When considering the epicenters of music-related influence across the U.S., the state of North Carolina may not immediately spring to mind or leap forth from the pages of history books, but the Tar Heel state can hold its own, note for note, with any of its more storied southern neighbors in the span of its artistic breadth and the richness of its musical heritage.
Georgia spawned giants like James Brown and Otis Redding; Mississippi can rightfully stake its claim as the land where the blues was nursed to health on the muddy milk of its famed river; and Tennessee, well, everyone knows about Nashville … but these states, rightfully honored as they are, did not give the world the likes of jazz giants John Coletrane and Thelonius Monk, blind folk-music wizard Doc Watson, P-Funk innovator George Clinton or country die-hards Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis.
And they didn’t give the world bluegrass.
Yeah, I know, it’s accepted knowledge that bluegrass originated in the fertile hills of Kentucky. I won’t argue the point, but history shows that in the mid 1930s, two brothers, Bill and Charlie Monroe, moved from their native Kentucky to a more musically-inspiring region, namely the western hills of North Carolina.
Apparently the bluegrass revolution was already well under way when the brothers arrived — not surprising when one considers the state’s long tradition of ballad singing initiated by Scotch-Irish immigrants as well as the popularity of the banjo, a West African-derived instrument which can be heard on many early blues, as well as bluegrass, records.
After touring across the state extensively, the brothers found their way to a makeshift studio in Charlotte and recorded 10 sides for the RCA Victor label. Their first recordings laid the blueprint for the style they would continue to perfect for the entirety of their careers, namely with the groundbreaking Bluegrass Boys, the band that put the music on the proverbial map and provided a measuring stick for every like- minded group that followed.
The state also developed a distinctly regional form of blues, Piedmont-based, and performed with an instantly recognizable laid-back swing and mellow twang that stamps it as uniquely Carolinian.
A few of its better-known practitioners were Etta Baker, The Rev. Gary Davis, Blind Boy Fuller, and of course, Roanoke Rapids’ own Bishop Dready Manning, founder of St. Mark Holiness Church, a guitar-slinging, harmonica-blowing gospel singer and former moonshine salesman whose music can be heard ringing through the rafters of churches across Halifax and Northampton counties.
Born in Gaston to a family of sharecroppers, Manning gave up the typical hard-living blues lifestyle in 1962 after a mysterious hemorrhage left him close to death. Manning survived and made the decision to devote his life to more sacred concerns. Since founding St. Mark Holiness in 1969, Manning and his wife Marie have played for packed crowds across the two counties and recorded numerous locally-released albums.
During a recent interview, Manning spoke about the roots of the music he’s been playing since the age of 4. “I learned a lot off a gentleman named Russel Moody, and from listening to Blind Boy Fuller, Lightning Hopkins and different people.”
Though Manning left the seedier aspects of blues living behind him years ago, his music still retains the raw vitality and hard-edged drive garnered from those rough-and-tumble years, giving even unrepentant sinners a reason to get up early on Sunday mornings and dust off the suit and tie.
“I still have the same style of music; it hasn’t changed too much,” he stated with an obvious sense of pride. “I feel like it helps people- they just love to hear me play.”
The reverend is only one example of the talent currently thriving across the state. The full history of North Carolina’s music, which is being written and rewritten with each new generation, is far too rich to go into at length in one article — I haven’t even mentioned the state’s vital rock or folk music history.
Needless to say, however, should any would-be music snob ever question the worth of this state’s musical legacy, simply mention a certain recording session by two Kentucky boys back in the 1930s.
Or better yet, just take ’em to church.