A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

It was all in the twirl. I couldn’t do it. My feet would get tangled, and I’d wind up sprawled on the living room floor of my family’s mid-century ranch

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

It was all in the twirl. I couldn’t do it. My feet would get tangled, and I’d wind up sprawled on the living room floor of my family’s mid-century ranch

Rock, Roll, & Remember

It was all in the twirl. I couldn’t do it. My feet would get tangled, and I’d wind up sprawled on the living room floor of my family’s mid-century ranch home in Asheboro like the coyote in those old Road Runner cartoons. But Michael Roper could do it. He was my elementary school hero. Tall and toothpick thin, with a perfectly coifed Afro twice the size of his head, Michael, in the early 1970s, personified preteen rock ’n’ roll cool. He’d stick thumbtacks in the heels of his boots so that they’d tap rhythmically on the linoleum tiles of Lindley Park School as he strutted down the hallways between classes, dancing, pirouetting, and singing every word to Jackson 5 hits like “I Want You Back” and “ABC.” I wanted to be Michael Roper. Better yet, I wanted to be Michael Jackson.

From 1969 to 1973, The Jackson 5 were to my peers and me what The Beatles were to our older siblings and what Elvis Presley had been to our parents. They were thrilling — larger-than-life pop stars who appeared on our TV screens on Saturday mornings as cartoon characters and then, later, in the evenings, as living, breathing guests on variety shows like The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour. With money I earned mowing lawns and delivering newspapers, I’d bicycle downtown to Archie Burkhead’s Record Shop on weekends and buy every Jackson 5 album and 45 RPM single that I could afford. Then I’d cart them back home and retreat to the living room, where I spent hours sitting in front of our big wooden stereo console surrounded by teenybopper magazines and vinyl records.

As a kid, the author would buy every Jackson 5 album and 45 RPM single that he could afford. photograph by PICTORIAL PRESS LTD/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

Growing up in Asheboro, the author combed through magazines in his bedroom and in his family’s living room, searching for just the right records to buy. Photography courtesy of MARK KEMP

The living room was my sanctuary. With its mustard-yellow carpet, gold chandelier, and upright piano that sat next to a window overlooking our front yard, it provided an escape from my hometown. By junior high, I’d replaced the teenybopper magazines with issues of Rolling Stone and my J5 records with albums by harder, grittier groups like The Allman Brothers Band, Pink Floyd, and Parliament-Funkadelic. I couldn’t get enough of this music. When I put the needle to the grooves of a rock ’n’ roll record and listened as the first pops and crackles gave way to the glorious roar of electric guitars, I was transported to another world — one far away from the hosiery mills and dairy farms of Randolph County.

Rock ’n’ roll and music magazines were my two tickets to paradise. I spent my high school years driving to concerts and festivals across the state; left home to attend college at East Carolina University, where I studied English and took journalism classes; and eventually made a career in New York City and Los Angeles as an editor and writer for some of the very magazines that I’d devoured as a teenager: Rolling Stone, Creem, Spin. When punk rock and hip-hop arrived in the ’70s and early ’80s, I turned my back on the old rock ’n’ roll and embraced the new. But like Thomas Wolfe, I was ultimately lured back home to explore the music that had initially sheltered me in place. In 2004, I wrote Dixie Lullaby: A Story of Music, Race and New Beginnings in a New South, a book that documented the uneasy convergence of Southern musical styles — the blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, folk, and country — that had given birth to rock ’n’ roll. Much of that converging, I found, had happened right in my backyard.

• • •

If you’re going to devote your life to rock ’n’ roll, you could do worse than come from North Carolina, whose majestic mountains, rolling hills, eastern flatlands, and miles of coastline have inspired some of the most inventive and cutting-edge popular music this country’s ever produced. It all started with another kid from Randolph County, a mill worker named Charlie Poole. In 1925, he became one of the first big stars of country music, selling more than 100,000 copies of his song “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down Blues” during a period when selling 20,000 was considered a major hit, a time when only about 6,000 record players even existed in the southern United States.

One of North Carolina’s earliest popular artists was Charlie Poole (far left, with The North Carolina Ramblers). Photography courtesy of State Archives of North Carolina

Elizabeth Cotten pioneered picking techniques that acoustic guitarists still use today. photograph by GAB ARCHIVE/REDFERNS/GETTY IMAGES

From the 1920s to the 1950s, numerous other North Carolina musicians in multiple genres surfaced, laying the groundwork for the rock ’n’ roll that would come to define the generation of post-war baby boomers who came of age in the 1960s. The shortlist includes Wadesboro-born singer and guitarist Blind Boy Fuller, who learned to play guitar as a youth and made a living performing for spare change on street corners outside tobacco warehouses in Durham and Winston-Salem. Fuller’s pioneering 1930s Piedmont blues style would profoundly influence later rock ’n’ rollers like The Rolling Stones, The Grateful Dead, and Led Zeppelin. There was the Hamlet-born, High Point-raised saxophonist John Coltrane, whose improvisational jazz of the 1950s would inspire rock ’n’ roll guitarists like Duane Allman of The Allman Brothers Band. There was Doc Watson of Deep Gap and Elizabeth Cotten of Carrboro, two inventive folk guitarists whose late-’50s and early-’60s ballads would serve as bedrock material for the New York City-based urban folk revival that spawned young, literary-minded singer-songwriters like Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell.

