Music is a common thread, a universal expression that connects us all. It reaches us with shared experiences and emotions, something we all understand, and it blooms through camaraderie with fellow listeners. Every nation celebrates something unique about its character through music, and within each region and state there are identifiable subcultures and personalities. New Orleans has jazz, Nashville is country, Memphis has the blues, the Pacific Northwest was home to grunge rock, and so on. The music represents the area and the people.
North Carolina has a strong musical history of folk and bluegrass traditions that has become an integral part of the American musical identity. Musicians from this state have contributed to the complete American narrative, in many ways telling more about the people and lifestyle here than any history book. There are two institutions where the North Carolina musical identity really came into being: churches and working homesteads. Rural churches have a life of their own, like the spirit moves differently there. Generations of families have stories of raising their voices in unison with their communities in celebration of their faith, and for many, this was the first exposure to the inspiring power of music. The songs people sang at home, however, really developed the traditions. Imagine gathering on the front porch by lamplight with your family and neighbors after a long day’s work in the coal mine or the fields. Or maybe on Saturday night there would be a social in town for the whole county to attend. Someone opens up their fiddle case, resins up their bow, and opens into a lively tune that makes everyone forget their sore muscles and dance. It was their moment to forget about the day and enjoy each other’s company and fellowship. In the last light of day and the gloaming, the sound encircled everyone and, depending on who you ask, maybe even brought out family who passed before – their spirits dancing with the living. Here, no one is ever gone. We respect the foundations upon which we stand and all know we will meet them again.
By and large, people taught themselves how to play their instruments, which were sometimes homemade, with no professional guidance. Musicianship skills were sharpened in jam sessions with friends and neighbors. These impromptu bands would entertain for hours, following each other’s leads and simultaneously encouraging development as independent musicians with respect for their fellow musicians. It’s all in a way a metaphor for the life and work ethic in those communities. No one really stood alone, but everyone was strong enough to do so. The strength and capability of the individual person was very real, but family and community were always there for support. Daily work was challenging, but life was simple and blessed. And from this life, North Carolina produced musical gems.
From the revolutionary three-finger banjo picking style of Earl Scruggs to Doc Watson’s flat-picking blues-infused country sound, North Carolina has produced musical legends who told the stories of their communities to new audiences. Their musical talent transcended socioeconomic and urban lines, capturing the ears of people who previously had overlooked their respective genres. Without a doubt, the exposure of the music of Scruggs and Watson planted the seeds for new generations of musicians who wanted to tell their own stories through what was seen as a new avenue. Other artists who received less national attention probably would not have considered themselves artists at all since playing music came second to their 9 to 5 day jobs that made the living. Charlie Poole developed a reputation for his own three-finger playing style as well as his high energy entertaining performances. Bascom Lamar Lunsford learned to play fiddle and banjo as a young boy, and he became an unassuming North Carolina musical historian. As he travelled the mountains selling fruit trees, he learned all of the songs of the communities he visited and was later asked to record his repertoire for the Library of Congress.
Today, it is easy to hear how the old-time music tradition has been passed down to modern popular artists, and it makes you wonder if maybe there is something in the water here. Arguably, the most notable of these artists is The Avett Brothers. Frontmen Scott and Seth Avett share fond memories of singing hymns with their family growing up and of learning music from their father’s records. They learned about music of the area and how to value the strong family ties similarly to how it had been done a hundred years prior. Also in the same way that individual creative development has always been supported, they have expanded upon the sound they learned and found their way to a unique voice with their own stories to tell. They continue to progress in an original sound that satisfies their expression.
The state’s musical foundation is rich with the intangible characteristics of front porch picking sessions and that old community kinship, and developing a complete collage of the artists who are making notes today is challenging. To name a few, Mipso, Rhiannon Giddens, Mandolin Orange, Chatham County Line, Jonathan Byrd, and Steep Canyon Rangers have found niches and contributed to the growth and increasing popularity of the music here over the last several years. More and more, people around the country find themselves drawn to the qualities we have known. Other bands from outside the state can attribute career and musical development to North Carolina, and, specifically, Doc Watson. Old Crow Medicine Show and Scythian both had discovery moments with the legend, and their respective careers changed in those moments.
Nowhere is the spirit more alive and well than at Merlefest, a tradition rich festival founded by Doc Watson that takes place in the last weekend of April every year. Wilkesboro, North Carolina has played host to this fantastic festival for 30 years. From modest beginnings, the event now brags 13 stages and draws over 70,000 people. This festival is not only the best way to enjoy spring in the foothills, but it’s also a way to share this music with other people. It’s that common thread that ties us. Imagine celebrating the old-time traditions and the progressive styles, cramming in a full day of 20 or more bands with 70,000 of your friends, and that’s Merlefest. The festival has welcomed the aforementioned North Carolina musicians as well as hundreds of others across the country, bluegrass, folk, and Americana spectrum. Everyone who goes, whether to perform or to listen and dance, feels the connection with what music means here in a juxtaposition of old and new, or what Doc Watson called “traditional plus.” You leave feeling like you were part of something special.
Let yourself explore new sounds and that bond that makes the music of North Carolina unique. Take it on a road trip with your best friend or to a picnic in the grass and sunshine. Just make sure you share it with someone as it was meant to be shared.
Megan Westbrook is a North Carolina transplant from Texas and a long-time Greensboro resident. She earned a B.S. in Political Science at East Carolina University. When she isn’t working that 9 to 5, she enjoys watching sports, listening to Americana and bluegrass music, reading and hanging out with her dog, Banjo. She also values coffee and often snorts when she laughs.