North Carolina has plenty of history and plenty of culture.
The music of the state is rooted deep into the generations of residents who often grew up with at least one family member playing an instrument, and many times, many family members played.
North Carolina is known particularly for its tradition of old-time music. Today, music festivals, such as Merlefest and Carolina in the Fall, abound that feature the style of fiddles and banjos, with gospel blended in. Musicologists trace the old time style to slaves who played dance music for both white and African American events. Strings and drums were added as time passed. Bluegrass and country blues came to influence at the turn of the 20th century. The Piedmont blues, according to Wikipedia, is a type of blues music characterized by a unique finger-picking method on the guitar in which a regular, alternating-thumb bass pattern supports a melody using treble strings also originated in North Carolina. Throw in jazz and you have a wealth of musical history.
Over a long weekend, I experienced some of this music along with generous libations. Wineries and lovely wine is a dynamic of the area as is a lesser refined drink - moonshine. North Carolinians insist moonshine was invented here and a remarkable resurgence in the product can be found all over the area.
In Wilkes County, many visitors stop at Raffaldini Vineyards, founded in 2001, as it is one of North Carolina’s most beautiful wineries. Dubbed “Chianti of the Carolinas,” Raffaldini is located in the Swan Creek sub region of the expansive Yadkin Valley American Viticultural Area. Sangiovese, Montepulciano, Vermentino and other Vinifera grow here. The shinning entrance of the Italianate villa is high on the hill and crisscrossed with grapevines. They get 35,000 visitors a year.
Interestingly, North Carolina was the highest producer of wine in the U.S. until Prohibition. Many local Italians moved to California leaving a large population of Baptists, who, eschewing alcohol, grew tobacco. In the late 90’s, the wine industry blossomed again.
Wilkes County, North Carolina is historically known as the Moonshine Capital of the World. Shine, as the locals call it, was created from corn. North Carolina was the first Southern state to enact Prohibition and bootlegging, selling alcohol without a license, was a means of financial stability for the rural area.
In Wilkesboro, the Call Family Distillers – in the business since 1865 - have a moonshine legacy that includes Rev. Dan Call, who taught Jack Daniel how to make whiskey, and Willie Clay Call, a legendary moonshiner who earned the nickname "Uncatchable" by revenuers who couldn't stop him as he raced through the mountains at night, delivering trunk loads of the illegal crew. Today, Clay’s son, Brian, and his great-nephew, Brad, have designed a steam still for crafting their moonshine. Willie's 1961 New Yorker and other moonshine delivery cars are on display at the distillery. Willie knew moonshine would become iconic, so he saved everything. In the tasting room are many photographs and artifacts including his authentic jugs wrapped in wood so that bottles wouldn’t clank as he moved them out of the woods.
Many locals say that North Carolina's famous sport - NASCAR, was born from residents' love of Shine. Fast cars were used to distribute the illicit moonshine products and to evade police. After the repeal of Prohibition in 1933, drivers were still needed to evade the revenuers who were attempting to tax their operations. Cars were modified for speed as well as increased cargo. By the late 40s races featuring these cars were being run for pride and profit, and are most closely associated with Wilkes County.
Wilkes County’s claim to fame on the music front includes Merlefest, which is their largest attraction. It runs for four days and it brings in 80,000 people. Doc Watson started Merlefest as a memorial to his son Merle, William Oliver Swofford (“Good Morning Starshine”) and now the Kruger Brothers, one of Americana’s most innovative ensembles, appear each year at the ever-growing event.
The campus of the Wilkes Community College is home to Merlefest and American Roots Music Festival, which is celebrating its 29th year, and hosts 100 artists and 75,000-80,000 fans over four days. It is run by 4,400 volunteers, and is a great economic boost. There is a Little Picker area for kids and it always takes place the last Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday in April. All profits go to scholarships.
The Wilkes Heritage Museum houses The Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame, which honors Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, the Carter Family, Tommy Jarrell and other famous North Carolina musicians. Located inside the old Wilkes County Courthouse, circa 1902, it is now an engaging regional museum. It highlights the area’s history as the moonshine capital of the world, NASCAR ties, and as the original home of Lowe’s Home Improvement and Holly Farms. A favorite exhibit of the complex is the Old Wilkes Jail, where Tom “Dooley” Dula of folk song fame was incarcerated. It is now part of the newly designated Blue Ridge Heritage Trail.
Carolina in the Fall is a music and food festival that is held on the old Courthouse Square in Wilkesboro, bringing “New Carolina music” to the foothills of North Carolina and the heart of American Folk Music. This will be the second year focusing on regional music, and includes a food truck championship. Held the last Friday and Saturday in September, it’s a great complement to the area's musical heritage. Be sure to stay at the Holiday Inn Express Wilkesboro, as its owner, Dale Isom, also founded the Carolina in the Fall Festival. Isom is a charming man with a wealth of knowledge of the area.
Shelby, North Carolina, county seat for Cleveland County offers music enthusiasts more local flavor. World famous son, Earl Scruggs, is probably the most famous native of this charming town. The Earl Scruggs Center honors his life and enormous influence on the world of music.The Don Gibson Theatre, named for the man who wrote "Sweet Dreams" and "I Can't Stop Loving You," is now a first-rate 400-seat venue that hosts top acts including Jerry Douglas and the Earls of Leicester with Del Mccoury. Gibson would be proud to perform in this restored hometown theater, which displays memorabilia from his career. Movies are also screened at this very intimate venue. It was built in 1939 with an Art Deco design marquee that became their logo.
Gibson left Shelby in 1950 for Knoxville, and his first hit was “Sweet Dreams,” which was number one for eight weeks. “Oh, Lonesome Me” and “Can’t Stop Loving You” were both written on the same day after lunch. It was one of the first records to go gold on both sides. “Oh Lonesome Me” was the first to come from Nashville's now iconic Studio B, where he recorded all his hits.
Our city tour included interesting sites in a place whose history is peppered with notable people:
Shelby Park is the home of a year-round carousel (circa 1919) with 29 original horses and three hand-carved replacements. Sunset Cemetery is the place where Don Gibson is buried, as are W.J. Cash (“The Mind of the South”), Thomas Dixon Jr. (whose writing inspired "Birth of a Nation") and two North Carolina governors. The Banker’s House 1874-75 is among the state's finest examples of the Second Empire style. Newgrass Brewing Co., one of North Carolina’s newest breweries, brings its local influence full circle: Spent grain is fed to local hogs whose meat is featured on the brewery menu. Their beers are made of local produce, including figs and heirloom pumpkins. Four or five nights a week they have live music and usually don’t charge admission. They can sell out in one day, either in person or over the phone.Places of interest also include Baker Buffalo Creek Vineyard and Winery; Broad River Greenway, which offers river access, walking and hiking, The Dutch Broad, a solar and wind powered restaurant that is totally off the grid and The Graylyn Estate, named for the son of tobacco R.J. Reynolds. The estate is now a resort and guest marvel at the stunning buildgins, all from the 1920’s era.
From the Blue Ridge Mountains to the shores of the Atlantic, North Carolina offers a wide variety for vacationers. From natural beauty, history, arts, culture and adventure, there is something for everyone.