We’re back with the final installment of our Classic North Carolina album list. We kick off this final installment with a classic from J. Cole who turns 34 today. Enjoy!
J. Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014)
“J. Cole went platinum with no features!” echoed throughout the social media-verse after the rapper’s third studio album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, sold its millionth copy. With the world of hip-hop dominated by collaborations, name drops, and flavors of the week, J. Cole managed to dominate the charts on his own, an impressive feat and testament to his talent. The album, named after his childhood home address in Fayetteville, N.C., tackles J. Cole’s meteoric rise from a kid in North Carolina to an international superstar.
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers – Rare Bird Alert (2011)
Formed in 2000 while students at UNC Chapel Hill, the Steep Canyon Rangers cut their teeth playing music festivals across the country. In 2007 they won “Emerging Artist of the Year” at the International Bluegrass Music Association Award ceremony. This caught the attention of famed comedian/banjoist Steve Martin, and he invited them to perform a benefit show in 2009. The collaboration was a success, and they took the show to Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, and Prairie Home Companion. This 2011 album features 13 Steve Martin originals with the Rangers on instrumentation, and a little help from the Dixie Chicks and Sir Paul McCartney. A big project for one of the biggest bluegrass bands in our state today.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig (2010)
Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops after attending the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in 2005. Their mission was big: to rewrite popular narratives of string band and old-time music by celebrating African and African-American’s contribution to the genre. Five years later Genuine Negro Jig, their third full length album, won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. The original members of the band have since parted ways, embarking on their own solo careers.
Thelonious Monk – Underground (1968)
This album’s striking cover art, depicting Monk as a French Resistance fighter in World War II, along with the its title Underground, is thought to be Monk’s nod to the growing youth subculture of the day and perhaps his acceptance of his place in it – a rebel now showing his age but also his experience. Underground premiered four new original compositions and was the Rocky Mount native’s second to last studio release. It marked the final recording done by the famous Thelonious Monk Quartet, whose comfort and growth as players is evident, with solos and riffs effortlessly weaving in and out of each other as if played by one musician on four different instruments.
Anthony Hamilton – Comin’ From Where I’m From (2003)
Neo-soul star Anthony Hamilton’s breakthrough album Comin’ From Where I’m From stayed on the Billboard charts for 76 consecutive weeks and went platinum in 2004. Born and raised in Charlotte, N.C., Hamilton introduced a new set of music fans to our state through this album, which is packed with stories about his life in North Carolina. Highlights include “Cornbread, Fish & Collard Greens,” and “Mama Knew Love.”
Avett Brothers: Mignonette (2004)
Before they were selling out stadiums, recording albums with Rick Rubin, and serving as subjects of HBO documentaries, Concord, North Carolina’s Avett Brothers were putting out folk rock albums on Ramseur Records. Mignonette, the Avett’s third release on Dolph Ramseur’s record label, saw the group come into their own with tight harmonies, polished songwriting, and a balance of tender love songs and energetic barn-burners that they would ride to international acclaim.
Fantasia: Free Yourself (2004)
The first of three American Idol victors from North Carolina, High Point’s Fantasia Barrino’s debut album, Free Yourself, saw her collaborating with some of the best in the business – including Jermaine Dupri and Missy Elliott . The album sold 250,000 copies in its first week, eventually receiving platinum status and earning three Grammy nominations.
Eric Church: Carolina (2009)
Country music superstar Eric Church’s sophomore release is a literal acknowledgement to his home. Carolina, released in 2009, helped Church solidify himself in the country scene, giving him three Top-10 hits on the Billboard Hot Country charts. The night before the album was officially released, Church returned to his alma mater, Appalachian State University – just up the road from his hometown of Granite Falls – and passed out copies to students.
Branford Marsalis Quartet with the North Carolina Symphony: American Spectrum (2009)
A North Carolina based living jazz legend teams up with America’s first continuously state-funded orchestra for a fantastic revue of American classical music. Marsalis’ quartet along with the 66-member orchestra, conducted by Grant Llewellyn, brings us beautiful renditions of Michael Daugherty’s “Sunset Strip”, John Williams’ “Escapades” from Catch Me If You Can, and Christopher Rouse’s “Frandises” suite.
John Coltrane: A Love Supreme (1965)
Coltrane made an appearance earlier this month via his momentous collaboration album with Thelonious Monk, but there is no way we couldn’t include what might just be the most important jazz album of all time. Composed entirely by Coltrane, A Love Supreme is a meditation on faith, personal growth, addiction and acceptance. Through the songs “Acknowledgment,” “Resolution,” “Pursuance”, and “Psalm.” Coltrane utilized what he referred to as “musical narration” to portray a message without words. At just over 30-minutes, this recording is concise but pointed, with every note intentional and full of purpose.
