S.C. Arts Awards: Julian A. Prosser

2019 Recipient Feature Series

As the day nears for the 2019 South Carolina Arts Awards, The Hub is taking 15 days to focus on this year’s recipients: nine receiving the Elizabeth O’Neill Verner Governor’s Awards for the Arts and five receiving the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award, which are managed jointly by the South Carolina Arts Commission and McKissick Museum at UofSC. In between the two groups, we’ll run a special feature on S.C. Arts Awards sponsor Colonial Life.

Julian A. Prosser

Bluegrass Music

Julian A. Prosser was born in the small farming community of Hanna, South Carolina. One of four brothers, Prosser worked on the family farm. Growing up, he loved the sound of music played by his grandfather and uncles. When he was 11, Prosser earned the money to buy his first guitar. “Hillbilly” or bluegrass music was popular in South Carolina at that time. Prosser became a strong musician and entertainer with his own unique style. His guitar playing was clean, with an almost jazzy quality, which added to the hard driving sound of bluegrass. He would later apply that technique to his mandolin playing.

By 1938, Prosser and several of his friends had put together The Carolina Hillbillies. The band played regularly on the radio in Florence. With the onset of World War II, the band broke up as its members joined the military. Prosser served in the U.S. Navy, driving a landing craft—or Higgins boat—at both Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Several of his bandmates gave their all in the war, and The Carolina Hillbillies never reformed.

After the war, Prosser returned to the farm but soon took his father’s advice and moved to Columbia to earn a degree. Prosser played music occasionally, but when his son David and friend Donald Ashley became interested in learning to play Bluegrass, he was encouraged to play more often and share his knowledge and love of the music. In 1978, they formed The Carolina Rebels bluegrass band and they have been playing ever since.

The Rebels crafted a unique sound that combined the early traditional Bluegrass familiar to Prosser with more modern sounds. By the 1980s they were playing throughout the region and had gained a following at the University of South Carolina, The State Museum, Riverbanks Zoo and along the Southern bluegrass circuit. Their USofC connection led to performances for the Conference of Caribbean Nations, and for such notables as the former Prime Minister of Australia, Malcom Frazier, and former Vice President George H.W. Bush.

Prosser served as the band manager and guided the direction and sound of the group. His high tenor vocals and talent on the mandolin provided a hard-driving edge that set the band apart. The Rebels are known for their entertaining stage presence, in which Hank is the straight man for jokes. The most stalwart band member, Hank has missed only five shows in almost 35 years. The Rebels have performed far and wide, from Texas to Nebraska, New York and Canada. They have shared the stage with Bluegrass legends Chubby Wise and Carl Story.

Over the years, Prosser has mentored many younger local musicians, including fellow Jean Laney Harris Award recipients Ashley Carder, Chris Boutwell, and Larry Klein. Prosser continued to travel with the band until an accident at age 91 prevented him from standing for long periods of time. He remains a passionate advocate for bluegrass music and is recognized as both a pioneer and master of his craft by many local bluegrass performers. At 93, Prosser continues to be a driving force, keeping local bluegrass alive and well in the Palmetto State.

South Carolina Arts Awards Day is Wednesday, May 1, 2019. The festivities begin at 10 a.m. with a reception that leads up to the awards ceremony at the UofSC Alumni Center (900 Senate St., Columbia). The event is free and open to the public. Following the ceremony, the South Carolina Arts Foundation honors the recipients and the arts community at the S.C. Arts Awards Luncheon and Art Sale. Tickets are $50. Please go here for more information and reservations.

Meet the Recipients

Use these links to read the long-form bios of the other 2019 South Carolina Arts Awards recipients.