A guided tour of North Carolina musicians, with overlooked gems from J. Cole to Roberta Flack to Nina Simone.
North Carolina music — like the state itself — is extraordinarily diverse.
It’s produced world-renowned jazz players, singers, rock bands, rappers, and music producers. And while the songs that came from those musicians flourished in cities around the globe, many of the state’s greatest recording artists came from North Carolina’s most rural reaches.
Our artists have crafted rock, R&B, blues, and soul that seem hewn from the earth itself. They’ve polished high-gloss, pop productions ripe for the charts, and they’ve taken genres into entirely new direction.
So we wanted to pay homage to our state’s deep well of musicians by highlighting a few of the most amazing songs made by North Carolinians.
Of course this isn’t a comprehensive list—how could we possibly fit in all of that goodness in one article?
And with all due respect to the big sellers, there’s no need for anyone to tell you about the mega-sellers. Folks like James Taylor, Luke Combs, and Eric Church, have already gathered their rosebuds so don’t look for that here. We’re pulling out a few lesser-known gems that are worth a first listen, or if you’ve beat us to the punch, a revisit.
Want more? Check out an expanded tour of North Carolina artists at Cardinal & Pine’s Spotify account. Happy listening!
“Freight Train Blues” – Elizabeth Cotten
A self-taught leftie who played the guitar upside down, Cotten was an Orange County native who didn’t begin recording songs until her 60s. Her signature song “Freight Train” is a delicate ode to the locomotive she heard from her family home near present-day Carrboro.
It’s a wonder to hear, simultaneously wistful and frank:
“When I die, oh bury me deep
Down at the end of old Chestnut Street
So I can hear old Number 9
As she comes rolling by”
“Sinnerman” – Nina Simone
Nina Simone might not be the biggest selling North Carolina musician, but she might be its greatest.
Born in Tryon, in 1933, Simone was a classically trained Black musician at a time when classically trained Black musicians didn’t just happen. Simone combined prowess with soul, jazz, mysticism, and righteous, anti-racist passion.
And that voice. Oh that voice. Simone’s tremulous yowl isn’t technically pretty, but it pulls the air right out of the room. And “Sinnerman”— a jumpy ode to a fleeing ne’er-do-well — was made for that voice.
“Be Real Black for Me” – Roberta Flack & Donny Hathaway
Black Mountain-born Roberta Flack crashed the pop charts in the late 1960s and early 1970s with her piano ballads. Songs like “Killing Me Softly with His Song” and “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” were gems, but her duets with the mercurial soul singer Donny Hathaway were intimate statement pieces.
“Be Real Black for Me,” a patient Black pride and Black love song off their 1972 album, is the one that really sticks.
“Fire and Brimstone” – Link Wray
A Shawnee born in Dunn, this Korean War vet lost a lung to tuberculosis but made due with the one he had belting out rockabilly, country, and rock and roll in the 1960s and 1970s.
Wray wrote several songs about his experience as an indigenous person in the South at a time when the Ku Klux Klan tormented anyone they didn’t consider white enough.
While today he’s lauded for fueling early rock and roll, Wray was overlooked in his day. His self-titled 1971 album is a classic of Americana, and this naturally fiery, fingerpicked track employs a kick-drum to glorious effect.
“Power Trip” – J. Cole
The Fayetteville rapper has rapped a lot of lines and penned a lot of hits, but it’s hard to recapture the late-night magic of this 2013 track about a romance that won’t catch.
“She got me up all night, all I’m singin’ is love songs,” Cole opines on the chorus.
Bonus: Cole is a gifted artist who gives back to North Carolina culture, spearheading the excellent “Dreamville” festival in Raleigh and touting his eastern North Carolina hometown any chance he gets. But the songs are where he gets us.
“I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free” – Billy Taylor
Greensboro native Billy Taylor became internationally known as a de facto ambassador for American jazz, both as a music professor at East Carolina University and at D.C.’s John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
In his lifetime, he wrote hundreds of songs, but few have had the impact of this one, an unofficial anthem of yearning for the Civil Rights Movement that transcends time and place and genre. In one performer’s hands, it’s a plaintive piano piece. In another’s, it is a spiritual.
However you listen to it, just listen to it. It’s a wonder.
“Don’t Change Your Plans for Me” – Ben Folds Five
This Winston-Salem-born singer-songwriter envisioned himself like a sappy punk star, but he was always a pop songwriter with a gift for lyrics and melody.
In 1999, his Chapel Hill trio — who scored a hit with 1997’s “Brick” — buckled up and polished this homesick ode to the east.
“Mother Popcorn” – James Brown (w/ Maceo Parker)
No, James Brown isn’t from North Carolina. But Maceo Parker is.
If Brown is the popcorn in this metaphor, Parker, a Kinston-born tenor saxophone player, is the sizzling oil.
Brown bobs and weaves on this 1969 classic, but listen to Parker’s pinwheeling solo. He sounds like a spider dancing on a web. It’s a gift to us all.
“Sojourner” – Rapsody (feat. J. Cole and 9th Wonder)
There is just so much North Carolina on this track.
The Snow Hill rapper Rapsody pairs with the aforementioned J. Cole on this one as well as the Winston-Salem producer 9th Wonder.
It’s been said before that some rappers rap from the head. Rapsody raps from the gut, especially on this track named for the abolitionist Sojourner Truth.
“I know my worth,” Rapsody rhymes on this one. “These colonizers got to pay me.”
“I Should Care” – Thelonious Monk
It’s been said that Monk, a Rocky Mount native, played the spaces in between the piano keys.
Monk was an unorthodox player who pushed jazz into stranger and more interesting keys, linking up with greats like John Coltrane and Max Roach (two more North Carolinians!) along the way.
And while he has better-known tracks like his signature “Epistrophy,” solo piano songs like this one make for an ideal place to discover Monk, the way he shifts time, melody, and key to suit his unique vision of music.
You can’t predict the end of these piano lines. Don’t even try. Monk was a wizard.
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