Charlotte Folk Society logo celebrating 30 years

Dedicated to promoting the ongoing enjoyment and preservation of traditional and contemporary folk music, dance, crafts and lore in the Carolinas Piedmont,
since 1982.

February 10th Folk Society Gathering

Flat Possum Hoppers

Celebrate Music History!

Made in Charlotte 75 Years Ago!
Listen to the Flat Possum Hoppers

Flat Possum Hoppers
The Flat Possum Hoppers
Left to right: Tom Hanchett, John Cone, Tom Estes, Mark Helms, Ruth Kee Wherry
(photo by June White)

Contributed by Tom Hanchett

Three quarters of a century ago, Charlotte shone in the country music spotlight. In February 1937 and again in August that year, RCA Victor visited the Queen City to record some of the major artists who were inventing the music that would soon be known as "bluegrass." On February 10th at the monthly Gathering of the Charlotte Folk Society, the Flat Possum Hoppers old-time stringband will bring that exciting era to life.

In 1937 Nashville was not yet the center of country music. Major labels sent field teams crisscrossing the South, visiting cities where country, gospel, and blues performers were regional radio stars. Charlotte became one of the busiest hubs, thanks to WBT radio, which broadcast throughout the bustling textile mill belt of the Carolinas. Recording visits began in the late 1920s and continued into the 1940s, but 1936 and 1937 were the banner years with more records cut in the Queen City than anywhere else in Dixie.

Stars of Nashville's Grand Ole Opry came to Charlotte to record. Banjo man Uncle Dave Macon made his last commercial discs in the 1937 sessions. Fiddlin' Arthur Smith (no relation to Charlotte's later home-grown star Arthur "Guitar Boogie" Smith) composed and cut songs that would become bluegrass classics including Beautiful Brown Eyes, Walking in My Sleep and Pig in a Pen.

Brother duets were popular. J. E. and Wade Mainer, who had migrated down from the mountains to labor in textiles around Concord, emerged as major country artists with Train 45 and Little Maggie. The Blue Sky Boys, Bill and Earl Bolick from Hickory, sang The Story of the Knoxville Girl.

African American gospel quartets waxed landmark recordings, including the Golden Gate Quartet and also the Heavenly Gospel Singers, who cut the first recorded version of the now-standard Precious Lord, Take My Hand on February 16, 1937.

The man who would bring this swirl of traditional tunes and new country songs to national prominence was Bill Monroe, soon to become renowned as the "Father of Bluegrass Music." He started his national recording career with sessions in Charlotte during 1936, 1937, and 1938, earning hits with Roll in My Sweet Baby's Arms, Nine Pound Hammer, Long Journey Home, Roll on Buddy, and more. Shortly after leaving Charlotte for Nashville, he formed the band The Bluegrass Boys, giving name to an enduring genre of country music.

Charlotte's Flat Possum Hoppers got together four years ago, drawn by a love of old-time and bluegrass roots. Friday evening, February 10th, at 7:30 they'll offer a one-hour concert exploring Charlotte's recording history. Doors open at 7 PM at the Great Aunt Stella Center, 926 Elizabeth Avenue, for the family-friendly, free performance, which will be followed by refreshments and jam sessions. Donations are appreciated and essential to supporting the Gathering concert series. Free parking is available adjacent to the Stella Center and those needing accessible entry may use the ground floor doors on the parking lot side of the building.

Meet the Flat Possum Hoppers:

  • Ruth Kee Wherry on bass actually performed with the Mainers on WAYS radio back in the 1950s, singing hymns with her sister and fiddle-playing dad, John D. Kee.

  • Mark Helms on mandolin grew up around the textile mills of China Grove, North Carolina. He's performed with many bands including Charlotte's Mudpuppies and helped organize the Folk Frolic that took place for several years at Central Piedmont Community College.

  • His CPCC colleague, Georgia born John Cone, has played guitar around this area since a stint in the house band at Thursdays, downtown Rock Hill's acoustic music mecca in the 1970s.

  • Memphis native Tom Estes on banjo, former CFS President, is an active scholar of traditional music and is well known as a member of Charlotte's popular and long-running Burford Brothers stringband.

  • Fiddler Tom Hanchett brings expertise as staff historian at Levine Museum of the New South, where the Charlotte sessions are featured in the permanent exhibit Cotton Fields to Skyscrapers.

Today, 75 years after the historic 1937 sessions, nearly 100 songs from RCA Victor's February visit and over 160 from the August visit are still in print on CD. You can find out more about early country, blues, and gospel in Charlotte (plus 1938-39 sessions in Rock Hill) at The Charlotte Country Music Story.

Arts & Science Council Logo

More importantly, those old recordings live on in the hearts of singers and players across the United States and beyond. Whether you lean toward bluegrass, old-time, traditional gospel, or other folk music, some 1937 tunes are likely among the ones you know and love. The Charlotte sessions importantly helped shape America's shared body of song.

Charlotte Folk Society Gatherings are made possible, in part, with funding from the Arts & Science Council and the North Carolina Arts Council, an agency of the Department of Cultural Resources, and the National Endowment for the Arts, which believes that a great nation deserves great art.