A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_170376" align="alignright" width="300"] Mural artist Scott Nurkin.[/caption] “Did you know John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Nina Simone were from North Carolina?” In the late 90s, that’s the question Scott

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_170376" align="alignright" width="300"] Mural artist Scott Nurkin.[/caption] “Did you know John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Nina Simone were from North Carolina?” In the late 90s, that’s the question Scott

Sound & Color: The North Carolina Musician Murals Trail

Mural artist Scott Nurkin. photograph by Charles Harris

“Did you know John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, and Nina Simone were from North Carolina?” In the late 90s, that’s the question Scott Nurkin, a University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill undergrad and Chapel Hill-based drummer, tried to slip into any music conversation. “That was pretty much any discussion I ever had for most of my 20s and 30s,” he adds.

It still baffles Nurkin that he didn’t learn about these groundbreaking musicians in fourth grade, the year schools across the state teach North Carolina history. “These are stories about what shaped the state of North Carolina,” he says. “Think about if Beethoven was born in your hometown and no one talked about it.”

Growing up in Charlotte, Nurkin idolized many of these native North Carolinians. Introduced to Roberta Flack, Ronnie Milsap, Nina Simone, and others by his parents, he was surrounded by the sounds of these greats from a young age. “I was coming of age as a musician when I started listening to John Coltrane,” Nurkin remembers. “He really spoke to me. His drummer, Elvin Jones, is one of my favorite drummers, if not my favorite.”

By 2006, Nurkin had a degree in fine arts, was touring with local bands, and was painting murals — anything from fairies for kids’ bedrooms to signs for small businesses — with The Mural Shop, the company he founded. That year, his efforts to spread the word about North Carolina-born musicians took a professional turn.

David “Pepper” Harvey, his friend and owner of the fondly remembered Pepper’s Pizza in Chapel Hill, needed a mural in the restaurant’s soon-to-be new location. Harvey gave him the job and freedom to paint the wall however he saw fit.

Scott Nurkin has painted 16 musician murals. photograph by Charles Harris

Nurkin’s artistic talents and his love of music merged, giving physical form to his art education mission. He painted 19 small, framed portraits of North Carolina musicians, that, when Pepper’s moved down Franklin Street, became part of the joint’s new digs. “Pepper’s was all musicians — and boyfriends and girlfriends of musicians. So, it just made so much sense,” he says.

After Pepper’s closed in 2013, the portraits were eventually bought by the university and moved to Hill Hall, home of UNC’s music department. By that time, Nurkin already had the inkling to increase the reach of the project: He pledged to paint portraits of these notable natives on the sides of buildings in their hometowns.


Increasing the Scale

It wasn’t until 2020 that Nurkin’s idea to paint portraits transformed into a 60-foot-tall, black-and-white mural of John Coltrane in Hamlet, the first stop on the North Carolina Musician Murals Trail. Three years later, Nurkin has now painted 16 murals. Three more are scheduled, and he’s pursuing four more.

He won’t stop there; the state was the birthplace of many more musicians. “We’ve kind of hit on the major ones, but just below the surface, there are so many background singers, session musicians, and side men and women that people don’t know about.”

A partnership with the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources allows visitors to easily access information about the featured artists on the murals trail. Plaques created by the DNCR mounted on Nurkin’s works include QR codes. Just open your smartphone camera, scan the code, and you’ll connect to the DNCR website. You can also find a map of the trail there.


5 Stops along the Mural Trail

To begin your own musical journey through the Old North State, read on for five can’t-miss stops along the mural trail — plus places to enjoy live jams along the way.

1. John Coltrane, Hamlet — the intersection of Vance and Raleigh Streets

John Coltrane’s mural is a fitting tribute to a jazz giant. photograph by JARED CALDWELL

Born in Hamlet on September 23, 1926, Coltrane is remembered as a jazz giant, legend, and musical genius. As both a saxophonist and composer, his innovative music helped establish jazz as an American art form. His short but storied career included stints with Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk — also a North Carolina native — and Miles Davis before forming his own quartet. This quartet went on to record My Favorite Things, which had widespread appeal, and the much-acclaimed album A Love Supreme.

If you’re longing to hear some tunes after a visit to the mural in Hamlet, head to Cole Plaza in nearby Rockingham. There, you’ll find Plaza Jam, held the first Thursday of each month, May through October. The 2023 concert series features bands like The Tams and Band of Oz performing a variety of beach music, oldies, originals, and recent hits.

