YES! Weekly’s Ten Best Songs About North Carolina
Old Crow Medicine Show, “Wagon Wheel”
The footloose buskers of Old Crow Medicine Show spent only a year in western North Carolina before being discovered on the streets of Boone by none other than Doc Watson and getting propelled to Nashville acclaim. And there’s strong evidence that Bob Dylan -‘ not known for any particular connection to the Old North State – actually wrote the song during his Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid sessions in 1973, but the verses written by OCMS fiddler Ketch Secor nail its iconic sense of place and free-living joy. Hitchhiking south from Roanoke, sharing a toke with a trucker from Philadelphia and yearning for a lover in Raleigh – these are all elements of this wayfaring epic. “Rock me mama like the wind and the rain/ Rock me mama like southbound train/ Hey mama rock me” -‘ was there ever a sexier lyric? I first heard “Wagon Wheel” when Nego Crosson of Boxcar Bertha played it in my living room just after I moved to Greensboro. Crosson’s band mate and future YES! Weekly writer Daniel Bayer explained to me: “This is like our version of ‘Sweet Home Alabama.'”
Superchunk, “Driveway to Driveway”
YES! Weekly staff writer Amy Kingsley says she actually moved from Austin, Texas to Greensboro because of Superchunk and other Chapel Hill bands that for a brief moment had indie rock aesthetes mentioning the university town in the same breath as Athens, Minneapolis and Olympia. (Little did she realize that Greensboro was 50 miles away but a world apart from Chapel Hill.) While anything from the band’s 1994 release Foolish surpasses expectations, “Driveway to Driveway” exemplifies the band’s loud and tuneful approach to rock resurrection that pricked ears across the nation while audiences in Durham as late as 1997 struggled to grasp the band’s intent. The song’s cross-current male and female vocals and tide surge of caterwauling guitars equally evokes slacker Chapel Hill and the sunny pinelands stretching east toward the Outer Banks.
Brandon D, “Da Kak Joint”
Quintessential Brandon D – and despite the scene’s constant reinventions, still the quintessential Triad hip-hop anthem – “Da Kak Joint” caught the ear of Elektra Records in 2002, causing the MC to wait in vain for three years before taking action with his own independent release. The song maximizes crossover appeal by sampling Billy Joel’s “Moving Out,” and features a propulsive, effervescent track that, combined with Brandon’s lyrical agility, makes for a light-hearted and fun party record of the first order.
James Taylor, “Carolina on My Mind”
Raised in western North Carolina, James Taylor got his professional start as a singer-songwriter in Massachusetts but he will forever be identified with our state thanks to this song released on his self-titled album by Apple Records in 1968. (Taylor was the first non-Beatle to be recorded by the label.) He might have even exerted an influence over a young Ketch Secor, for all we know. The song keens with tenderness and sentimentality, but reveals some of the dark corners of JT’s mind: “With a holy host of others standing ’round me/ Still I’m on the dark side of the moon/ And it seems like it goes on like this forever/ You must forgive me/ If I’m up and gone to Carolina in my mind.”
Sonic Youth, “Chapel Hill”
1991 was known as the year punk broke, and New York noise-pop terrorists Sonic Youth flashed into the national consciousness shortly afterwards with Dirty, their whip-smart confection of political commentary and polished rage. One of the album’s best tracks, “Chapel Hill,” projects North Carolina as an alternate universe, as if the old culture of hokum and reaction was turned upside down. The lyrics are full of double entendre, snippets of detail from a community at a particular point in time, and wicked suggestion. To wit: “Get the cradle rocking/ Ah, out with the redneck pig old men.” Or, “We’ll round up the Durham HC kids/ And the char grill killers/ Jesse H. come into our pit/ All ages show’….”
Whiskeytown, “Excuse Me While I Break My Own Heart Tonight”
Whiskeytown seemed to come out of nowhere in the mid-’90s. They led an alt-country charge that also featured the likes of the Backsliders and the Two Dollar Pistols. North Carolina’s contributions to the movement put it neck in neck with Austin, and probably played a role in No Depression relocating from Seattle to Durham. While Whiskeytown sadly disintegrated, two of its alumni, Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary, have gone on to prolific and rewarding solo careers. Before Adams strayed into lush pop music and mournful folk he contributed this gem to the band’s 1997 masterpiece Stranger’s Almanac. The snap-back rhythm and clever heartbreak lyrics of “Excuse Me” bring to mind the classic 60s-era country of Loretta Lynn, but the edge in Adams’ voice hews closer to the desperate punk of Paul Westerberg than the weepy histrionics of George Jones.
Petey Pablo, “Raise Up”
Possibly the first North Carolina hip-hop anthem to garner widespread airplay across the state, “Raise Up” on 2001’s Diary of A Sinner: 1st Entry marked an irrepressible entry in our state’s bid for notice, what with Petey’s motivational message and declaration of refusal to be beaten down by life’s adversity. The track benefits from the talents of the celebrated Timbaland, who hails from the neighboring Tidewater region in Virginia. That doesn’t stop Petey from planting the flag. He growls, “North Carolina, born and raised,” and then launches forth with slingshot-speed lyrics that should make MCs everywhere consider a change in career plans.
Bruce Piephoff, “Riding the Stream”
This entry might not have imprinted itself on the popular consciousness in the same way the aforementioned songs have, but that could be due to the fact that it was released less than two years ago. Or maybe it will continue to fly beneath the cultural radar because it’s a poignant ballad by a white folk singer about immigrant farm workers -‘ a community all too often rendered invisible. Time will tell whether the twain shall meet, but in the meantime it’s good to have diligent scribes around to take notice for us and write it down. In spare, sympathetic verse, Piephoff tells all we need to know: “Up to North Carolina, down east on the plain/ Cropping tobacco and singing of the pain/ The pain of the lonely, so far from Mexico/ Lonely ’cause no one speaks the language we know/ We work for the coastal farmer and he hides us away/ Because with illegal status they won’t let you stay.”
Shooter Jennings, “Gone to Carolina”
The original Outlaw, Waylon Jennings, is dead and gone, but Shooter carries on, owning up to being “living proof” of his daddy’s legacy and talent. Like just about everybody else intent on earning a living in country music, Shooter plies his trade in Nashville, but one of the sweetest tracks off his second album, Electric Rodeo, pays tribute to North Carolina. “Every time I think I smell that sweet Southern rain, it takes me to a station on the long black train,” Shooter sings. “I want to hear the wind blow and feel the earth move below me. In spite of all the good times I’ve got to rest my soul.” It’s the kind of distinct regional touch that used to make Southern rock an operative term. The tinkling piano after the inspiration of the Marshall Tucker Band, the harmonica sound borrowed from Waylon, and the rustic sounding guitars that take equal parts Grateful Dead and Lynyrd Skynyrd complete the mood.
Townes Van Zandt, “Greensboro Woman”
This song might seem like kind of a dis to Greensboro given that Townes’ words for the female object of his attention are “Don’t you smile on me” and “I do not feel like being comforted.” We could look at it that way, but we’d prefer to take it as a compliment that the hillbilly boheme would find Greensboro cool enough in the late ’60s or early ’70s to pass some time here in the first place. The lyrics, efficiently deployed as always, create a vivid scenario and give a sense of life in the casual weirdness of the post-moon landing, post-Summer of Love South. First released on 1972’s High, Low and In Between, “Greensboro Woman” has Townes singing, “Your car, she’s smooth and fast/ Babe, your bourbon’s fine/ But I ain’t feelin’ free and clear today/ Texas loving laying on my mind/ I couldn’t do you right babe spinnin’ round this way.”