BY MARTY McGEE—
The Hill Billies, an early old-time string band, radio and vaudeville act, was organized in Galax, Virginia, in the mid-1920s. The bands’ original members were fiddler Alonzo Elvis “Tony” Alderman of Carroll County, Virginia, pianist-vocalists Al Hopkins, who lived in Gap Creek, NC, Al’s brother Joe Hopkins on ukulele, Tennessee fiddler Charlie Bowman, and banjoist John Rector, a Galax general store operator who arranged the band’s initial recording session. Rector had recorded in 1924 with Henry Whitter’s Viriginia Breakdowners by was dissatisfied with the results and wanted to put together another band.
The Hopkins-Alderman-Rector Band (as they were originally called) recorded six titles for the OKeh Recording Company on January 15, 1925, in New York City. On that day Al Hopkins referred to his band as a group of North Carolina hillbillies, which in turn inspired OKeh talent scout Ralph S. Peer to list the six selections on company ledger sheets as performed by the “Hillbillies.” The term “hillbilly” had been in general usage in America since the turn of the twentieth century, but this was the first time the word was used in reference to early country or rural Southern folk music. The term “Hillbilly” distinguished white, southern, rural mountain music from black or “race” music.
The Hill Billies’ music—unique in that it prominently featured Hopkins’ portable piano—was first released in February 1925 and broadcast in March on WRC out of Washington, D.C. A series of extensive tours took them from the Deep South to the Northeast. In 1927 they played in New York City and broadcast over WJZ.
The following year they performed in vaudeville shows and theaters in New York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. In 1928 they also made the 15-minute short The Hill Billies, the first film featuring country music for Vitaphone (Warner Bros.). Washington, D.C., became their home base, and there they were invited to play for President Calvin Coolidge.
Most of the Hill Billies’ recordings (for Victor [never issued], OKeh, Vocalion and Brunswick— as the Buckle Busters) featured twin fiddlers Alderman and Bowman. Banjo duties were performed at various times by Rector, Jack Reedy and Walter Bowman. The group’s guitarists included
Elbert Bowman, Joe Hopkins, Walter “Sparkplug” Hughes, and Frank Wilson on slide. Uncle “Am” Stuart, a pioneer of country music recording, held down the fiddle chores along with Fred Roe, “Dad” Williams and Ed Belcher. The band also employed the string bass of Henry Roe and the often hilarious harmonica and ukulele playing of Elmer and John Hopkins.
The Hill Billies had disbanded by 1933 following the death of Al Hopkins—the band’s spiritual and professional leader—in a 1932 automobile accident.