2. Link Wray, Dunn — 207 East Broad Street

With the instrumental “Rumble,” Link Wray & the Wraymen burst onto the late-’50s music scene with a distorted guitar-fueled sound unlike anything heard before. In some U.S. markets, the title of the song, which was slang for a gang fight, and the track’s rough sound caused it to be banned for fear that it might stir up violence and contribute to juvenile delinquency.

Often called the “father of the power chord,” Wray captured a rebellious spirit that inspired musical greats like Jimmy Page, Pete Townshend, Neil Young, and Iggy Pop. During his lengthy career, Wray’s music style evolved from rockabilly and surf-inspired garage rock to country rock and finally hard rock. After Wray’s death in 2005, both Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen played “Rumble” in concert as a tribute to the Native American trailblazer.

In Dunn, the Bird’s Nest Listening Room opened in early 2023 to provide an intimate live music venue. Weekend performances include rockin’ country, honky tonk, swamp folk, Americana, and more. Enjoy a selection of beer and bourbon alongside acts like Cecil Allen Moore, The Krickets, and The Wilder Blue.

Nina Simone’s mural overlooks the performer’s hometown of Tryon. Photography courtesy of First Peak Visitor Center

3. Nina Simone, Tryon — 3950 Lynn Road

On the edge of town, you’ll find the likeness of Nina Simone, born Eunice Waymon in 1933. Waymon played piano by ear at age 3 and studied classical music at New York’s Julliard School after high school.

A few years later, when performing jazz in Atlantic City, she added singing to her performances under threat of losing the gig. She took the stage name Nina Simone to hide her work in the “sinful” place from her strict minister mother.

The 1959 breakout hit “I Loves You, Porgy” thrust her into national recognition, kicking off a prolific recording career that included 40 original albums. She later penned “Mississippi Goddam” in response to the bombing at a Black church that killed four young Black girls — the first of her protest songs supporting the civil rights movement.

While in Tryon, visit Parker-Binns Vineyard for one of its Third Friday Sunset Parties. At these events, the vineyard stays open late with live music and food trucks. And every weekend afternoon, you’ll be privy to acoustic performances by musicians like David Giles over a glass of wine.

4. Roberta Flack, Black Mountain — 131 Broadway Avenue

This Grammy-award-winning artist also began her musical journey playing classical piano as a child. By age 15, she earned a full scholarship for music at Howard University, and in 1968, jazz musician Les McCann heard Flack sing at a benefit in Washington, D.C. Soon after, McCann lined up an audition for Flack that led to a major label signing her.

Four years later, her song “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” won a Grammy for Record of the Year. The following year, she won two more Grammys for “Killing Me Softly.” In her 50-year recording career, Flack has had five No. 1 singles on the Billboard charts.

Stop by the unique White Horse Black Mountain, which prides itself on hosting a variety of musicians. Performances range from the big band sounds of Asheville Jazz Orchestra to Tony Cedras, a multi-instrumentalist from South Africa who performed with Paul Simon, Joan Baez, Ziggy Marley, and many more.

5. Ronnie Milsap, Robbinsville — 39 South Main Street

With 42 country top 10 hits between 1976 and 1992, Milsap’s accolades include winning the Country Music Association’s Male Vocalist of the Year in 1974, 1976, and 1977, CMA’s Album of the Year four times, Billboard’s Artist of the Year (in any genre) in 1976, and six Grammys.

At age 7, Milsap’s teachers at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh took notice of his musical inclination. At the school, he learned to play several instruments, and his journey with music began. Early in his career, Milsap recorded with Elvis and performed with James Brown, Stevie Wonder, and Ray Charles. He moved to Nashville after Charley Parker encouraged him to go the country music route. From there, his career took off, and he quickly became one of country music’s most successful crossover musicians.

Take in a concert at the Stecoah Valley Cultural Arts Center, a short drive from Robbinsville, to hear music inspired by the sounds of the Blue Ridge. The 14 performances of the annual Appalachian Evening Concert Series feature award-winning folk, bluegrass, and traditional mountain music.

This story was published on Jun 22, 2023

Lara Ivanitch

Lara Ivanitch is a freelance writer who resides in Raleigh.