The “North Carolina Songbook” set by the Steep Canyon Rangers on Sunday at MerleFest raises the interesting question: Who have been the most influential musicians from the Tarheel state?
It’s a question with no definitive answer because of the biases everyone has based on musical tastes, where you’re from and so on.
The hour-long Steep Canyon Rangers show included songs of eight musicians, all considered impactful in their musical genres. James Taylor was the only one of the eight not born in North Carolina and also was the only one still alive. Taylor was 3 when his father, a Morganton native, moved his family to Chapel Hill.
The featured musicians, and the musical genre where each made a mark, were Ben E. King of Henderson (R&B), Charlie Poole of Randolph County (early bluegrass), Thelonius Monk of Rocky Mount (jazz), Tommy Jarrell of Surry County (old time), Elizabeth Cotton of Carrboro (folk), James Taylor of Chapel Hill (folk/rock) and Ola Belle Campbell Reed of Ashe County (old time).
The eighth was Doc Watson, included with the song, “Your Lone Journey,” co-written by Doc and his wife, RosaLee Watson, of Deep Gap in Watauga County. Watson was a co-founder of MerleFest and even after his death in 2012 heavily influences the event.
The music of Doc Watson is hard to categorize, but some of the best musicians around today in bluegrass, country, blues, rock and other styles acknowledge his impact on their music.
The eight artists featured by the Steep Canyon Rangers were worthy of inclusion on any list of North Carolina’s most influential musicians, but there are others who could be included.
Earl Scruggs, born in Cleveland County in 1924, is among the first who comes to mind. Scruggs developed a three-finger banjo picking style (“Scruggs-style”), which today is a defining feature of bluegrass music. He later partnered with Lester Flatt and they helped bring bluegrass into mainstream popularity.
Another is James “Kay” Kyser, born in Rocky Mount in 1906. Kyser was an American band leader and radio personality who became king of the swing era of big band music after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill.
Max Roach is considered one of the most important drummers in jazz history and a defining force of the bebop era. Roach was born in Newland in 1924, but was raised in Brooklyn.
John Coltrane was a jazz saxophonist and composer known for his work in bebop and for being at the forefront of “free jazz.” He was born in Richmond County in 1926, and moved to Philadelphia at age 17.
It’s noteworthy that many of the most influential musicians born in North Carolina had their greatest impact after moving to Northern cities. The same is true across the South.
The migration of Southerners, especially black Southerners, to Northern urban centers had a huge impact on the development of jazz, blues, folk and indirectly other musical styles popular today.
Fortunately, today there is much more within North Carolina for promising musicians.
MerleFest provides opportunities and inspiration, helping to produce North Carolina success stories like the Steep Canyon Rangers and the Avett Brothers and making music a strong force in the economy.