, the older African-American string band tradition coexisted with the newer blues style. The Chapel Hillbillies, a black band active from the 1930s through the 1950s, could move from string band to blues to pseudo-big band music to suit their differing audiences. Cousins Joe and Odell Thompson, from Cedar Grove, performed African-American banjo and fiddle music until Odell was killed in a 1994 automobile accident.

Throughout its formative decades the blues was the music of solo artists, rather than groups. In the Carolinas developed a style known as the Piedmont blues, which featured delicate finger-picked style of guitar that contrasted favorably with the Delta or Chicago blues. Tobacco towns, especially Durham, became magnets for blues musicians who performed for tips during the markets. This naturally led to the formation of groups, frequently just a guitarist and an harmonica player, as exemplified by the famed Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee. The Chicago blues, which featured electrified instruments, lead to the formation of full blues bands by the 1950s. Eventually these influences made themselves felt in North Carolina. In the 1990s the state can boast a number of strong blues ensembles including Skeeter Brandon & Highway 61 and Steady Rollin’ Bob Margolin.

Phonograph recordings also contributed to the notoriety of gospel ensembles of both races. The Golden Gate Quartet made records in Charlotte during the 1930s that remain highly regarded and fresh sounding to this day. In the 1990s Durham’s Shirley Ceasar stands at the top of the African-American gospel field, while other North Carolina artists including the NC Mass Choir, and the Five Blind Boys have national stature. Yanceyville’s Badgett Sisters rank among the finest female traditional gospel groups currently active. North Carolinians have also thrived in the white gospel field, which expanded rapidly after World War II. The Primitive Quartet from Chandler ranks very highly among traditionalists in the field.

Demographic changes in recent years have enriched North Carolina’s folk and traditional scene with artists either from afar or from outside entertainment circles. In recent years, for example, the Menhaden Chanteymen from Beaufort have gained much attention for their performances of the fishing work songs that once were simply a part of their daily lives. Morrisville’s Los Peregrinos and the Ricardo Grenaldo Group have provided the Triangle with two strong Latino ensembles. During the early 1980s Chapel Hill and Cary provided the home base for Touchstone, an extraordinary Irish outfit. Mickey Mills and Steel and Rolly Gray & Sunfire are but two of several North Carolina ensembles which specialize in Caribbean music.

For more information: Bruce Bastin, Red River Blues: The Blues Tradition in the Southeast (1986)
Kinney Rorrer, Rambling Blues: The Life & Songs of Charlie Poole (1982)
Bill C. Malone, Country Music U.S.A. (1985)
Charles Reagan Wilson and William Ferris, editors, Encyclopedia of Southern Culture (1989)

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