By Scott Stegall
This month PBS previews Ken Burns' latest documentary series: Country Music. The eight-part series traces "the history of a uniquely American art form...From its deep and tangled roots in ballads, blues and hymns performed in small settings, to its worldwide popularity." The series premieres on Sunday, September 15. In preparation, Come Hear North Carolina contributor and intern Scott Stegall prepared a timeline of North Carolina's unique country milestones.
April 22, 1924
North Carolinian Samantha Biddix Bumgarner made history as one of the first women to record country music. Raised in Jackson County, Bumgarner grew up surrounded by traditional string band music and taught herself how to play fiddle and banjo. After Bumgarner won several banjo contests, she and her musical partner Eva Smathers Davis were invited to New York City to record for the Columbia Phonograph Company in 1924. “Aunt” Samantha became a regular staple at Bascom Lamar Lunsford’s Mountain Dance and Folk Festival from 1928 to 1958. It was at this festival that a young Pete Seeger was inspired to pick up the five-string himself after seeing the instrument being played in the hands of Samantha Bumgarner.
March 1, 1934
Charles Crutchfield, then an announcer for Charlotte’s WBT radio station, answered a call from a potential advertiser who asked if the station had a hillbilly band to promote its products. Crutchfield said, “Yes.” In fact, WBT had no such band, and Crutchfield scrambled to put a hillbilly act together using volunteer musicians. He promptly named the band “The WBT Briarhoppers.” WBT began airing a show featuring the Briarhoppers and later highlighted other country bands and musicians including the Carter Family and Arthur “Guitar Boogie” Smith, becoming one of the most famous country stations in the US. The Briarhoppers continue to tour, entertaining fans across the Carolinas as they have done for the past 85 years.
August 29, 1952
Donald Alan Schlitz, Jr. was born in Durham, North Carolina. Schlitz briefly attended Duke University before moving to Nashville to start a career in songwriting. Mentored by songcraft greats Bob McDill and Bobby Bare, Schlitz began turning out songs for Keith Whitley, Randy Travis, and George Strait. Schlitz’s first chart topping song was “The Gambler,” which was a crossover hit for Kenny Rogers in 1978. Schlitz has charted twenty-four No. 1 country hits including “When You Say Nothing at All” and “Forever and Ever, Amen.” Schlitz has earned two Grammys and four ASCAP Country Songwriter of the Year Awards.
“A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” penned by North Carolinian John D. Loudermilk, was released by the Chapel Hill-based record label Colonial Records kickstarting the career of 19-year-old George Hamilton IV, then a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Hamilton’s family had roots in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, but his grandfather moved to Winston-Salem to work in the railroad industry. Although they left the mountains behind, Hamilton’s family took their musical traditions with them. “Their heritage was mountain music—stringbands, fiddles, and the like,” Hamilton once said. “It seemed the natural thing to do to learn an instrument and sing.” And sing he did.
By 1960, “A Rose and a Baby Ruth,” had attained gold-record status and Hamilton, who had moved to Nashville a year before, was performing regularly on the Grand Ole Opry. Hamilton enjoyed commercial success in the ‘60s with hits like “Before this Day Ends,” “Break My Mind,” and the chart-topping “Abilene.” John Loudermilk co-wrote “Abilene,” bolstering Hamilton’s career once again. Loudermilk would go on to compose songs for the likes of the Everly Brothers, Chet Atkins, and Johnny Cash. In the 1970s, Hamilton began touring in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, earning him the nickname “The International Ambassador of Country Music.”
June 7, 1957
North Carolina native Don Gibson wrote “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Oh Lonesome Me” in his trailer outside Knoxville, Tennessee. According to legend, Gibson had hit rock bottom after his vacuum cleaner and television set were repossessed and immediately went to writing the two songs. “I Can’t Stop Loving You” was the most enduring hit of Gibson’s songwriting career and was a No. 1 hit for Ray Charles. The original recording of “I Can’t Stop Loving You” featured multiple guitars, piano, drums, and background singers in lieu of the traditional fiddle and pedal steel. This style of instrumentation defined country music in the 1960s and became known as the Nashville Sound. Don Gibson’s compositions have been recorded by Elvis Presley, Frank Sinatra, Patsy Cline, Van Morrison, and Ike and Tina Turner. Gibson was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1973 and the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2001.
