Blues and Bluegrass in North Carolina

By: Jason Frye

April 16, 2015

Blues and Bluegrass in North Carolina

Somewhere in the mountains along the border between North Carolina and Virginia, bluegrass – that American musical genre personified by banjo, mandolin and fiddle – was born. This was 1948, but the sound of Bluegrass in North Carolina had evolved for nearly two centuries, resulting from a blend of Scottish and Irish folk music and musical traditions introduced by West African slaves.


Across the south, the history of music is the same: a mix of tradition and culture heavily influenced by enslaved West Africans. The Blues, that other genre synonymous with the American South, grew from this fertile ground and spread, branching into Piedmont, Delta and Slow hand blues (to name a few).


In Raleigh, Durham and surrounding cities, you’ll find plenty of places to get an earful of some mighty fine bluegrass and blues.


The Blues

Blues and Bluegrass in North Carolina
The Bull Durham Blues Festival celebrates the musical legacy of Durhamites Blind Boy Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis © Stewart Waller and Durham Convention & Visitors Bureau

In the early 20th century, bluesmen Blind Boy Fuller and Reverend Gary Davis were among the blues musicians calling Durham home. Today, Triangle Blues Society keeps their legacy alive with blues jams every Tuesday night and on the first Sunday of the month at The Blue Note Grill. Each September, the Bull Durham Blues Festival brings two days of blues to Durham, giving you one more reason to visit.


In Greensboro, an hour to the west, the Carolina Blues Festival has drawn blues musicians and aficionados to this Piedmont city for nearly 30 years for a day-long blues festival.


The same holds true in Wilmington, two hours to the south. There, the Cape Fear Blues Society puts on the Cape Fear Blues Festival each July, celebrating the genre with a blues-filled riverboat cruise and concerts, jams and workshops all weekend long. The Cape Fear Blues Society also holds blues jams at The Rusty Nail every Tuesday and on the first Saturday of the month.



Blues and Bluegrass in North Carolina
Steel Wheels performs at Wide Open Bluegrass in Raleigh © Dave Brainard

Say “bluegrass” and many of us hear “Dueling Banjos,” the plucky song made famous by the film Deliverance; though Deliverance was filmed in South Carolina, the song was written here in North Carolina. The genre is more than that song though, and at a number of festivals, concerts and jams, you’ll find hundreds of musicians and thousands of fans picking and dancing along.


One of the longest-running and most acclaimed collections of folk, old-time, roots and bluegrass in North Carolina is MerleFest, held every April in Wilkesboro, two and a half hours west of Raleigh and Durham. Founded by the legendary Doc Watson in memory of his brother Merle, MerleFest brings together an impressive collection of national and international musicians every year for one of the showcase music festivals of the South.

Blues and Bluegrass in North Carolina | MerleFest
The main stage at MerleFest brings the top bluegrass and traditional musicians together every spring in the mountains of North Carolina © Jacob Caudill

The International Bluegrass Music Association holds its annual awards ceremony in Raleigh every October, and with the IBMA Awards comes the Wide Open Bluegrass “Fan Festival”. Wide Open Bluegrass includes more than 50 bands on five stages over the course of a weekend. With official and unofficial concerts, ticketed shows at the downtown Red Hat Amphitheatre, a barbecue cook-off and plenty of opportunities to interact with other music lovers and musicians, this is a great place to get a feel for bluegrass in North Carolina.


Header Image © Frank Kovalchek/Flickr


Virgin Atlantic and Delta operate daily flights to Raleigh and Durham, bringing authentic North Carolina bluegrass and blues within easy reach.


Have you experienced blues or bluegrass in North Carolina? Let us know in the comments section below.


Written by Jason Frye

Jason Frye

Driven by his need to know what's around the next turn, Jason Frye became a travel and food writer. He is the author of two travel guides - Moon North Carolina Handbook (2014) and Moon North Carolina Coast Handbook (2014) - and is a food blogger, columnist, and frequent contributor to publications across the Southeastern United States. He lives in Wilmington, North Carolina, with his wife, Lauren.

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