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Why and how North Carolina roots music continues to sell

Old roots, new branches 

Click for larger image • Members of Chatham County Line and Carolina Chocolate Drops stand on a discarded pile of cigarettes in the Liggett & Myers Chesterfield Building in downtown Durham.

By Derek Anderson

Click for larger image • Members of Chatham County Line and Carolina Chocolate Drops stand on a discarded pile of cigarettes in the Liggett & Myers Chesterfield Building in downtown Durham.

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A long weekend in late April brought Alison Krauss, Tony Rice, Del McCoury, Elvis Costello and over 100 other bands to Wilkesboro this year, where they shared the grounds of a community college with beloved patriarch Doc Watson. For the last 19 years, thousands of fans have gathered at Merlefest, taking in four days of roots music 23 miles down U.S. 421 from Watson's birthplace of Deep Gap.

Elsewhere, the fall and spring editions of the Shakori Hills festivals—twin mini-Merlefests in Chatham County, if you will—hosted a similar variety of roots-leaning acts. As usual, bluegrass festivals remained widespread in the state, publicity occasionally consisting of a few cardboard signs posted a couple weeks in advance. Somehow, fans of high and lonesome still find them. And in Carrboro, the fourth annual American Roots Series at the ArtsCenter again hit every corner of the sprawling Americana tent, from folk and swing to honky-tonk and sacred steel.

Roots music continues to thrive in North Carolina: Find it at the above gatherings, on a hundred or so CDs released each year (on radio, too, if you have sufficient reception), and perhaps even in the air and water. Consider the sheer number of working bluegrass bands in the Triangle—Old Habits, Kickin' Grass, The Cadillac Stepbacks, Big Fat Gap, The Bluegrass Experience, Chatham County Line. Some of North Carolina's best roots bands are enjoying substantial success on an international level. In fact, Chatham County Line went gold in Norway this year with the live album Amerikabesøk, a collaboration with Norwegian folk singer Jonas Fjeld.

Turning to another flavor of roots, the journey toward American Gold kept strong for The Avett Brothers, their mix of traditional instrumentation, punk energy, and arena-rock flair a recipe for instant devotion. They've appeared at big rock festivals like Bonnaroo and Coachella and, closer to home, Merlefest. Their Emotionalism continues to appear on year-end lists. The Carolina Chocolate Drops are another young band on the verge, possessing a sound bursting with history, culture, scholarship, and, above all, joy. Rightfully, they're already festival darlings, and they appeared on A Prairie Home Companion in June. The trio capped the year by contributing four tracks to the soundtrack to the Denzel Washington movie The Great Debaters.

I could go on. I haven't even mentioned alt-country, the reports of its death greatly exaggerated as far as my listening pile is concerned. But the question isn't "Is roots music thriving in North Carolina?" Look around, listen up, get out: Of course it is. Rather, the interesting questions here are, "Why is roots music still thriving?" and "Why in North Carolina?" I've got some ideas.

click to enlarge Scott Avett goes above the crowd with his banjo. - PHOTO BY CRACKERFARM
  • Photo by Crackerfarm
  • Scott Avett goes above the crowd with his banjo.

Obviously, there's the music. Roots music, most notably the old-time and bluegrass strains, has a timeless quality and an enduring appeal. "Through every changing trend and fad in popular music and culture, each generation ends up longing for things that are timeless," offers Greg Hawks, a Chapel Hill-based bluegrass and country musician. "Good roots music has that element of timelessness to it, I think." Hawks composed all but two of the songs on his new, self-released Coming Home, but they sound like they could have been written 50 years ago. It feeds the longing of which he speaks.

The Carolina Chocolate Drops work the flip side of this floating-in-time notion. They play tunes that have been in the wind for decades, but their exuberance and conviction give the songs the vitality of the rescued and reborn. For reasons of nostalgia, this timelessness just feels good. Greil Marcus has long posited that The Band, the 1969 album by the roots-mining rock group of the same name, had that exact effect. It felt good, familiar and comfortable to restless people who had made it through the psychedelic '60s. "Roots music tends to strip away the pretensions in both musical and lyrical presentation," adds Hawks. "It also can be comforting because it reminds us of a time when our lives were a lot simpler."

Indeed, such music is a reminder, and it can point us back to our very personal connections with music. If your mom or dad (or uncle or aunt—any relative will do) plays roots music, eventually you probably will too, often after a period of healthy musical rebellion. Logistically and aesthetically, rootsy music is a natural fit for propagating across generations and conveying a shared history. Hanging out on the back porch, are you more likely to play acoustic guitars and banjos, or stack up the amps and thrash away?

