Saturday, September 18, 2010

Last of the Original Briarhoppers Dies

Roy Grant, known as "Whitey" of the "Whitey and Hogan" duo who gained fame performing with WBT's Briarhoppers died yesterday. Grant was the last original member of the band that began  on the station in 1934.

Many of our class of 54 remember Yvonne Grant, one of Whitey's three daughters, who was in the CHS class of '56.

Here is an article that appeared in today's Charlotte Observer:

'Whitey' Grant, country music pioneer, dies at 94

By Joe DePriest

During the Great Depression, Roy "Whitey" Grant played old-time music with his neighbor Arval Hogan in a Gastonia mill village.

They both worked in the sprawling Firestone textile plant, picking and singing on the side.

Soon, their music found a larger audience. As members of the legendary Charlotte-based Briarhoppers, a superstar string band that performed over WBT radio, the two singing mill hands became known worldwide. They were later recognized by Nashville's Country Music Foundation as the longest-running duet in country music.

Grant, who died Friday at age 94, was remembered by his friends not only as a great guitarist and pioneer of modern country music, but as a caring person.
"As much as I loved the music he made with the Briarhoppers, I enjoyed more the gentle homespun goodness you felt in his presence," said Tom Hanchett, historian with the Levine Museum of the New South. "He was a gentleman who lived for his community. He helped create that community by picking and singing and neighboring to his region on the radio and in concerts and schools."

Former WBT radio personality H.A. Thompson called Grant "one of the nicest, finest human beings on the planet."
"He traveled the journey well, made friends along the way, and gave us music to make us happy," Thompson said. "You can't do a better job than that."

A Shelby native, Grant grew up in Rutherfordton and moved to Gastonia in 1935 to work in textiles.

One Sunday afternoon, he met coworker and mandolin player Arval Hogan in the Firestone Mill neighborhood and they began harmonizing. They got good enough to sing on weekends at country churches and schools all over the Carolinas and Georgia.

Known professionally as "Whitey and Hogan," the duo cut 16 sides for Decca Records in New York City. They played on radio stations in Spartanburg and Gastonia and in 1941 joined the famous Briarhoppers.

WBT announcer Charles Crutchfield organized the band and coined its folksy name. Beamed from Maine to Miami by the 50,000-watt station, "The Briarhoppers Radio Show," with a theme song of "Wait Till the Sun Shines Nellie," was an Americana treasure. Cast members became household names.

"In those days and in this part of the country, we were as popular as the Beatles," Grant told the Observer in 1991. "We'd get 12,000 cards and letters a week - some just addressed to Whitey and Hogan."

The singers connected with their audiences "because they were just like the people who were listening to them," said Tom Warlick, author of "The WBT Briarhoppers."
During World War II, the CBS network beamed Briarhoppers radio shows to American troops overseas. Soldiers sent fan mail addressed simply "To Whitey and Hogan, WBT Briarhoppers," and "the letters got delivered," Warlick said.

When the Briarhoppers show went off the air in 1951, Grant and Hogan, who were next-door neighbors, worked together at a Charlotte post office. Sometimes they sang as they sorted mail.
During the early 1970s, they joined other retired Briarhoppers and revived the old act. They played at schools and nursing homes, civic clubs and shopping malls. They toured Europe and got a gig on Garrison Keillor's radio show "Prairie Home Companion."

The Briarhoppers mostly stuck to the old songs - such numbers as "Old Log Cabin for Sale," "Sunny Side of Life" and "Big Rock Candy Mountain." Their kind of music would be introduced to new generations in the 2000 movie "O Brother Where Art Thou?"
In 2003, the band got a top state honor, the N.C. Arts Council's Folk Heritage Award. That same year Hogan died at age 92.

"He was closer than a brother," Grant said at the time. "We sang with one voice."
Over the years, they'd described themselves as two little dirty-faced mill boys who made good.
When his longtime partner died, Grant carried on. He continued to perform with new band members until about three years ago, according to Warlick.

"Whitey was the last of the true music stars from the golden age of radio," said Warlick, who joined the new Briarhoppers two years ago. "He was a giant."

Personal note:

When I was in Charlotte for our 55th reunion, I visited briefly with Whitey when I went to the Wilora Lake Appartments to pick up Mr. Ballance on our way to the event.
This is the note I wrote to Tom Warlick for his Briarhopper website:

Mr. Gil Balance, who taught English and Radio Production at the old Central High School was one of Whitey’s best friends at Wilora Lake. They both had lost a wife and a beloved child shortly before they met, so I have no doubt that they offered each other a bit of comfort in recent years.

When Mr. Balance told me of Whitey’s passing he mentioned that he had spoken to Whitey only two days ago….and he was still lucid, although “going downhill pretty fast.” Whitey told him that he was “ready to go.” He said, “I want to be with Polly.”

I was a Briarhopper fan from the time I was 5 years old and although I was in my 60’s when I finally got to meet Whitey, the years had not diminished the thrill. In fact, discovering how kind and down to earth he was only increased my admiration of him.

Rest in Peace, Whitey!

-Ed Myers (aka Lee Shephard)