“Drum,” the closing track on Hiss Golden Messenger’s fifth album, Lateness Of Dancers, sounds like it contains decades of Carolina music. As a battered acoustic guitar picks and strums out a steady rhythm, a fiddle and banjo dance merrily in the background, then everyone joins in on the hymnal chorus: “Take the good news and spirit it away,” sings the ramshackle choir. In three short minutes the song touches on everything from string-band folk to Piedmont blues finger-picking, from gospel testifying to country-rock twang. Yet, nothing sounds forced or deliberate; instead, these disparate elements meld naturally – a lovely conclusion to an album that confronts faith and doubt, tribulation and salvation.
Hiss Golden Messenger is based in North Carolina, but its frontman, M.C. Taylor, is not a native Tarheel. In fact, he grew up thousands of miles away in California, where he started a band called the Court & Spark. Taylor toured for years, grew weary of the music industry, then relocated to North Carolina to start a family and study folklore. Initially, Hiss Golden Messenger was intended more as a hobby than as a profession, and Taylor recorded the project’s second album, Bad Debt, at his kitchen table, playing and singing softly so as not to wake his newborn son or his tired wife. An early, lonely version of “Drum” first appeared on that album.
For Hiss Golden Messenger’s next two releases Taylor signed to Paradise of Bachelors, an up-and-coming indie label based in Carrboro; both Poor Moon and Haw explore the vagaries of spirituality and worldly temptation, often mining local history and geography for musical and lyrical inspiration. In fact, Haweven takes its title from the river that flows near Taylor’s home, a body of water that figures prominently in Native American lore and more recent industrial history.
Taylor is only one of countless musicians in the Carolinas’ bustling music scene. Durham’s Megafaun seeds its country-folk with noise rock and free jazz, balancing highly structured songcraft with improvisational tangents. Raleigh’s Bowerbirds update old-time folk with vocal harmonies rooted in shape-note singing. Chapel Hill’s Lost in the Trees, fronted by composer Ari Picker, trades in elaborate orchestral arrangements, while the husband-wife team of Shovels & Rope, hailing from down in Charleston, pound out rambunctious country with shades of DIY punk. None of these acts sound alike – or even similar enough to constitute a trend or movement – yet they all draw from the same deep well of Carolina music.
Together, the two states share a long and broad musical history. Every style and genre percolates in their mountains and hollers, on the coasts and fields. Perhaps because the Smoky Mountains separate the Carolinas from the Tennessee and Mississippi valleys, the states have become a musical laboratory, secluded and insular. Local strains of blues, folk, and rock can gestate and mutate over time, as musician can trade and perfect their techniques.
The list of innovative Carolina artists is long and varied. Renowned bebop trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and pianist Thelonious Monk hail from South and North Carolina, respectively, although both men did their best work in New York City. The states have produced numerous R&B artists, including James Brown (born in Elko, South Carolina), former Drifter Clyde McPhatter (Durham), and Roberta Flack (Black Mountain, North Carolina). Self-taught guitar stylist and folk song collector Elizabeth Cotten was born in Chapel Hill, where she wrote one of her most famous tunes, “Freight Train.” Singer-songwriter James Taylor spent his formative years in North Carolina, as did Tift Merritt and Jim Lauderdale. It’s a history too sprawling and unwieldy to pin down, but let’s embark on a tour through some of the scenes, locales, venues, and festivals that still define the music of the Carolinas.