The folk duo Mandolin Orange announced its first headlining engagement at the Ryman Auditorium early this year, and tickets sold so fast that the hallowed venue added a second night. On a recent hot September weekend, the shows offered a cocoon of string-band heart and refined songcraft amid the blaring bars of downtown. And it was a landmark for the artists, married couple Emily Frantz and Andrew Marlin, who launched their musical union ten years ago in Chapel Hill, NC. "This is the first tune Emily and I ever worked out together," said Marlin as they tuned up to play Bob Dylan's "Boots of Spanish Leather." "We did not think we'd be singing it at the Ryman."
By coincidence, the shows fell on the eve of AmericanaFest 2019, and they couldn't have been better timed to invoke the spirit of the week ahead and its focus on the music of North Carolina. Mandolin Orange has enjoyed a breakout year, debuting on the Grand Ole Opry, playing the elite festivals and releasing their most successful album to date, Tides Of A Teardrop, in February. And they played the NC Governor's Mansion early this year, as part of a statewide effort on behalf of regional culture and music.
The state's Come Hear NC campaign, a multi-prong initiative of the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, was on site all week - as an exhibit table and panels at the Westin Hotel, as a Saturday party co-hosted with Yep Roc Records of Hillsborough and as showcases at The Mercy Lounge and 3rd & Lindsley.
The latter bill included NC-born star songwriter Jim Lauderdale, bluegrass quartet Chatham County Line, Asheville world-folk band Rising Appalachia, the eccentric and brilliant Malcolm Holcombe and emerging songwriter Emily Scott Robinson. Robinson closed her set with her musical version of the North Carolina state toast, whose lyrics, more than a century old, offer a romantic and botanic ode: "Here’s to the land where the galax grows, Where the rhododendron’s rosette glows," she sang in one verse. "Where soars Mount Mitchell’s summit great, In the “Land of the Sky,” in the Old North State!"
“It wasn’t like AmericanaFest was just throwing North Carolina a bone," said Robinson, a Greensboro native, in an interview this week about her showcase and the surrounding events. "North Carolina really is a very special state for musicians. We’ve really got something going on.”
As a native son, I'm biased, but a quick survey of recent history bolsters Robinson's sentiment. The Avett Brothers and the Carolina Chocolate Drops blew up in the last decade, filling large venues and defining a new normal for contemporary folk and roots culture across the US. Merge Records, a venerable and eclectic label, has empowered the rise of M.C. Taylor, the sophisticated Durham songwriter who tours as Hiss Golden Messenger. Also making impressions nationally out of the Triangle are string band Mipso and hard country singer-songwriter Sarah Shook, whose Saturday night show at the Mercy Lounge balanced snarl with sentiment and twang with rock and roll.
The western edge of the state - defined by the culturally rich Blue Ridge Mountains - is a cradle of roots music, with a lineage that includes Charlie Poole, Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Doc Watson, just to name a few. That history laid the foundation for a vibrant contemporary music scene and business ecosystem in and around Asheville, out of which has emerged Balsam Range, The Steep Canyon Rangers, Town Mountain, Amanda Anne Platt and the Honeycutters, Fireside Collective and a lot more. The region's music business synergy was the subject of a panel on Friday afternoon.
"Everyone on this panel works in different parts of the industry, but we all are in cahoots with each other," said Garret Woodward, arts and music editor for the Smoky Mountain News. "We talk. We hang out, drink beers. We get excited about new bands. That's a big part of the scene - that the powers that be want to help everybody else out." He and others also pointed out that people around Asheville love and turn out for live music. The beauty of the region attracts a cohort that values artists. Even the panel seemed impressed at the percentage of the area's population - about 250,000 in Buncombe County - that attends shows regularly at venues with capacities in the hundreds and thousands. The nationally famous beer culture there - more than 70 breweries - are nearly all involved in supporting or presenting live music, they said.
“We really do work together," said panelist Martin Anderson in an interview a few days later. He's the music director at WNCW, the long-established radio leader for roots music in the region. "And the fact that Asheville is as small as it is, more intimate than the big city of Nashville, has made it easier. Also, a lot of those folks have had to wear different hats. There were musicians who realized, you know, actually what I need to do is more on the industry side of things. And that has helped them learn how to further the Asheville music scene.”
Come Hear NC, which spent $15,000 to be an AmericanaFest sponsor this year, is the public facing component of an effort by the North Carolina Arts Council and the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources to bolster music awareness and engagement in the state. "It started in 2019 when our Governor, Roy Cooper, declared 2019 as the Year of Music," said the department's deputy secretary Staci Meyer at Saturday's Yep Roc day party. Late last year, the state sponsored and spread the word about a NC-focused music issue of the Oxford American, with stories about Nina Simone, James Taylor, Rhiannon Giddens and others. "That was our first big piece that we rolled out," Meyer said. "We’ve been doing content for 365 days this year. We sponsored festivals and concerts. Our Governor and First Lady host Music At The Mansion, (a concert series) which has been really successful. We’ve had artists, very well known, and some not so well known."
Meyer clarifies that while reaching potential musical tourists to the state is one aspect of the program, Come Hear NC is at least as focused at the state's own citizens, particularly school kids in rural areas. Traditional Arts Programs cover Appalachian music in the west, blues in the piedmont and R&B/funk in and around Kinston in the east, where James Brown's sax player Maceo Parker is involved in music education. "So whatever music is special to that community, those children are learning that at a very low cost or free program, where instruments are provided and the musicians of their community are sitting with them knee-to-knee and teaching them music," Meyer says. "That protects our cultural history and it tells our music story from generation to generation.”
Songwriter Robinson sees the program as a vital counterpart to the heavy emphasis in the schools on science and math. "As somebody who came up in the school system, in middle and high school bands and arts programs, I saw even then how they were working on shoestring budgets," she told WMOT. "So to me, any effort to highlight our history to teach our history of music – to encourage the continued evolution of music in North Carolina, to me they’re doing great work. It was much needed. Money matters. Funding matters. So I’m so happy to see this is happening in an official capacity.”
This North Carolinian's personal favorite AmericanaFest moment came at Friday night's state showcase at the Mercy Lounge. Don Dixon, Mitch Easter and Chris Stamey - all songwriters, producers and former members of Southern power pop bands Let's Active, The dB's and Arrogance - played a set together, including the beloved old jangle pop nuggets "Every Word Means No" and "Waters Part." For those of us who came of age in the Triangle area in the 1980s, it was a time tunnel back to some important musical awakenings, even as the bluegrass and folk of Western NC awaited my deeper discovery.
You can find Come Hear NC's 365 days of musical content here. One of the newest features Jim Lauderdale recording his new single "When Carolina Comes Home Again" here. The 30th gathering of the International Bluegrass Music Association starts on Monday in Raleigh, culminating in the Wide Open Bluegrass Festival on Friday and Saturday.