Tom Warlick doesn’t remember a time when he was not aware of the WBT Briarhoppers, the hillbilly act created in 1934 as a house band for Charlotte’s WBT Radio.
“If I had a quarter for every time my father would say, ‘ Hit’s Briarhopper time,’ my wife and I would own Jamaica,” says Warlick, the band’s historian and current bass player.
Thanks to Warlick’s passion for the Briarhoppers and anchored by a young family of string players, the band is again introducing its old-time hillbilly sound to a new generation – one that’s more open to banjos and fiddles than any in recent memory.
The Briarhoppers, which lost its last original member in 2003, celebrates 80 years with a concert Saturday at McGlohon Theater. The city is proclaiming Saturday “Briarhoppers’ Day.”
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The latest incarnation of the group features Mount Holly’s Flowers siblings: Alana, 25, on banjo; Hannah, 19, on fiddle; Dillon, 16, on guitar and mandolin; and 10-year-old Ellie. Warlick plays bass and Donnie Little plays guitar.
There have been 46 Briarhoppers. In the early days, some stayed less than a year or two, while others were lifelong members. The oldest living former member, Billie Burton Daniel of Wilmington, was a child during her tenure from 1936 to 1940. Afterward, she moved to California, became a jazz singer, and was lifelong friends with Billie Holiday.
When Warlick was invited to join in 2007 – the same year he published his book on the Briarhoppers – there were only three members left, and none of them were original. Shortly thereafter, it was down to just Warlick and fiddler Dwight Moody, who died in 2013.
To preserve the band’s legacy, Warlick realized, “We had to do something quick.” He thought of the Flowers family, which he’d heard at bluegrass jams in his hometown of Clover.
Hannah Flowers, who finishes her degree in sociology at UNC Charlotte in December, wasn’t clued into the Briarhoppers’ history at the time older sister Alana joined the group, but was happy to sign on, too. Upon starting fiddle lessons at age 5, she’d learned classical and bluegrass.
“My dad pushed for bluegrass,” Hannah says with a laugh, admitting that playing bluegrass wasn’t the cool thing to do as a kid. “I don’t know of many kids that would pick bluegrass as their choice. At age 15 or below, it’s embarrassing. Bluegrass is a forbidden word, but bands like the Avetts and Mumford & Sons have made it (more acceptable).”
With the popularity of Mumford and the Avett Brothers, stringed instruments, folk music and its stylistic brethren are attracting a younger, hipper audience, and the Briarhoppers have introduced original tunes into concerts that in the past relied heavily on standards and on recreating the advertisements the group would sing on the radio.
Now, Hannah Flowers says, “I can appreciate the old stuff, but I also like hearing the Steep Canyon Rangers. It’s more of a mix.”
For Warlick, keeping the group alive is like coming full circle. Doc Watson was a fan, and occasionally the lineup included Earl Scruggs on banjo. Now they play Merlefest and, in 2013, the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards in Raleigh. But it’s also part of Warlick’s family history.
“It’s been a part of my dad’s upbringing and his dad’s,” says Warlick, whose father would turn on the radio when he was done milking the cows after school. “It’s almost like saying, ‘Dad, I’m in charge of your favorite band of your youth.’ ”
Like the Flowers siblings, Warlick has a day job, but foresees the group continuing indefinitely.
“It’s the oldest bluegrass group in the world,” he says. “What’s to stop it? (The Flowers family is) our future. Everywhere we go, they get accolades and standing ovations. I just stand around and play the bass.”
Adds Hannah Flowers: “We plan on carrying it on as long as we can play.”