Hiss Golden Messenger: Heart Like a Levee (2016)
“You can’t choose your blues / But you might as well own them” a triumphant refrain in the chorus of this album’s second track, “Tell Her I’m Just Dancing,” and as good a summary for M.C. Taylor’s output with Hiss Golden Messenger as any. His seventh LP, and second with North Carolina indie powerhouse Merge Records, gives the listener a full peek into everything Taylor and co. have to offer – blue-eyed soul, neo-folk, bluesy psychedelia – all drenched in a distinctly North Carolina slow-drawl.
Blind Boy Fuller: East Coast Piedmont Style (1991)
We close this week with another compilation album, which is a necessary concession for a Piedmont blues artist like Fulton Allen aka Blind Boy Fuller. This collection of songs, recorded from 1935 to 1938 and remastered in 1991, were all singles captured and released by ARC (American Record Corporation), with whom Fuller recorded over 120 songs. This record showcases his skills as a guitarist in the Piedmont blues style, clever songwriting and his clear and direct voice. Many of Blind Boy Fuller’s songs have become blues standards, including “Rag Mama Rag.”
Flat Duo Jets - Flat Duo Jets (1990)
As true a “garage band” as there ever was, Flat Duo Jets' eponymous debut was recorded directly to a two-track recorder in guitarist and chief songwriter Dex Romweber’s Carrboro garage. A mainstay of 1980s and ‘90s underground scenes in the Triangle and beyond, the sound, style, and ethos of Flat Duo Jets greatly influenced Jack White of the White Stripes, who adopted their appreciation for gritty but classic rock and roll.
Rapsody – Laila’s Wisdom (2017)
This recording from up-and-coming hip hop star Rapsody garnered national acclaim and two Grammy nominations. The Snow Hill, N.C. native’s flow and lyrical chops on this album, which features Kendrick Lamar, Busta Rhymes and Anderson.Paak are insightful, soulful and, at times, cocky. Catch a big North Carolina shout out on the jam “Chrome (Like Ooh) as well as production appearances from fellow North Carolinian and legendary hip-hop producer 9th Wonder.
Roberta Flack – First Take (1969)
This debut album from Black Mountain’s own Roberta Flack took some time to get off the ground, but when Clint Eastwood’s 1971 film Play Misty For Me featured the track “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face,” both the song and album skyrocketed to #1 on the Billboard charts. The song went on to win a Grammy for Record of the Year and Flack won a second Grammy the following year with “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” She remains the only performer to win consecutive awards in that category.
Gov’t Mule – Live at Roseland Ballroom (1995)
Asheville’s Warren Haynes might be the busiest man in music. When he has a break from playing guitar for The Allman Brothers Band, The Grateful Dead, Dave Matthews Band, or any side project of the three, he is playing with his own group, Gov’t Mule. For a man always on the road, a live album might just be the best representation of his work. The second release from Gov’t Mule, and their first of many live releases, displays his talents and leaves no doubt as to why he is recruited to perform with Southern rock greats.
Sylvan Esso – Sylvan Esso (2014)
This debut from Durham-based synth pop duo sees Amelia Meath (Mountain Man) and Nick Sanborn (Megafaun, Made of Oak) utilizing little more than a laptop, a Moog synthesizer (made in Asheville, N.C.), and Meath’s voice to create lush landscapes, effectively translating their folk songwriting roots to an electronic palate.
Angel Olsen – Burn Your Fire For No Witness (2014)
Recorded at Echo Mountain Recording in her adopted hometown of Asheville, N.C. Angel Olsen’s release very much feels like the place it was written. Olsen’s equally somber and triumphant voice lends itself beautifully to a Blue Ridge Mountain backdrop.
Etta Baker – One Dime Blues (1990)
Though an active musician for all of her life, Morganton’s Etta Baker released her first solo album when she in her late seventies. Playing and singing beautifully at this stage of her life. One Dime Blues highlights her entire life of writing and playing. The 20 songs on this album showcase the musicianship and authenticity which earned her a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts and and crystalized her reputation as a master of Piedmont blues.
We’re back with part two of our list of classic North Carolina albums.
Flat & Scruggs – The Essential Flatt & Scruggs: ‘Tis Sweet to Be Remembered (1997)
Is it cheating to pick a best-of compilation album when we’re dealing with one of the most important bluegrass bands of all time? We think not. Banjo virtuoso Earl Scruggs – a Shelby, NC native – met Tennessee guitarist and vocalist Lester Flat through Bill Monroe, the “Father of Bluegrass,” in 1945. They played in Monroe’s quintet until striking out on their own in 1948. For the next two-decades, the duo marshalled bluegrass to an international stage, and this album chronicles 19-years of their recordings, including the bluegrass standard “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Down in the Flood.
