50 for 50: Artists Celebrate North Carolina

In honor of the N.C. Arts Council's 50th anniversary in 2019, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots wish us a Happy 50th by sharing their North Carolina arts story and reflecting on why public funding for the arts matters.


An image of musician Tift Merritt standing in the crook of a tree with orange leaves, with a large drum propped behind her.

Story & Interview by Sandra Davidson

It was big news when Tift Merritt returned to Raleigh, North Carolina last year. Born in Houston, T.X. but planted in the City of Oaks by the age of two, the Grammy-nominated songstress began making waves in the early 2000s with her dynamic voice and evocative song writing. Last year she and her daughter Jean moved back to her hometown after a nine-year stint in New York City, marking a new chapter of Tift’s career anchored in family, writing, and roots. Tift, a 2019–20 N.C. Artist Fellowship Awardee, shared her thoughts on North Carolina arts in a 50 for 50 interview.

A man in a blue shirt sits on a stool in front of large equipment in a studio space.

Story by Sandra Davidson

Rob Levin is a glass artist and sculptor based in Burnsville, North Carolina. Like so many artists in the Toe River region of western North Carolina, Rob was drawn to the area by Penland School of Craft, where he first fell in love with glassmaking. He moved permanently to Burnsville nearly 40 years ago, and has since built a career of international renown.

Eddie Ray

Interview by Sandra Davidson & Wayne Martin | Photos Courtesy N.C. Music Hall of Fame

Edward Riley Ray, commonly known as Eddie Ray, is a North Carolina treasure and commercial music industry icon. Born in 1926 in Western North Carolina, Eddie worked his way up from stock-boy at a Milwaukee record distribution warehouse to the gilded executive rooms of America’s biggest record labels. A true innovator, Eddie relied on his gut instinct, appetite for work, and disregard for social and industry norms to build a career that contributed to the success of musicians like Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino, and Pink Floyd.

A man and a woman posing in front of a window

Story by Sandra Davidson

Thirty years ago somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the great American west, two twenty-somethings decided it would be fun to start a record label. The duo, Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, noted a desert road sign on their cross-country trip back to North Carolina and decided to name the label after it: Merge. It was 1989, and the mission of Merge was simple: to release music made by them and their friends.

A close up photo of Billy Edd Wheeler smilling

Interview by Sandra Davidson

Billy Edd Wheeler says a good song just grabs you from the start. He would know. The 86-year-old Swannanoa resident is one of North Carolina’s most successful songwriters. Most famous for writing “Jackson,” the iconic duet popularized by Johnny Cash and June Carter, Billy Edd’s songs have been recorded by Judy Collins, Neil Young, The Kingston Trio, Elvis Presley, Kenny Rogers and more. Over 150 artists have recorded his lyrics including the famous “The Reverend Mr. Black” and “Coward of the County.” He is a member of the Nashville Association of Songwriters International’s Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. A true renaissance man, Billy Edd Wheeler is also playwright, novelist, poet, painter, singer, and sculptor.

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