Few people would attribute the Hampton Roads area as a key region in the development and popularization of country music. However, migration and the military both had a dramatic role in establishing Southeastern Virginia as one of the major areas that helped fuel the mass popularity of what had been a genre of music confined to the rural sections of the country. When defense workers and military members flooded into Hampton Roads, many brought with them their love of what had been termed “mountain music.”

Sensing this demand, venues like The Ocean View Ballroom, South Norfolk’s Fernwood Farms, and Portsmouth’s Bones and Buddy’s began cultivating artists to cater to country music lovers. Dixie Caravan, a local television show, was broadcast, and adding to this trend was the emergence of local radio powerhouse WCMS. Signing on in 1954, it was the nation’s first commercial station to exclusively program country music. With this much interest swelling around country music, it was natural for legends of local country music to emerge like artists The Phelps Brother, The Mitchell Sisters and Gene Vincent. WCMS DJ’s Carolina Charlie Wiggs, Sheriff Tex Davis and Joe Hoppel made the station a national force in country music broadcasting.

For years, huge “package shows” were also held at the Norfolk Arena with top Nashville Acts like Hank Snow, Kitty Wells, Ray Price and Patsy Cline packing the venue. All of this lore comes swirling back to mind with the broadcast of Ken Burns’ new documentary Country Music. WHRV FM will celebrate the broadcast with a series of programs including Classic Country airing at 9:00 p.m. on Sundays and an invitation for listeners to also share their classic country memories for both broadcast and podcast. And, for those who well remember those Norfolk Arena shows, who were some of the greats that you saw there? Share these memories with us at whrv.org.

Did you know?

  • South Norfolk’s The Phelps Brothers starred in several Western Themed b-movies in the 1930s.
  • Country legend Patsy Cline once recorded in South Norfolk’s Fernwood Farms studio.
  • Grand Ole Opry founder George D. Hay died in 1968 in Virginia Beach and is buried in Norfolk’s Forest Lawn Cemetery. In 1969, Minnie Pearl dedicated a monument to Hay at his gravesite.
  • WCMS station manager Sheriff Tex Davis produced Gene Vincent’s song “Be Bop a Lula” which Rolling Stone Magazine listed as one of the greatest songs ever recorded.
    In 1954, one of the first large package shows was held at The Norfolk Arena featuring Hank Snow’s All Star Jamboree with an opening act by a new and emerging artist named Elvis Presley.
  • In June of 1955, a new country music radio show began called the WAVY Tidewater Jamboree with Lucky Lon Backman doing the emcee chores.
  • In 1970, Johnny Cash and June Carter headlined a sold out Hampton Coliseum Concert where the entire sound system failed and forced the performers off the stage.
  • Country music star Marty Stuart was once spotted at a local Belo Supermarket shopping prior to a gig.

Read more about local ties to country music and learn about the upcoming film from Ken Burns at whro.org/countrymusic. The film airs on WHRO TV on Sunday, September 15.