A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

[caption id="attachment_170204" align="alignright" width="300"] Scott Nurkin.[/caption] In 2006, Scott Nurkin completed a mural inside Pepper’s Pizza on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Against a blue silhouette of North Carolina, he

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

[caption id="attachment_170204" align="alignright" width="300"] Scott Nurkin.[/caption] In 2006, Scott Nurkin completed a mural inside Pepper’s Pizza on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Against a blue silhouette of North Carolina, he

Walls of Fame: 17 Musical Murals

Scott Nurkin. photograph by Charles Harris

In 2006, Scott Nurkin completed a mural inside Pepper’s Pizza on Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. Against a blue silhouette of North Carolina, he hung portraits that he’d painted of renowned musicians from across the state. Customers could flip to the back of the restaurant’s menu to find a key listing the musicians and their respective hometowns. The subject of the mural was appropriate for Pepper’s, which Nurkin, a musician himself, called “ground zero for cool” before it closed in 2013. The portraits, now relocated to the University of North Carolina, laid the groundwork for Nurkin’s NC Musician Murals Project, which he developed to bring attention to the state’s staggering number of famous musical artists. “It’s striking to me that all these musicians are from our state,” he says. “I want to make it my mission to educate people about this.”

After graduating from UNC Chapel Hill with a BFA in studio art, Nurkin apprenticed with North Carolina muralist Michael Brown. Nurkin paints all kinds of subjects through his business, The Mural Shop, but his passion project is painting our state’s famous musicians. photograph by Charles Harris

In 2020, Nurkin kicked off the project in Hamlet, where he painted a 60-by-27-foot mural of jazz great John Coltrane in just a week. With a completed work as an example, Nurkin was able to get his foot in the door in other towns. To date, he’s painted 17 musicians across North Carolina. The hyper-realistic paintings, most of which were done in a monochromatic color palette, are based on photographs by preeminent music photographers like Chuck Stewart and Gie Knaeps, with permission from them or their heirs. Almost all of the pieces appear in or near the musicians’ hometowns — and there are more to come.

With his project, Nurkin hopes to instill a sense of pride in North Carolina artists. “So many of them aren’t just good musicians — they are trailblazers of their field,” he says. “There is an unlimited supply of musicians in North Carolina. There’s a long list of backup singers and people in the shadows who no one has heard of.” Now, through Nurkin’s work, those artists, too, may get a stage of their own.

For more information on Nurkin’s murals, call (919) 264-1148 or visit themuralshop.com.

Link Wray • Dunn

Link Wray, born of Shawnee descent, rose to stardom in the late 1950s with the release of the rock ’n’ roll instrumental “Rumble,” with its electric guitar power chords and distorted sound. Wray’s career experienced a revival in the 1970s, and he continued to tour into the 2000s.

John Coltrane keeps watch over his hometown of Hamlet. photograph by JARED CALDWELL

John Coltrane • Hamlet

Jazz saxophonist John Coltrane played in bands with Dizzy Gillespie, Earl Bostic, and Johnny Hodges before joining the Miles Davis Quintet in 1955. In 1960, Coltrane branched out as a leader, releasing the influential Giant Steps that year and forming the acclaimed quartet heard on My Favorite Things in 1961. By then, he had become known for distinctive features in his playing, like his “sheets of sound,” a phrase used to describe his improvisational style. Guitarists like Duane Allman would later adapt the technique for rock.

Eunice Kathleen Waymon — better known to the world as Nina Simone — was born in a little shack in Tryon. Photography courtesy of First Peak Visitor Center

Nina Simone • Tryon

The prolific Nina Simone, known as “the High Priestess of Soul,” recorded more than 40 albums during her career, encompassing everything from jazz to show tunes to rock ’n’ roll. Born Eunice Kathleen Waymon in Tryon in 1933, Simone began playing piano at age 3 and later received a scholarship to attend the Juilliard School of Music. Her first hit came with a recording of Gershwin’s “I Loves You, Porgy” in 1959. A dedicated civil rights activist, Simone addressed racial oppression in songs like “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free.”

In 1961, Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane released a collaborative album that served as a sort of North Carolina jazz-music summit meeting. photograph by JARED CALDWELL

Thelonious Monk • Rocky Mount

Born in 1917, jazz pianist Thelonious Monk was famous for his improvisational style. Collaborating with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and John Coltrane, Monk left behind an immense catalog of compositions, many of which — like “’Round Midnight” and “Ruby My Dear” — remain standards.

Soft-spoken in person, Betty Davis was known for her fierce and provocative onstage persona. photograph by JARED CALDWELL

Betty Davis • Durham

Born in 1944, the future “Queen of Funk” moved to New York City as a young woman and released her debut single, “Get Ready for Betty,” in 1964. She wrote her own songs, produced most of her own albums — like the classic They Say I’m Different, in 1974 — and was briefly married to Miles Davis.

Don Gibson • Shelby

Best known as a songwriter, Don Gibson got his start with the Sons of the Soil, which played on local radio in Shelby. He eventually moved to Knoxville and began writing his own songs. In 1957, he wrote two of his biggest hits — “Oh Lonesome Me” and “I Can’t Stop Loving You” — on the same day. Gibson is recognized for helping develop the Nashville Sound, a branch of country music relying less on traditional instruments like fiddles and steel guitars and more on a mainstream pop sound.

