Opinion: Carolina Beat

Southern Culture’s Multiracial Stew Affects American Music

It's difficult to imagine how American popular music would sound without the contributions made by North Carolinians and others from the South.

Recently I watched a documentary about the popular music phenomenon known as the Muscle Shoals sound. The film not only discussed all the top hits that were produced in that distinct Alabama area along the Tennessee River, but also explored why national hits came out of such a small place.

The first megahit from the area was Percy Sledge’s “When A Man Loves A Woman.” There, Wilson Pickett, Aretha Franklin, Etta James, and Duane Allman also recorded hits. The songs were by black and white musicians working together in a seemingly unlikely place for collaboration during the 1960s and 1970s.

Along with Fame Studio producer Rick Hall, the Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section (who later started another studio in town and were referred to as “The Swampers”) improvised grooves during the recording sessions that produced Billboard hits. Lynyrd Skynyrd mentions the local band in “Sweet Home Alabama.” Whether you enjoy their sound, the musicians in and near Muscle Shoals influenced national musical tastes.

All of this information (some recalled and some new) prompted a conversation regarding Southern contributions to the American music scene: Can you imagine American music without the South? What would it sound like? I later thought particularly about North Carolina’s contributions to the music scene.

Indeed, the region has given the nation much of its musical genres that were many times products of the interaction between black and white cultures. The genres include jazz, Dixieland, country, bluegrass, blues, rhythm and blues, zydeco, funk, gospel, Southern gospel, beach music, Tex-Mex, and rock and roll.

Many national and iconic performers hailed from below the Mason-Dixon line. Can you list some?

Did you think of Elvis Presley or Dolly Parton or Buddy Holly or Johnny Cash? How about Ray Charles, James Brown, Little Richard, or Fats Domino? Maybe you thought of Hank Williams or Otis Redding or Bo Diddley. You may have recalled the so-called Southern rock groups, including Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Allman Brothers, Wet Willie, or the Marshall Tucker Band. Or maybe you remembered a gospel or Southern gospel singer or group, such as J.D. Sumner and The Stamps. The list goes on. But I hope you get the point.

North Carolina contributed to the national scene, too. One notable musician was the banjoist Charlie Poole, a native of Randolph County. Another was Thelonious Monk, a Rocky Mount native and pianist who has been called an American original who introduced “bebop” to America. Monk later collaborated with another North Carolinian, John Coltrane, a native of Hamlet who grew up in High Point.

Other notable Tar Heel musicians are Charlie Daniels, Roberta Flack, Maceo Parker, Ben E. King, James Taylor, George Clinton, Doc Watson, Randy Travis, and Nina Simone. Let’s not forget Earl Scruggs.

More contemporary artists with deep North Carolina roots include Ryan Adams, Eric Church, Ben Folds Five, the Avett Brothers, Carolina Chocolate Drops, and Steep Canyon Rangers (who’ve become banjoist/comedian Steve Martin’s regular backup band).

I also began thinking about dance forms, remembering Carolina beach music with its “shag” and Appalachian bluegrass with its “clogging.” As a child growing up in the Piedmont, barbecue was Lexington-style, and eventually I learned how to clog. I even knew some folks who could “flat foot.” As a 10-year-old, I only heard and read about Carolina beach music and shag. At the time, Lexington-style barbecue, verdant rolling hills, and Piedmont textile culture defined North Carolina to me.

Maybe the Great Compromise in North Carolina history occurred in 2005, when clogging was made the official folk dance and shagging was declared the official popular dance. Sometimes one has to give up something to keep what he holds dear.

North Carolinians, and their Southern counterparts, have contributed much to the American music scene.

Dr. Troy Kickler is director of the North Carolina History Project (northcarolinahistory.org).