The Avett Brothers—who, for the record, play acoustic instruments but still thrash away—are products of that home-schooled model. Their early musical education came courtesy of their father, a songwriter and musician. "[My dad] was always playing songs as we were growing up, always had music around," said Scott Avett in an interview with North Carolina State's Technician this past fall. "Among those other values that our mom taught us was that music was a part of being well-rounded. ... It was something we just did."

The brothers went to college and started some rock bands, of course, but they eventually resurfaced holding banjos and Martin guitars. Watching father Jim Avett on stage singing "Lord Build Me a Cabin in Gloryland" with his sons and upright bassist Bob Crawford is witnessing hands from two generations grasp the same torch. A couple hours up Interstate 85, Durham's Midtown Dickens makes playful folk-rock that seems as spontaneous as the Avetts' bursts. Wouldn't you know the same kind of family training is present in the duo's ranks? Catherine Edgerton soaked it in during the front-porch picking parties hosted by her father, author (and picker) Clyde Edgerton, and Kym Register's first guitar was a gift from her grandfather, a Grand Ole Opry vet.

Then there's the academic side of roots music, arguably the most prodded and examined form of them all. The abundance of universities in North Carolina, with a concentration in the Triangle, allows for academically sanctioned, funded study of folk music and bluegrass. In particular, the Curriculum in Folklore at UNC-Chapel Hill and its Southern Folklife Collection bring scholars, musicians and scholar-musicians to town. Spend a day in Wilson Library, and you can hear Dolly Parton's first recordings, obscure fiddle tunes from the Appalachians and unreleased catalogues from the nation's best pickers.

This, of course, feeds into the self-perpetuation theory for roots music here: chiefly, that North Carolina has a reputation of being the place for roots music, so roots musicians keep coming here, building the scene through a positive feedback loop. Raleigh trio Megafaun supports both theories, thanks to the band's move from Wisconsin (as members of predecessor outfit DeYarmond Edison). Member and clawhammer banjo player Phil Cook is a folk music enthusiast, reveling in Marhsall Wyatt's Old Hat Records compilations and Durham's past as a Piedmont blues Mecca.

But above all else, I point to "The Echo" for this state's current role in roots music. It's the sense that, if you put your ear up to a pine tree, you can hear a mountain ballad or four-part harmony. If music isn't everywhere in this state, it's just two mandolin players away from that goal. "You walk out your front door, and it's hard not to bump into someone who plays piano or sings in the choir at church, or does some pickin' on the banjo or guitar," says Dolph Ramseur, who finds time to manage The Avett Brothers and the Carolina Chocolate Drops when he's not running Ramseur Records. "Growing up in the Piedmont, it seemed that every family I knew had a piano in the living room, and somehow I am sure this helps make a difference." For Merlefest Director Ted Hagaman, it's this simple: The music is part of every North Carolinian's heritage.

Remember, The Echo comes from some noteworthy mouthpieces. Rockingham County's Charlie Poole lived hard, and for only 31 years, but that was long enough for him to establish a legacy that some call the foundation of modern country music. There's Wade Mainer and Elizabeth Cotten, a pair of two-finger stylists on banjo and guitar, respectively; Joe Thompson and his cousin Odell, the former still fiddling at age 88 and a mentor to the Chocolate Drops; Earl Scruggs and Tommy Jarrell on up through ace resurrectionists the Red Clay Ramblers. That's not even half of page one.

"North Carolina is a special place," says Tess Mangum Ocaña, director of the ArtsCenter's American Roots Series, acknowledging that she's a seventh-generation North Carolinian. "We have the musical legacy of genres such as Piedmont blues, of the Carters' Bristol Sessions on the border, of alt-country Grammy winners like Tift Merritt, and of country stars like Randy Travis—whom my grandmother, Kate Mangum, still down in New Salem, N.C., taught to play guitar."

And, in 2007, there's perhaps no better evidence of The Echo in this state than Martin Stephenson, a punk-rock survivor and multifaceted songwriter/performer who lives in Scotland, the home turf of many a ballad that found its way to North Carolina on the lips or fingertips of settlers from the British Isles. His album, Hell's Half Acre: The SoundField Sessions, is a stripped-down wonder recorded on Dolph Ramseur's front porch and released on Ramseur Records. It's a fine companion piece to Stephenson's earlier document of a trip to the Tar Heel State, 2003's Haint of the Budded Rose, a glorious, two-disc ramble that features Stephenson alongside Etta Baker and Taylor Rorrer, the great-great nephew of Charlie Poole's North Carolina Rambler mate Posey Rorer.

The North Carolina Echo, it seems, crosses oceans. From Scotland to North Carolina, then back to Scotland and back to North Carolina, from Wilkesboro to Chapel Hill, from 1927 to 2007, from the backyard of Joe Thompson to the front porches of Dolph Ramseur and Clyde Edgerton, the roots run deep. And that remains wonderful news for those of us who live in this musical gloryland.

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