Roberta Flack • Black Mountain

Four-time Grammy winner Roberta Flack moves fluidly between genres: jazz, folk, R&B, soul, pop, and more. A classically trained pianist, Flack focused on vocals while at Howard University, where she had received a scholarship at age 15. Her first Grammy was awarded in 1973 for her recording of the folk ballad “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.”

Ronnie Milsap cut a smoother figure behind his piano, in dark shades and sparkly coats. photograph by MEGAN SALTER

Ronnie Milsap • Robbinsville

Discovering his musical prowess as a kid, Ronnie Milsap learned to play multiple instruments, including the piano, while at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh. By the mid-1960s, Milsap was pursuing a career in music full-time, working across genres in country, R&B, and rock ’n’ roll. After relocating to Nashville and signing with RCA Records in 1973, he released two No. 1 singles in 1974: “Pure Love” and “Please Don’t Tell Me How the Story Ends,” the latter earning him his first of six Grammys.

Blind Boy Fuller serenaded tobacco warehouse workers in the Piedmont. photograph by JARED CALDWELL

Blind Boy Fuller • Wadesboro

Born Fulton Allen circa 1904, Blind Boy Fuller, a pioneer of the Piedmont blues, learned guitar growing up in Rockingham. By 1928, he’d lost his eyesight, but he continued to play. His recording career began in 1935, and over the next five years, he released more than 120 songs — one of them, “Get Your Yas Yas Out,” inspired a similarly titled Rolling Stones live album in 1970.

Elizabeth Cotten grew up near railroad tracks, which inspired “Freight Train.” photograph by JARED CALDWELL

Elizabeth Cotten • Carrboro

As a child, Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten taught herself how to play the banjo and guitar — and, being left-handed, she learned the fingering for these instruments upside down. Cotten’s most enduring song, “Freight Train,” was composed in 1904 when she was only 12 years old. The peak of her career, however, didn’t come until later in her life: At age 91, two years before she died, Cotten won her first and only Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.

Del Reeves • Sparta

By age 12, Del Reeves was playing guitar on local radio stations. In the early 1960s, he moved to Nashville to pursue a music career, and his first hit came in 1961 with the single “Be Quiet Mind.” That was followed by a series of hits, including “Girl on the Billboard,” which sold one million copies. He and his wife, Ellen, worked as a songwriting duo for country singers like Rose Maddox and Carl Smith. Reeves became a regular performer at the Grand Ole Opry in 1966, and continued performing there into the 2000s.

Ben E. King sang doo-wop before discovering R&B and rock ’n’ roll. Photography courtesy of THE DOWNTOWN HENDERSON ART & HERITAGE WALK

Ben E. King • Henderson

As a member of The Drifters, Ben E. King found his earliest success singing lead vocals on hits like “Save the Last Dance for Me,” “This Magic Moment,” and “There Goes My Baby.” In 1960, he embarked on a solo career, introducing rock ’n’ roll and R&B classics like “Stand by Me,” which he co-wrote, and “Spanish Harlem.”

Doc & Merle Watson • Boone

After losing his sight at a young age, Arthel “Doc” Watson found a passion for music as a child, playing instruments including the harmonica, banjo, and guitar, which he was best known for. Doc’s quick flat-picking captured audiences as his career began to flourish in the 1960s. Doc and his son Merle began performing together in 1964 and did so until 1985 when Merle died in a tractor accident. During their time together, the guitar-playing duo won two Grammy Awards: Best Country Instrumental Performance and Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording — though Doc won a number of others, too.

Floyd Council • Chapel Hill

Born in Chapel Hill in 1911, blues guitarist and singer Floyd Council began performing in the 1920s with two brothers on the streets of the town under the name, “The Chapel Hillbillies.” As a young man, Council befriended Blind Boy Fuller with whom he would busk; later, Council played the guitar for a number of Fuller’s recordings, credited as “Dipper Boy” Council. Council’s given name, along with that of blues musician Pink Anderson, would later serve as the namesake for the rock band Pink Floyd.

Jimmy Wayne • Shelby

Born in Cleveland County, Jimmy Wayne’s childhood was spent in and out of foster homes and on the streets until he was taken in by an elderly couple as a teenager. Obtaining a Criminal Justice degree, Wayne first worked as a prison guard before relocating to Nashville for a career in music where he signed with DreamWorks Records in 2001. Wayne’s self-titled debut album, released in 2003, featured four singles that charted on the Billboard Hot Country Songs including “Stay Gone” and “I Love You This Much.” Wayne serves also as an advocate for foster children having launched the Meet Me Halfway campaign in 2010 to spread awareness for youth aging out of the foster care system.

Randy Travis • Marshville

Country musician Randy Travis began to play the guitar at age 10. Signed by Warner Brothers Records in 1985, many of Travis’s early releases would become hits, including “1982” and “On the Other Hand.” Much of Travis’s music recalls the earlier days of country music, as he captures a more traditional sound influenced by artists like George Jones and Hank Williams Sr. A six-time Grammy winner, Travis has garnered awards from the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association as well.

Earl Scruggs • Shelby

Born outside of Shelby in 1924, Scruggs took up the banjo — an instrument that his siblings and father also played — as a child. In 1948, Scruggs and Lester Flatt joined forces, with the Foggy Mountain Boys as their backing band. Scruggs is remembered for his distinctive three-finger picking style, now referred to as Scruggs-style, along with compositions like the 1949 “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” which still define bluegrass today.

This story was published on Jun 13, 2023

Elizabeth Riddick

Elizabeth Riddick is a former Our State editorial intern.