Among its other distinctions, 2012 was the year that North Carolina lost its two most iconic living musicians. Earl Scruggs died on March 28 in Nashville, Tenn., and Doc Watson followed him two months later, on May 29 to be exact, in Winston-Salem.
North Carolina has produced and/or been home to its share of great musicians, including John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Clyde McPhatter, Don Reno and Nina Simone, to name just a few. Like Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, those all-time greats are gone now. Who takes their place as North Carolina’s greatest living musician(s)?
First of all, what exactly makes a person a North Carolinian? A Google search yields several exhaustive lists of North Carolina musicians, but some have very dubious ties to the state. One lists Emmylou Harris, most likely because she went to UNC Greensboro for a semester. That’s not good enough. Scruggs’ and Watson’s roots were never in dispute. Both were born here. Aside from his time at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, Watson lived his entire life in Deep Gap. Scruggs moved to Nashville after achieving fame, first with Bill Monroe and later with Lester Flatt in Flatt & Scruggs, but he was always a proud North Carolinian.
Second, just how do we define greatness? Wherever you set that bar, Scruggs and Watson cleared it with ease. Both were innovative and creative pioneers, and both were profoundly influential.
Scruggs didn’t invent the three-finger rolling style of banjo picking, but he was the first to popularize it, and he clearly is the one who made it famous. Without Scruggs and his magical playing, Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys never would have been the same, and bluegrass music as we know it may never have happened.
Watson was a master of both finger-picked and flat-picked lead acoustic guitar, and as much as anyone, he popularized acoustic guitar as a lead instrument in almost all forms of traditional folk music. He also had a warm and comforting vocal style. Merlefest, the music festival he started in 1987 as a memorial to his late son and musical partner Merle, ranks among the most popular events of its kind. With Doc’s death, Merlefest now will be as much a tribute to Doc as to Merle. It’s a deserving part of a great legacy.
The list of living musicians from North Carolina is impressive, but there is no Doc Watson, no Earl Scruggs. The most prominent names on the list, for me anyway, are:
Ben E. King
As for greatness, Tony Rice, Warren Haynes, Victoria Livengood and Shirley Caesar stand out for me. Each is or was at the pinnacle of his or her craft at some point, and each has been immensely influential within their respective musical sphere.
Rice could well well be the world’s greatest acoustic guitarist. In a career that spans more than 40 years, he has played a unique style of music heavily influenced by jazz, folk and bluegrass. Prior to losing his singing voice in the mid-1990s, he may have been the greatest bluegrass vocalist ever. During its heyday in the late 1980s and early 1990s, his band, the Tony Rice Unit, stunned audiences with their incendiary live performances. Now largely an instrumental group, their shows are still astonishing, even without Tony’s vocals. There may not be a single living bluegrass guitarist who doesn’t list Tony Rice as his or her No. 1 musical influence. While arthritis in his hands has slowed his playing, his fluidity, musicality and expressiveness are still peerless. Rice was born in Danville, Va., and grew up in the Los Angeles area. His family lived in North Carolina for a time in the 1960s, and he and his wife have lived in the Reidsville area since their Florida home flooded during a storm in 1993.
A native of Asheville, Warren Haynes began playing with the Allman Brothers Band in 1989, and joined the group for good in 2000. He and Derek Trucks give the Allmans their best guitar tandem since Duane Allman’s death in 1971, and the current Allmans lineup is the best since Duane was alive. They are stellar. Haynes also has played with members of the Grateful Dead since Jerry Garcia died in 1995, and he has played with his own jam band, Gov’t Mule, since 1994. The man has great chops. Rolling Stone magazine ranks the top 100 all-time best guitarists every few years, and Haynes is always on that list.
A native of Thomasville, Victoria Livengood is an internationally acclaimed mezzo-soprano and Metropolitan Opera star. I’m not an opera fan and can’t comment on her music personally, but a little web surfing unearths all you need to know. She’s earned her status as a megastar on merit. Livengood’s credentials are glittering, both for her acting and her singing. She has played numerous roles in major performances at the Met, including the lead in Carmen. She has won the Metropolitan Opera Auditions award, and the Rosa Ponselle, Luciano Pavarotti and George London competitions. She has earned rave reviews from the likes of The New York Times, the Boston Classical Review, Backstage, The Hub Review of Boston Arts, Opera News, Opera Lively, and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. Livengood left North Carolina after college to pursue her career and has lived elsewhere ever since. She currently resides in Jacksonville, Fla.
Shirley Caesar is the First Lady of Gospel. Born in Durham and educated at Shaw University, she began her musical career in the 1960s with the gospel supergroup the Caravans. She left in 1966 to embark on a solo career and has never looked back. She has won six Grammy Awards, and won seven Dove Awards from 1981-95 for Black Gospel Album of the Year. A kick-ass singer, she has recorded more than 40 solo albums, several of them critically acclaimed. She is minister of the Shirley Caesar Outreach Ministries, located in Raleigh.
Those are the four that jump out to me, all great musicians, but Doc and Earl left some big shoes to fill. And maybe there are others I’ve overlooked. You could make a good argument for several, and my personal choice would be Tony Rice. That said, while it was easy to name North Carolina’s greatest living musician or musicians before the spring of 2012, it’s not so easy since then. In fact, it’s damned hard.