Doc Watson’s flat-picking style inspired a new generation of musicians. photograph by PETER FIGEN

And then there was Link Wray, North Carolina’s first bona fide rock ’n’ roller, whose 1958 hit “Rumble” was arguably the one song that had the greatest impact on all subsequent rock guitarists, from Jimi Hendrix to every kid who ever plugged an electric guitar into an amp and blasted their way into oblivion in their family’s basement or garage.

Something about North Carolina lends itself not just to the creation of great rock ’n’ roll, but also to the promotion of it as over-the-top theater, outrageous entertainment for working people. As a boy, Dolph Ramseur, who grew up in a textile family in Concord, followed NASCAR and professional wrestling before moving on to music in his teens. Early on, Ramseur, who today manages The Avett Brothers and chairs the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, saw a connection between racin’, rasslin’, and rock ’n’ roll — they all represented some form of rebellion, of anti-authoritarianism. So when it came time to promote the Avetts, he looked back to the way that former Charlotte Motor Speedway president Humpy Wheeler had used wild, unexpected publicity stunts to help transform NASCAR from a Southern pastime into a national sensation.

The Avett Brothers’ August 2020 “drive-in” concert at the Charlotte Motor Speedway was so successful that they did a second one that October. photograph by GARRY ELLER/@GEPIMAGES

One memorable Ramseur stunt: In 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, when no public concerts were being held, he had an idea for a way to present the Avetts live while still allowing for safe social distancing. The band would perform a “drive-in concert” at the iconic Charlotte-area racetrack. That August, more than 1,500 carloads of fans, safely sequestered in their vehicles, drove onto the grounds of the speedway, where the Avetts took a victory lap around the track in a race car before hitting the stage, broadcast on a 16,000-square-foot TV screen with the music piped into each car. It was a classic rock ’n’ roll spectacle, and not just a little reminiscent of Wheeler’s P.T. Barnum-esque stunts, like having Army commandos storm the infield track area before a big NASCAR race.

• • •

In the summer of 1972, I sat next to my friend Robert inside the cavernous Greensboro Coliseum, giddy with excitement. When the house lights went down, the screams intensified and the flashcubes atop Kodak Instamatics popped. And then — pow! — spotlights illuminated, zeroing in on the five lanky brothers who appeared onstage as if by magic, all flowery suits and big Afros, dancing, pirouetting, and singing every word to “I Want You Back” and “ABC.”

Robert and I were attending our very first rock ’n’ roll concert: The Jackson 5 — in person! One young girl at the front tried to scale the wall separating the crowd from the stage. Another threw her locket at Michael as he sang the funky “I Want to Be Where You Are,” and she cried when he crooned “I’ll Be There.”

This was my dream come true. Experiencing the music that I loved in my family’s living room was one thing — occupying the same enormous space as my musical heroes was quite another. After the concert, I went back home and studied the covers of every Jackson 5, Partridge Family, and Monkees record strewn about the living room floor. Combed through my teenybopper magazines like they were textbooks, memorizing Michael’s favorite groups (Sly and the Family Stone, the Staple Singers, and Led Zeppelin), David Cassidy’s favorite snack food (dry-roasted peanuts), and Davy Jones’s favorite color (blue). And I continued sitting in front of our big wooden stereo console, eyes shut, headphones on, daydreaming of a world in which I could mingle with pop stars.

Maybe one day, I thought, I’d be the one asking them about their favorite groups and snack foods and colors. Maybe I’d be a player in the arena of rock ’n’ roll.

The Avett Brothers’ memorabilia can be found inside the NC Music Hall of Fame in Kannapolis. Photography courtesy of THE CABARRUS COUNTY CONVENTION AND VISITORS BUREAU - WWW.VISITCABARRUS.COM

These Magic Moments

Take a journey into North Carolina’s musical past.

Strolling through the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame is like walking the narrow winding streets of a modern urban village — only the street signs in this museum in Kannapolis have names like Country Road, Bluegrass Street, Jazz Alley, and Pop & Rock Xing. And instead of shops and restaurants, exhibits display musical instruments, awards, clothing, and other memorabilia representing some of our state’s most famous stars.

In one corner: an elegant suit belonging to Durham-born Clyde McPhatter stands next to a framed copy of Henderson native Ben E. King’s No. 1 hit of 1961, “Stand By Me.” In another: an acoustic guitar with a big red strap that reads “Crash Craddock,” the name of the Greensboro rockabilly singer whose “Rub It In” topped Billboard’s country chart in 1974. And in yet another: portraits of Black Mountain-born soul singer Roberta Flack next to a shimmery gold jumpsuit worn by High Point native and American Idol star Fantasia.

Turn up the volume on our curated Spotify playlist that’s filled with rock ’n’ roll tunes by North Carolina musicians. Read more about the rock ’n’ roll scene in North Carolina.

Established in 1994, the NC Music Hall of Fame has inducted 120 of the state’s major artists and music-industry insiders, from ’50s and ’60s rock ’n’ rollers Link Wray, Little Eva, and members of The Shirelles to country stars Ronnie Milsap and Randy Travis to trailblazing jazz musicians John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Nina Simone.

Dolph Ramseur, manager of The Avett Brothers from nearby Concord and chair of the Hall’s board of directors, says that the goal of the institution is to bring North Carolinians together through the power and nostalgia of our music. “I grew up in a long line of textile workers,” Ramseur says. “And that’s important to me; it’s very North Carolina. But when I think of this state’s biggest contribution to the world, it’s music. The best stuff to come out of those old mills was music.”

For more information, call (704) 934-2320 or visit northcarolinamusichalloffame.org.