Parliament – Mothership Connection (1975)
In 1975, Kinston native Maceo Parker abandoned his post with the Godfather of Soul and hopped aboard Kannapolis born George Clinton’s Mothership. The result was one of the most important funk records of all time, and North Carolina is all over it. Clinton brought the interstellar P-Funk vision, Parker brought the tight horn section from his time with James Brown, and together they “Tear the Roof off the Sucker.” The Library of Congress added Mothership Connection to the National Recording Registry in 2011, citing the album’s “enormous influence on jazz, rock, and dance music.”
Superchunk – No Pocky for Kitty (1991)
Superchunk was a key player in Chapel Hill’s indie scene in the 1990s. Recorded over three days with legendary producer Steve Albini (whose worked with Nirvana, Joanna Newsome, and Cheap Trick), this album encapsulates the sound of their era – great songwriting intentionally obscured by harsh tones, blurring the lines between punk rock and indie rock. Originally released on Matador Records, the album was re-released in 1999 on Superchunk founding member’s Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance’s Durham-based label, Merge Records.
Elizabeth Cotten – Folksongs and Instrumentals with Guitar (1958)
This collection, recorded by musician and folk music documentarian Mike Seeger, brought attention to Wlizabeth “Libba” Cotten’s repertoire, which consisted of blues from the North Carolina Piedmont along with reels and folksongs that pre-dated the blues. Being left-handed, she played a right-handed guitar upside down, and the result was a truly unique sound coined as “Cotten picking.” Inspired by the trains running near her childhood home in Carrboro, North Carolina, she penned the second track, “Freight Train,” when she was 11-years-old.
Shirley Caesar – First Lady (1977)
Born in Durham, NC in 1938, gospel singer and pastor Shirley Caesar is often referred to as “First Lady of Gospel Music.” With 11 Grammy Awards, 17 Dove Awards, and a National Heritage Fellowship Award to her name, she is one of North Carolina’s most decorated musicians. This classic 1970s recording blends sacred music with the sounds of funk and soul.
Ryan Adams – Heartbreaker (2000)
After cutting his teeth in Raleigh’s underground circuit with his alt-country outfit Whiskeytown, Ryan Adams – born and raised in Jacksonville, NC – set off on his own with Heartbreaker. This debut effort let the world know he was ready for fame. Among many of the album’s memorable tracks is “Oh My Sweet Carolina,” an ode to his home state that features Emmylou Harris on backing vocals.
Billy Strayhorn – The Peaceful Side (1961)
Composer, arranger, pianist, and lyricist Billy Strayhorn has long been recognized as the right-hand man of Duke Ellington. Strayhorn spent many of his childhood summers with his grandparents in Hillsborough, N.C., where he was first drawn to the piano. Taylor’s work for Ellington created some of the most recognizable sounds of jazz music, but this is his only solo recording. His skills as a pianist shine on the album, which primarily consists of solo piano takes on 10 of his most popular songs, including “take the A Train.”
Get into a weekend groove with the first installment of our Spotify playlist series. Curated by N.C. Arts Council Executive Director Wayne Martin and Music Director Carly Jones, and Come Hear North Carolina Music curator Brendan Greaves, this playlist takes you on a brief chronological journey through North Carolina’s rich musical history.
Hello again and welcome back to Come Hear North Carolina, your home for all things North Carolina music in 2019. Every week in January, we are publishing a list of iconic albums made by North Carolinians. Our hope is that you spend time listening – really listening – to these records. Some of the artists featured on this list have national and international influence, while others are regional heroes with voices that illuminate local traditions and culture. The humanity, honesty and sheer genius captured in the sprawling sonic and lyrical landscapes of these works embody the diversity of North Carolina’s people and geography.
Nina Simone – Silk & Soul (1967)
How does one choose only one album to represent the “High Priestess of Soul”? A daunting task indeed, and one not taken lightly. Silk & Soul kicks off with a rip-roaring “It Be’s That Way Sometime,” highlighting all of Simone’s skills as bandleader, pianist, and vocal improviser; the record also features Grammy-nominated “Go to Hell” (bested by Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools”), and, most notably, a cover of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” composed by North Carolina Award recipient and Greenville native Billy Taylor, which became a Civil Rights anthem.
James Taylor – James Taylor (1968)
James Taylor is one of North Carolina’s most famous musicians. This 1968 debut album was recorded in London and released by the Beatles’ label Apple Records It features vocal and instrumental appearances by George Harrison and Paul McCartney, and the first recordings of “Something in the Way She Moves,” and “Carolina On My Mind,” arguably our unofficial state anthem.
