Don White

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A studio photograph from the '30s shows what looks like something of an extended Appalachian string band, including a piano player, a mandolinist whose instrument is almost bigger than he is, two fiddlers,…
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A studio photograph from the '30s shows what looks like something of an extended Appalachian string band, including a piano player, a mandolinist whose instrument is almost bigger than he is, two fiddlers, a guitarist, an upright bassist, a banjoist, and a girl who seems to be holding a fife (although it could also be the sawed-off barrel of a shotgun). It is quite easy to find out what these people are. They are a band called the Briarhoppers, which was still going strong out of its Charlotte, NC, base nearly 75 years later. Telling the names of these people are is another story. Coming up with a complete list of Briarhoppers members is much more difficult than getting through Charlotte at rush hour; and that's saying something.

There is a good chance Don White is one of the folks in these older pictures. In 2002, when White was advertised as the only original Briarhoppers member still working in the group, he was only 91 years old, meaning his claim as an original member was believable. His name definitely shows up among the players first assembled for the band by Charlotte's WBT producer Charles H. Crutchfield in 1934 for a series of live broadcasts. These players, such as John McAllister, Clarence Etters, Jane Bartlett, Billie Burton, Thorpe Westerfield, and Homer Drye, are largely mysteries as far as old-time music scholars are concerned.

White joined up with the group after appearing on stations in Charleston, WV, and Greenville, SC. His real name was Walden Whytsell, but he seems to have left that hanging on a country fence somewhere. White was still in the Briarhoppers when it became consolidated behind the country duo of Whitey & Hogan, who wandered in from nearby Gastonia where they had met manufacturing a cord fabric used in automobile tires. Arval Hogan and Roy "Whitey" Grant were soon joined by the excellent banjoist Shannon Grayson, himself a leader of the Golden Valley Boys. White began looking beyond the Briarhoppers, although it is hard to believe there wasn't room for more than one "whitey" in an old-time music group.

He sang and played bass with the group between 1935 and 1939, but it wasn't long before Don White worked out a recording deal with RCA and left Charlotte in the rear view mirror. But, in 1942, he returned to both Charlotte and the Briarhoppers. The group, most of the time helmed by Whitey & Hogan, stayed together until the mid-'50s, when the end of the radio contract plus diminishing financial returns spelled trouble. In the early '70s, Whitey, Hogan, Grayson, Warren, and White reunited and began to play the college circuit and at bluegrass and old-time festivals. The name of the Briarhoppers began showing up regularly again the following decade around Charlotte and -- although Whitey & Hogan were not lured back into the fold until the following decade, and only temporarily at that -- White became one of the elder Appalachian players coming in and out of what some old-time music listeners feel to be a wildly uneven group.

The modern lineup of the Briarhoppers has been accused of being more about grinning than picking, though it continues to be a gig opportunity for interesting players such as fiddler, mandolinist, and guitarist Dwight Moody and banjoist David Deece. The modern incarnation of the Briarhoppers is usually a quintet and is frequently featured at regional old-time music and folk fests as well as big-time local events such as the Fun Fourth. Group membership carries on the tradition of confusion, often involving members of Appalachian family dynasties. In the '80s, new recordings were done for the Lamon label, two vinyl slabs of Hit's Briarhoppers Time that were later reissued on a single CD. White was awarded the Ernest Tubb Pioneer Award given by the Western Film Fair in 1999.