A preacher’s son and Gulf War veteran born in Fayetteville, Jonathan Byrd’s family history in North Carolina stretches back seven generations. His style ranges from old time to rockabilly, and his lyrics and poems weave colorful landscapes home to working-class heroes, eccentrics, and freedom-seekers, all rooted in the spirit of his native state, particularly on his 2010 album "Cackalack." As well as the title track, the record features songs such as "Wild Ponies," honoring the wild horses of the Outer Banks. “Velma,” a murder ballad Byrd wrote about the last woman to be executed in North Carolina, has been covered by Sam Bush, Jack Lawrence, and others.
Now based in Carrboro, he performs weekly at The Kraken with his band, Jonathan Byrd & The Pickup Cowboys, as part of the Shake Sugaree Americana Residency. Named for the song by Libba Cotten, the residency began in 2018 as a way to help the band get back on its feet following the death of their cellist, Paul Ford, but has since developed a cult following, drawing huge crowds to the tiny, tin-roof roadhouse off Highway 54. The three-hour show features a different guest artist every week, introducing listeners to a variety of local, national, and international musicians, including Joe Newberry and Raleigh-based singer/songwriter Rod Abernethy.
The other Pickup Cowboys have strong North Carolina connections as well. Multi-instrumentalist Johnny Waken and drummer Austin McCall have both performed with Paperhand Puppet Intervention, and McCall also performs with Diali Cissokho & Kaira Ba.
When he’s not at The Kraken, Jonathan Byrd tours across the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., and continues to write poetry. His most recent collection, “You’ve Changed,” was published in 2017 and met with rave reviews.
“Music has always been a thing in North Carolina,” Byrd says in our interview at The Haw River Ballroom. “It’s valued in our culture, but it’s not just one kind of music; it’s all kinds of music, and I think that’s really the strength of the statewide scene.”
You can probably name a few, like James Taylor’s “Going to Carolina” or Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up.” These are the songs that compel folks to embrace or dance with the nearest person who is also bursting with state pride. It’s fair to say that in 2017, G Yamazawa’s “North Cack” ascended to the pantheon of North Carolina anthems.
The song, accompanied by a viral music video directed by fellow Durhamite Kid Ethnic, electrified the internet and compelled the rapper and poetry slam champion G Yamazawa to a national stage.
There’s something special and downright appropriate that our latest state anthem was written by a first-generation American. G Yamazawa grew-up in a family that immigrated to North Carolina from Japan, and in our latest artist profile, he invites us into his universe of North Carolina music.
Born in 1929, Algia Mae Hinton was a blues musician and buck dancer from Johnston County, North Carolina. Raised in a musical family that worked tobacco, Algia Mae Hinton grew up performing music with her community at what many would now think of as house parties. She was one of several excellent Piedmont blues musicians discovered during a movement to document folk artists across North Carolina in the 1970s. She went on to take her music to schools and performance halls around the world, and is remembered for her loving spirit, artistry, and signature move of buck dancing while playing guitar behind her head. She died on February 8, 2018.
This video features footage from the Alan Lomax Collection at the American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, Mike Seeger's film "Talking Feet," and Music Maker Relief Foundation. It also features a photo taken by Roger Manley.
The Magnolia Klezmer Band has performed throughout the Triangle and Triad areas of North Carolina for twenty-three years. Their unique sound comes from the mingling of players with different musical backgrounds: Klezmer, Balkan, jazz, brass band, polka, and classical, and their story proves the power of music to create community.
Klezmer music is a celebratory genre - often performed at weddings - that can be traced to the Yiddish-speaking Jews of Eastern Europe.
"It introduces a whole subculture to a population down here who is unfamilar to it completely," says Elliott Mills, musical director and percussionist in says Magnolia Klezmer band. "So in that sense it brings people together."
Born and raised in Garner, N.C., Williams grew up spending summer with her grandparents in Smithfield, N.C. Music was an integral part of her daily life – her father was a quartet singer and her grandmother was always singing.
“When her heart was heavy there were times when she would just be moaning,” says Williams. “Those songs gave her the tenacity when she was called names, when she was treated disrespectfully. It was like she was really telling me don’t allow what people say to you to be a blocking of you going further but use it as a stepping stone.”
In a typical performance, Williams weaves together African American spirituals from the Civil War era with more modern anthems of the Civil Rights Movement, connecting generations of music and social change.
“The African American slaves talked about the power of the music. It was a way of communicating something over and above what the overseer could understand. The slave community understood exactly what every song meant. It was a way of escape,” says Williams. “The thing about the songs of the enslaved is that they always looked upward. I’m not in slavery, but there are still issues and concerns of our day and trials and tribulations…and the power of a song is a way that you can deliver your own soul.”
Williams first experimented with combining music and history in a concert inspired by writer and scholar Tim Tyson’s book Blood Done Sign My Name. Tyson witnessed the performance and was moved to tears. The two ultimately began teaching a class together at the Center for Documentary Studies at Duke University called “The South in Black and White.” At the beginning of every class, Williams opens the session with music.
“I think people are fascinated not just with the history but [by] the fact that when I present they get to join in. There’s an experience we are all having together,” says Williams. “We develop a community.”
When asked what makes North Carolina music special, Williams says, “North Carolina just has such a presence. We have a lot of history. It is complicated, but in that complication, songs have come up out of it. It came up out of the burden. It comes up out of sorrow, joy, and happiness. It comes up out of family, and I think that’s what makes people feel it. You’re not just singing something as an empty shell. You literally have lived it, and then you’re able to share it. That, again, makes a community.”