Plant and See (Willie French Lowery) – Plant and See (1969, 2012)
Pioneering interracial swamp-psych band Plant and See was the short-lived project of influential songwriter, singer, and guitarist Willie French Lowery—an icon of North Carolina’s Lumbee community, the largest tribe East of the Mississippi—and his bandmates, African American drummer Forris Fulford, Latino bassist Ron Seiger, and Scotch-Irish backup vocalist Carol Fitzgerald. Lowery, who grew up in tri-racial Robeson County, soon renamed the band after his tribe, Lumbee, and went on to tour with the Allman Brothers and to write the unofficial tribal national anthem “Proud to Be a Lumbee.” Plant and See’s humid, storm-cloud guitars, ductile vocal harmonies, and intuitive, loose-limbed drumming are redolent of a specifically Southern syncretic musical identity and sense of place, testifying to the outstanding, colorblind musicianship of its members. The album was reissued by North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors in 2012.
Little Brother – The Minstrel Show (2005)
Little Brother’s Phonte, Big Pooh, and 9th Wonder met at North Carolina Central University in 1998. The underground hip-hop trio was signed by Atlantic Records after they released their first full-length studio album in 2003. This critically acclaimed release is a concept album based around a fictional television station that satirizes the stereotypical portrayal of African Americans in the media. The albums critique of modern rap and the mediums that distribute it created controversy and a music video ban by BET. It’s far and away one of the most important hip-hop records made by North Carolinians.
Doc & Merle Watson – Two Days in November (1974)
The album title references the two days it took father/son duo Doc and Merle Watson to cut this fantastic collection of songs. The tight, ten-track record shows off their skills as pickers, songwriters, arrangers, and re-interpreters and earned them the 1975 Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. Doc and Merle first cut a record together in 1965, and they released their last album in 1985, the same year of Merle’s tragic death. Doc established MerleFest, a folk music festival in 1988 in honor of his son.
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane – At Carnegie Hall (Recorded 1957)
In 1957, Thelonious Monk took up residency at a little club in New York CIty called the Five Spot Café, accompanied by Wilbur Ware on bass, Shadow Wilson on drums, and a fellow North Carolina ex-pat, John Coltrane, on tenor sax. Contractual problems hindered significant recorded output from this quartet, but in 2005 the Library of Congress, through Blue Note Records, discovered and released a performance with these jazz titans, recorded from Carnegie Hall on Thanksgiving in 1957. Newsweek described the recording as “the musical equivalent of the discovery of a new Mount Everest.” Take a climb.
Caroline Shaw – Partita for 8 Voices (2012)
“To the side. To the side. To the side and around.” With those simple lyrics, the world of classical music was introduced to the organized chaos of square-dancing calls, and Caroline Shaw introduced herself as one of today’s most innovative and joyous composers. Composed by the Greenville native from for her acapella group, Roomful of Teeth, this stunning work was awarded a Grammy and later won Shaw a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013. She is the youngest award recipient in the history of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and the vocalist, violinist, composer, and producer has since gone on to record with Kanye West, The National and Nas.
Two months ago, on a cold November night, a crowd of several hundred musicians, record label owners, presenters, artist managers, archivists, writers, podcasters and state employees gathered in the North Carolina Executive Mansion with the Governor and First Lady, Roy and Kristin Cooper. United by a common interest in music connected to or made in our state, this convocation of music aficionados congregated to hear the Coopers officially proclaim 2019 as North Carolina Year of Music and to learn what this much-rumored-but-yet-to-be-publicly-revealed statewide music initiative was all about.
That campaign officially launches today as Come Hear North Carolina. For the past year the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, with the North Carolina Arts Council as the lead agency, has created a plan to celebrate and document our state’s incredible music story.
Durham, N.C. hip-hop artist Gyamazawa at Shakori Hills.
Photo from Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios
The scope of activities planned for 2019 is inspiring. We are sharing daily stories on our blog about the people and places who make our music so special. We are also sponsoring North Carolina musician stages at major festivals, supporting educational programing, and commissioning new work by our state’s musicians. It is our hope that by the end of this year, people across our state and beyond have a deeper appreciation of what makes music here so authentic, special, and compelling.
North Carolinians have made groundbreaking contributions to many of America’s most important musical genres – think Doc Watson, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, and James Taylor. As documented through our arts tourism trails, music is a way of life here and a medium of deep creative, spiritual, and cultural expression for our people. Today, the thousands of North Carolinians who work in the music industry collectively strengthen our economy and enrich our cultural life.
Instruments at N.C. Heritage Awardee Tony Williamson’s shop, Mandomania
Gospel Singer Mary D. Williams from Johnston County, N.C.
Given these accomplishments, you would think that North Carolina musicians, past and present, would be celebrated regularly and that our state would recognize music as one of our most valuable cultural assets. Up to now, that hasn’t been the case; perhaps North Carolinians’ tendency to refrain from braggadocio and let our accomplishments stand on their own merits has kept us from holding our music up to the world.
Our New Year’s resolution is to change our ways a bit and proclaim North Carolina as THE Music State. It is going to be an exciting year and we welcome you to join us for the ride!
The Come Hear North Carolina Team