April 9, 1969
Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline album was released. Dylan’s first foray into recording country music, Nashville Skyline featured a stellar cast of musicians including Johnny Cash, Norman Blake, and a little-known guitar picker from Wilmington, North Carolina named Charlie Daniels. Although Daniels was initially scheduled to play guitar for one recording session, Dylan insisted that Daniels stay on. In Daniels’ own estimation, the first sessions with Dylan gave the young guitarist “a validity that I could’ve worked years and years to try and find.” Daniels would go on to record two more albums with Dylan and continued to work as a session guitarist and fiddler with artists such as Leonard Cohen, Ringo Starr, Hank Williams, Jr., and the Marshall Tucker Band before striking out on a solo career in 1970. Since forming the Charlie Daniels Band in 1972, Daniels has scored hits like “Uneasy Rider,” “Long Haired Country Boy,” and the classic, “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
Ronnie Milsap moved to Nashville after a chance meeting with country music legend Charley Pride who had attended one of Milsap’s gigs at a nightclub in California. Impressed by the young singer, Pride encouraged Milsap to try his hand performing country. Raised by his grandparents in the Smoky Mountains of North Carolina, a congenital disorder left Milsap nearly blind from birth. When Milsap was five, he was sent to Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina where he took music lessons and eventually mastered the piano. For Milsap, who had been gigging and working as a session musician throughout the ‘60s, the transition to country proved fortuitous. Milsap was signed to RCA Records in 1973 and soon after began touring with Charley Pride. In the late ‘70s and throughout the ‘80s, Milsap was one of the most influential artists performing country music. He appealed to fans of pop and R&B as well as country and racked up crossover hits like “Smoky Mountain Rain” and “It Was Almost Like A Song.” Milsap has won six Grammy Awards and is credited with thirty-five No. 1 country hits.
May 3, 1977
Eric Church was born in Granite Falls, North Carolina. Church bought his first guitar at age 13 and began writing his own songs. By his senior year of high school, the aspiring musician was playing originals and Jimmy Buffett covers at local bars. After graduating from Appalachian State University with a degree in marketing, Church moved to Nashville and launched his songwriting career. In 2006, Church released his debut album on Capitol Nashville, started performing on the Grand Ole Opry, and went on tour with Garth Brooks and Rascal Flatts. Church has since released a string of albums including the chart-topping Chief in 2011
June 6, 1986
Randy Travis’s breakthrough album, Storms of Life was released on Warner Bros. Records. Three of the album’s songs reached No. 1 on the country music charts and upon the album’s rerelease, it topped the charts too. Just a few years prior Travis was being rejected left and right by every major record label in Music City; critics thought he sounded “too country.” 1986 proved the watershed year for Travis’s career. He made numerous appearances on the Grand Ole Opry, received the Top Male Vocalist Award from ACM, and won CMA’s Horizon Award. The country boy from Marshville, North Carolina proved that country was here to stay. Through the end of the ‘80s and into the next decade, Travis was the voice of neo-traditional country, as he rendered hits such as “Forever and Ever, Amen,” “Deeper than the Hollow,” and “I Told You So”—a heart wrenching ballad of lost love that Travis wrote himself. Travis’s career came to a halt when he suffered a massive stroke in 2012. Fortunately, Travis has regained the ability to sing, speak, and play guitar, and he’s making occasional appearances once again.
May 5, 2011
Scotty McCreery was crowned the winner of the tenth season of American Idol. At 17 years old, McCreery was the youngest male winner in the show’s history. Immediately after winning the show, McCreery released his first single, “I Love You This Big.” McCreery’s debut peaked at No. 32 on Billboard Hot Country becoming the highest charting country debut in over 20 years. Since then, the Garner native has released four albums and scored two No. 1 hits on the country charts.
February 4, 2014
Luke Combs released his first EP, The Way She Rides. Born in Charlotte, North Carolina, Combs relocated to Asheville at age eight. Combs attended Appalachian State University and landed his first gig at the Parthenon Café on campus. In February 2019, Combs’s single Beautiful Crazy rose to No. 1 on the Country Airplay Chart and with this Combs became the first artist to chart five number ones on Billboard Country with his first five singles.
October 16, 2016
Charlie Daniels, Randy Travis, and producer Fred Foster were officially inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Although country music fans are well acquainted with Daniels and Travis—two Tarheel pickers who left an indelible mark on the soundscape of country music—they might be less familiar with fellow North Carolinian Fred Foster.
Born in Rutherford County in 1931, Foster worked farming corn, cotton, and sugar cane for most of his childhood and teenage years. In 1958, Foster formed Monument Records and soon after signed a struggling rockabilly singer named Roy Orbison. In the early 1960s, Foster was instrumental in boosting the career of another singer who was virtually unknown in Nashville. After every record label in town had passed on a young Dolly Parton, Foster signed her to her first recording contract. Foster oversaw Parton’s records and produced her first hit in 1967, “Dumb Blonde.” Foster has produced recordings of Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and Billy Joe Shaver, among other country greats. Today, you can visit the Rotunda at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville and see the plaques honoring Daniels, Travis, and Foster—three North Carolinians who brought their music to Tennessee and changed the sound of country music “forever and ever, amen.”
About the Author
Scott Stegall is a senior History and Music major at Davidson College. Born in Monroe, North Carolina, Scott grew up around bluegrass and old-time music. Watching reruns of the Grand Ole Opry with his grandfather inspired Scott to pick up the banjo at age thirteen. Since then, he has taken up fiddle, guitar, mandolin, and bass. He's performed with various bluegrass and country bands including Stonewashed, the Catawba Riverkings, and Red Clay Revival. With the help of Davidson College and the North Carolina Arts Council, Scott has conducted fieldwork with and learned from some of the best traditional musicians in the Carolina Piedmont including fiddler Junior Harris and banjo players Clint Barwick and Marvin Gaster