George Hamilton IV dies; took country music behind Iron Curtain

He seemed comfortable playing country music wherever he went, and he went some lofty places: the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tenn., with Billy Graham in England, on Arthur Smith’s TV show and deep behind the Iron Curtain.

That last gig earned George Hamilton IV, a former Matthews resident, the honorary title of International Ambassador of Country Music as he introduced hot Southern twang to Poland and the Soviet Union in the frigid atmosphere of the Cold War. He toured with stars including Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers.

Hamilton, 77, suffered a heart attack over the weekend and died Wednesday at Nashville’s St. Thomas Midtown Hospital surrounded by family.

Hamilton played with Charlotte’s Briarhoppers, the hillbilly band whose roots date back to the 1930s on WBT Radio, as late as 2011 and performed earlier this year at a local memorial service for noted Charlotte musician Arthur Smith.

Smith gave Hamilton one of his early breaks when he picked him up to perform on his syndicated country television show, and Hamilton remained indebted to Smith for the rest of his life. “He was a childhood hero who lived up to his legend,” Hamilton said of Smith. “He was the real deal.”

A native of Winston-Salem, Hamilton’s first hit came in 1956 with the song “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” while he was a 19-year-old freshman at UNC Chapel Hill. Written by John D. Loudermilk, the record hit No. 6 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Hamilton moved to Nashville and became a member of the Grand Ole Opry in 1960. “Before This Day Ends” came the following year and is considered Hamilton’s breakthrough hit. Then came “Abilene” in 1963, which stayed a month atop Billboard’s country singles chart.

In the mid-1960s, Hamilton rode the rising tide of folk music popularity, recording “Steel Rail Blues” and “Early Morning Rain,” both penned by Gordon Lightfoot. He followed with “Urge for Going” by another Canadian, Joni Mitchell, in 1967 and wound up with a music show on Canadian TV for six years. He last landed in Top 5 country-single territory in 1970 with “She’s a Little Bit Country,” which remains in classic rotation today.

Later in the 1970s, Hamilton toured internationally in the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Asia and the Mideast. In 1984, he accompanied evangelist Billy Graham on a crusade to the United Kingdom.

Hamilton’s gentle demeanor and soothing folk-country vocal style earned him worldwide acclaim, wrote Stephen Betts of Rolling Stone magazine. He could transition seamlessly from pop music to country at a time when the opposite was far more common, Betts said.

Hamilton is survived by his wife of 56 years and high school sweetheart, Adelaide “Tinky” Peyton; sons Peyton and George V; and daughter, Mary.