North Carolina has a wonderful musical tradition. From the mountain music roots in the west to the urban sounds of jazz and hip-hop in the cities, you are never far from some great music anywhere in the state. North Carolina has produced such musical legends as Earl Scruggs, Randy Travis, Charlie Daniels, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, Maceo Parker and too many more to list. I got to see some wonderful live music in my time in North Carolina and visit some great venues as well. Here are a few of my favorites.
My musical exploration of the state really started as I got into the mountains in the west. I was very grateful to visit Priddy's General Store just outside of Danbury for their series Pickin' at Priddy's. It was a magical night in this century-old small-town general store off of a back road in rural Stokes County. The music was great, the food was unbelievable, the venue was straight out of a movie and the people were truly welcoming and wonderful. I even caught my first glimpse of "flatfoot dancing", a traditional mountain dance similar to traditional Irish step-dancing (think Lord of the Dance), but minus the strange hands-at-your-sides aspect. Some of the old men out "flatfooting" were even wearing tap-shoes making a wonderful clicking and clacking sound to go with the music. It was a really special night and you can hear the music from that night featured on my first North Carolina podcast HERE. If you're ever passing through Danbury in February or October or on Memorial Day weekend, this is a must-visit place.
The next morning, I was off to my next musical event. The weekly Merry-Go-Round live radio show at The Historic Earle Theater in Mount Airy has been going on every Saturday since 1948. It is one of the oldest live radio shows in the country and has an ever-changing lineup of local, regional and national acts. The circa-1938 Earle Theater is itself a cool place to see. Soon after it opened, it hosted the premier of the Shirley Temple movie Just Around the Corner. It was also one of the the theaters chosen for the premier of Gone With The Wind. Tickets for this show went for an astounding one dollar, ten times what a regular movie ticket cost at the time. It also hosted the premier of Mt. Airy's local claim to fame Andy Griffith's first feature film A Face in the Crowd. Around the walls are the stories which recount the history of Old Time Music through the legends of the genre. The show lasts about two and a half hours, and is definitely worth stopping by to see. Your $6 ticket also grants you admission to the Andy Griffith Museum down the street making it a great value as well.
My next stop was the Alleghany Jubilee at the historic Spartan Theater in tiny Sparta. This great venue hosts at least three events each week with line-dance lessons on Mondays, the Hillbilly Hoedown on Tuesdays and a rotating calendar of bands on Saturday nights. The locals come out to two-step, line dance, square dance and flatfoot their night away. This is a very wholesome family event, in a wonderful, small-town venue put on by a great group of people. Don't be afraid to get up and dance, that's what these events are all about. The steps aren't hard to pick up, I promise.
Boone was a great music town and I was happy to hear several great bands while I was there. The highlight of my visit, though, was seeing Kate Rhudy play at the Old Time Fiddlers' Convention put on by the students at Appalachian State University. Kate was a former student there, but had moved on to a burgeoning music career. During the show, she not only showed off her vocal and songwriting talent, but also played a mean fiddle on a few songs. The show took place at Legends Night Club, a student owned and run BYOB club on campus which was impeccably run. One of the students working the information table explained that because the campus was remote and could be depressing in the winter, the university put money towards keeping the morale of the students up by sponsoring events like this one. The whole thing seemed like a great idea. After the show, I headed over to the Boone Saloon for another great show by the fun and talented band Amigo out of Charlotte. The venue was a good one to catch a show and I really enjoyed this band as well.
The next day I made my way down to tiny Drexel for another wonderful weekly event: the Saturday jam session at the Drexel Barber Shop. This jam session has been going on every Saturday for the last 50 years and was one of the best experiences I had in my entire time in North Carolina. A wonderful mix of people, old and young, amateur and professional, gather in the back room here in this tiny town and pick out some truly spectacular bluegrass. You never know who might drop in, but the music is always great and the company is warm and welcoming. This is definitely a must-go event if you are ever anywhere within a hundred miles of Drexel on a Saturday afternoon. Stop in and say hello, and be sure to tell them I sent you. I enjoyed my time at The Barber Shop so much, I included the music I recorded there in my second North Carolina podcast Blackbeard, Gold and an American Coup d'etat. You can find that podcast HERE.
The last big place on my musical adventures around North Carolina that I will write about is the Earl Scruggs Center in Shelby. Earl Scruggs was to the banjo what Robert Johnson was to the guitar - he didn't invent the instrument, but he forever changed the way people saw it and played it. This wonderful center was a big risk for the people of Shelby - they invested a lot of money into it and even put it in their old central courthouse. But as you'll hear me say over and over again, if you want tourist dollars, you must take what you have and do the best you possibly can with it. In Shelby, they have Earl Scruggs, so they have built their whole tourism industry around it, and they are succeeding. The downtown area has been rejuvenated and tons of people come in every year to visit. They not only have this wonderful museum, but the building doubles as a music venue which hosts several events each week. One of my favorite things about the Earl Scruggs Center is that on the second floor they have a few banjos for you to pick up and have a go on. After reading about and listening to so much great banjo music, I picked one up myself. I was terrible at it, but I enjoyed giving it a whirl. This museum is well worth a stop. I spent longer there than I thought I would and came away with a much deeper appreciation of the banjo and the man who brought it into the modern form. And I absolutely loved seeing Shelby taking what it had and owning it so well.
Unfortunately, the five weeks I spent in North Carolina wasn't nearly enough. There were so many other great venues to see and events I would have liked to make it to. But have no doubt that what I saw was really great, and I will be back.
I was very grateful to stumble across the invaluable resource of the Blue Ridge Music Trail during my journey, which helped me find some of these more off-the-beaten-path venues. It does a pretty good job of keeping up on many of these venues and providing a good calendar to go off of. If you are trying to track down music in western North Carolina, you should definitely check it out.