North Carolina’s rich music history is celebrated in the national spotlight

James Taylor sings ‘Shower the People’ at Hillary Clinton rally in Chapel Hill

Musician James Taylor performs his hit "Shower the People" for the crowd at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally in Chapel Hill, N.C. Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.
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Musician James Taylor performs his hit "Shower the People" for the crowd at a Hillary Clinton campaign rally in Chapel Hill, N.C. Wednesday, Nov. 2, 2016.

For the six years Charlotte native Maxwell George has been an editor at the Oxford American literary magazine, he has wanted North Carolina’s rich music history to be featured in the annual Southern Music Issue.

This month, he got his wish.

“I’ve been lobbying for this my entire time here, and I’m glad it took this long, because 2018 feels right for North Carolina,” said George, the deputy editor.

Oxford American’s 20th annual Southern Music Issue, published this week, features North Carolina music with Tryon native Nina Simone on the cover. Essays and profiles highlight the music from the mountains to the beach and everywhere in-between. Past and present musicians get their due, from James Taylor and John Coltrane to contemporary Triangle-based stars Rapsody and Sylvan Esso.

“North Carolina music has not really been spotlighted or even explored,” said Catherine Oliva, marketing director for the North Carolina Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. “Not just the heroes of various genres, but the industry with luthiers and fiddle repairers and record companies. The state has not given its music the level of appreciation it deserves for its contributions to the creative economy.”

Oxford American is an Arkansas-based literary magazine, published quarterly, that explores Southern culture. It was founded in 1992 with the Southern Music Issue launched in 1997. Since 2009, the Southern Music Issue has covered one state at a time, most recently Kentucky in 2017.

The state’s musicians, many who are featured in the issue, will be celebrated at a “Statewide Singing Circle” concert Nov. 26 with an all-star roster of artists: Tift Merritt, Shirlette Ammons, Chatham County Line, Phil Cook, Alice Gerrard, Chris Stamey and others. The concert is at Raleigh’s Fletcher Opera Theater. Events are planned elsewhere in the state, including a free party Nov. 27 at The Pinhook in Durham, and a Nov. 29 concert in Charlotte.

James Taylor, performing Nov. 7, 2018, is featured in Oxford American’s annual Southern Music Issue. Inside stories highlight North Carolina music, from the mountains to the beach and everywhere in-between. Past and present get their due, from Simone and John Coltrane to contemporary Triangle-based stars Rapsody and Sylvan Esso. Richard Shotwell Invision/AP

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The North Carolina Arts Council and Department of Natural and Cultural Resources are using the attention from the issue to jumpstart a new campaign in 2019 about North Carolina music. “Come Hear North Carolina” will include videos, events, cross-genre artist collaborations, special stages at major festivals and other activities, with the online component at comehearnc.com.

While “Come Hear North Carolina” was not a direct result of the music issue, Wayne Martin of the Arts Council calls it “a catalyst that lit our fuse.”

“We have this humility about our music, almost to our detriment,” said Martin, the Arts Council’s executive director. “So we want to tell the story of North Carolina through our music. There’s no disputing the fact that we’ve given the world some extraordinary musicians over the last century. This initiative is a way of bringing attention to that history, and to current musicians carrying the torch forward.”

N.C. musician Alice Gerrard

NC’s music contributions

Nearly 25,000 people work in music occupations in North Carolina, according to figures from the Arts Council, from professional players and teachers to record-label employees and people who put on concerts in venues of all sizes.

Historically, the state has played an important but under-sung role in music history over the past century. In the 1920s, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers were a key link between old-time stringband music and what came to be known as bluegrass — which would not exist as we now know it without the “Scruggs-style” of banjo invented by Cleveland County native Earl Scruggs.

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Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis made Durham one of the most important blues towns in America in the 1930s. Doc Watson was a great folk superstar, and Coltrane one of the most significant jazz musicians of all time. And James Brown would not have been James Brown without North Carolina, between what he got from Kinston’s Maceo Parker and Winston-Salem’s “5” Royales.

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Tift Merritt performs "Bramble Rose" for her Yep Roc Records "Sawyer Session" performance.

Much of this is covered in the Oxford American issue. Highlights include in-depth features on Snow Hill native Rapsody and her producer, Patrick “9th Wonder” Douthit; James Taylor’s pre-fame roots in Chapel Hill; Piedmont blues icon Etta Baker; Rhiannon Giddens’ touching remembrance of her late mentor, old-time fiddler Joe Thompson; and surprising takes on unlikely subjects like the Latinx scene in Charlotte and Winston-Salem soul man Wesley Johnson’s unexpected overseas popularity in Italy.

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Unavoidably, the issue has a few absences, too, most notably the Avett Brothers.

“Our goal is not to be comprehensive,” said George. “Our protocol for the music issue is very much collaborative rather than top-down commissioning writers on subjects. The highest criteria we prioritize is the element of discovery and the unexpected angle. I hope that’s what people take away.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi. Editor’s note: An article by reporter David Menconi appears in the Southern Music Issue.


What: “Statewide Singing Circle” concert in celebration of the Oxford American Southern Music Issue on North Carolina

Who: Tift Merritt, Shirlette Ammons, Stephen Anderson, Chatham County Line, Phil Cook, Alice Gerrard, Brian Horton, Big Ron Hunter, H.C. McEntire, ASM, Sister Lena Mae Perry, Chris Stamey, Mary Dobbin Williams, others

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 26

Where: Fletcher Opera Theater, 2 E. South St., Raleigh

Cost: $29-$34 at Ticketmaster or the Duke Energy Center box office

Details: 919-996-8700 or dukeenergycenterraleigh.com or OxfordAmerican.org/NC2018.

There is a free event with author readings and some of the same musicians, 6-8 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 27, at The Pinhook in Durham.

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