The History Of North Carolina’s Music

Not many places can boast of producing legends of the saxophone, fiddle, as well as punk rockers. Except for the state of North Carolina, that is. The area has a long and rich musical tradition.

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Keep reading for a deep dive into the rich history of North Carolina’s music scene.

The music of the mountains: Old-Time Music and Bluegrass

By far, the state of North Carolina is most known for its old-time music. This folk music genre is often called “old-timey” or mountain music. It can arguably be said to be the oldest native form of music in America. Mostly practiced by the Appalachians, the style was popular at the beginning of the 20th century. It absorbed vaudeville, African-American and parlor music.

It was played on any instruments that practitioners could find, but string instruments dominate its repertoire. The banjo and fiddle are common sounds in the mountains of North Carolina. There’s also the unique music form of “cloggers”, whereby a tune is tapped out using wooden clogs on participants’ feet.

The old-time sound would be influential in another form of music, bluegrass. Many influential bluegrass musicians come from the state. It’s a genre that is strongly associated with Appalachia, just like old-time music. Bluegrass arose in the 1940s and is basically old-time music which got jazzed up with faster beats and playing techniques.

The Blue Ridge Mountain Range is definitely where the music was born. However, bluegrass today is performed all over the world and by many different peoples. Many of the musicians also tour the country since Appalachian communities are all over. For authentic current bluegrass, though, there’s not much better than going to the many local jamborees that still exist.

Indie Music

Hip independent music is also one of North Carolina’s trademarks. Its vibrant tradition can be seen in the hundreds of music festivals that take place across the state. Record labels like Merge Records and venues like the Cat’s Cradle nurture and keep independent music alive. Punk rock had its heyday in Chapel Hill during the 1970s. There’s no doubt it was inspired by a large number of young people in college there. Charlotte, in particular, was also a punk rock center. Many heavy metal bands also came from the state including Lorelei, Weedeater, and Against Their Will.


In some ways, it could be said that modern jazz has its roots in North Carolina. Though they left the state to make it in their music careers, many of the most prominent jazz musicians of all time started out here.

Chief among these is the legendary Nina Simone, however, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane, and Percy Heath all come from the Tar Heel State. As black musicians, their work was influenced heavily by Africa, though Coltrane experimented more with other cultures. Despite how far they roamed, these North Carolina musicians gigged together in big cities. Their work and influences on each other would create the jazz sound we recognize today.