'Those Roots Are Really Here': From The Carter Family to Bill Monroe, Unearthing The Hidden History Of Charlotte Country Music
Back in the 1930s, more country music was recorded in Charlotte than in Nashville, Tennessee. Some of the Charlotte recordings from that period have become part of the essential canon of traditional country music, from "the first family of country" — the Carter Family — to the first career steps of "the father of bluegrass" Bill Monroe. So how did Charlotte become the center for country music? And why isn't it any longer?
Today on the "Amplifier" podcast, we’re sharing an extra special episode: our very first live taping of "Amplifier," recorded on Sept. 4, 2019, in front of an audience of 500 people at the U.S. National Whitewater Center in Charlotte. This conversation was supported in part by a grant from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting in honor of Ken Burns’ "Country Music" documentary (premiering at 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 15 on PBS stations across the country). So, we sat down with country music historian Tom Hanchett and veteran country rocker Bill Noonan to discuss Charlotte’s country music past, present and future.
"We call it country music, but it’s actually music of folks who are missing the country because they left the farm, they left the old cabin home on the hill, and they moved to the big city of Charlotte."
On the start of country music in Charlotte:
Charlotte historian Tom Hanchett (alongside country musician Bill Noonan and Amplifier host Joni Deutsch) revealing the history of Charlotte country music.
Tom Hanchett: Nashville coalesced as the country music city of the South after World War II. But before World War II, there were about 20 years or so when radio was a new thing and folks were moving from the country to the city to work in the textile mills. At RCA Records [then called Victor Talking Machine Company], an A&R [artist & repertoire] man there named Ralph Peer said, “You know, there’s more to music than the Victor Herbert Orchestra and Bing Crosby.” That’s kind of what they were [recording] in RCA’s main studios up in New Jersey. So he said, “Let’s put the equipment in a car and let’s go to where the music is.” He went to cities across the South, but particularly to Charlotte.
The key things were the textile and cotton mills. Charlotte became the center of the entire textile mill South in the early years of the 20th century. By the 1920s, we were making more cotton textiles around Charlotte than New England, which had been the first center. You needed labor ... and folks in the countryside were looking for another way to make a living. So textile mills began to pull people off of the farms and down from the mountains, which really transformed this region. There were more looms and spindles in Gaston County than any other county in the world. And that’s how the music came together as a city… We call it country music, but it’s actually music of folks who are missing the country because they’ve left the farm, they’ve left the old cabin home on the hill, and they moved to the big city of Charlotte.
On the Carter Family’s recordings in Charlotte:
Hanchett: They’re the first family of country music. For young people who don’t remember all the way back to the original Carter Family trio (and only remember June Carter Cash, the daughter of Mother Maybelle, who was part of the original trio)... the trio recorded here two separate times in 1931. The deal was if you were a country musician, you didn’t make much money, and you certainly didn’t make much money off the records. What you made money off of was public appearances. So the Carter Family would move into an area, live there, and be on the radio in the morning and maybe at noon when the farmers would come in from the fields for lunch. And then they would get in the car and drive out to a country schoolhouse, textile mill or community center until they played out the area and folks would say, “Well, I’m not sure I want to see them again this year,” so they would move on to another place. So the Carter Family lived here in 1931 and then came back in 1938. I’ve heard of folks talking about them being neighbors in the Dixie community, out around Steele Creek Presbyterian Church, an area that is largely gone now and underneath the runways of Charlotte Douglas Airport. [It was here that] the Carter Family recorded “You Are My Flower,” a song that Flatt & Scruggs picked up… The beginnings of bluegrass were songs that were first recorded here in Charlotte.
On the “Arthur Smiths” of Charlotte country music:
Hanchett: If you grew up around here, you grew up around Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, who was on television four or five days a week (particularly in the 1970s). The person he was differentiating himself from was Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith from the Grand Ol’ Opry. Folks from the Grand Ol’ Opry came to Charlotte to record in the 1930s. That is how big a deal Charlotte was. Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith came over to Charlotte with the Delmore Brothers (a lot of the country-blues music that Doc Watson did were Delmore Brothers tunes). Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith was the star of the Grand Ol’ Opry.
Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith started out as a textile hand in Gaffney, South Carolina. He came up to Charlotte and played with the WBT house band, The Briarhoppers. They were playing what became known as bluegrass. Arthur Smith could play bluegrass, he could play jazz, but what he was particularly good at was showing off on the guitar playing the blues. And his “Guitar Boogie” song is a really good example of the falsity of segregation in the South: We were supposed to be black folk and white folk, but in reality, everything mingled and mixed. He played this killer instrumental, recorded it at the WBT studios, went out on MGM Records, and it literally went around the world. When Arthur passed away, his son Clay Smith was over talking to a fellow in England called Paul McCartney. They were talking about some music stuff, and when it turned out that Clay was Arthur Smith’s son, Paul said, “What a minute,” went to a safe in the corner of his office, and pulled out a [record] of “Guitar Boogie.” Apparently Paul originally auditioned for The Quarrymen in Liverpool to play guitar, and he tried playing “Guitar Boogie,” and he couldn’t do it. But the folks liked him so much, they invited him to join the band, and of course, The Quarrymen became The Beatles.
On the start of bluegrass (and Bill Monroe) in Charlotte:
Bill Noonan: The Monroe Brothers (Bill and Charlie Monroe) got the start of their career right here in Charlotte, and to this day, Bill Monroe is famous as the father of bluegrass. If there was a Mount Rushmore of Country Music, Bill Monroe would undoubtedly have a prominent place there.
Hanchett: Bill and his brother Charlie recorded as a duo in February 1936. It sounds exactly like bluegrass, even though bluegrass wouldn’t get invented until after World War II. When Bill and Charlie broke up, Bill went off to Nashville and started a band that included a fiddle player who sounded like Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith and a banjo player who sounded like Snuffy Jenkins (who was from Shelby, North Carolina, and was on WBT radio). Bill was kind of putting together the pieces that were in Charlotte, and he called the band not “The Charlotte Boys” (after where he heard that music) but “The Blue Grass Boys” (because he was born in Kentucky). So that’s how we came to call bluegrass “bluegrass,” but it really started right here in Charlotte.
On country music’s influence on Bill Noonan’s music:
Noonan: All of that early country music was the talent that came from the farms, the fields, the factories, the foothills. And I maintain that you don’t have to scratch the surface around here very far to find out that that talent still exists. I do think that country music is the indigenous music of this part of the country. For myself, I feel like it’s the right kind of music for me to be playing. I think I always gravitated to the authenticity and the feeling of it.
On the definition of country music:
Noonan: I think of it as mountain music meets the blues. It’s music from the land… the farms, the fields, the factories. It’s vast and diverse onto itself. It has assimilated so many music styles, and it has influenced so many music styles.
Hanchett: The thing that I think unites the country music of the '30s and the music of today, it’s music about longing for the past, longing for the world you grew up in, longing for that old cabin home on the hill, longing for that “Old Town Road…” A lot of the Carter Family’s songs were things that were popular in the Victorian era, which was about 30 years before they recorded. What’s going on now with country music incorporating rap and hip-hop, that stuff is about 30 years old, which is the music that this next generation has grown up with. When you’re thinking about longing … when you have a tear in your beer ... that’s country music.
Music featured in this #WFAEAmplifier chat:
Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith - “There’s More Pretty Girls Than One” (as performed by Tom Hanchett and Bill Noonan)
Bill & Charlie Monroe - “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (as performed by Tom Hanchett and Bill Noonan)
Bill Noonan- Ramblin’ Boy Blues
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