North Carolina: Looking for music? Here’s where to start

  • Blake Guthrie
  • For the AJC
Oct 05, 2017
Del McCoury performs at the 2017 MerleFest in Wilkesboro. MerleFest is held the last weekend of each April. CONTRIBUTED BY SARA BRENNAN


What started as a small festival in 1988 to honor musician Merle Watson, who died tragically in a farming accident in 1985, has turned into one of the largest roots-based music festivals in the country. The fest was founded by Merle’s father, bluegrass legend Doc Watson. The elder Watson passed away in 2012, but the festival lives on in a big way. Each year, it draws upward of 80,000 people to take in Americana music on a dozen stages. MerleFest (1-800-343-7857, is held the last weekend of each April in Wilkesboro on the grounds of Wilkes Community College and is a fundraiser for the school.


The nation’s oldest folk music festival takes place in Asheville each August: the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival (828-258-6101, Since 1928, fans and performers of Appalachian music and dancing have come to experience this joyful exploration of tradition and mountain culture. The Shindig on the Green takes place once a week all summer long in Pack Square Park as a Mini-Me version of the festival. Every Friday evening, the informal and enormous Asheville Drum Circle takes place in Pritchard Park. Things get going at 6 p.m. and last until whenever people stop pounding out thundering rhythms (usually around 9 p.m.). You’ll also encounter many buskers belting out tunes on the sidewalks on any given day.

Chapel Hill/Carrboro

What Athens is to the Georgia music scene, so Chapel Hill and Carrboro are to North Carolina. This is where such notable and influential acts as Superchunk, Ben Folds Five, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Flat Duo Jets and Southern Culture on the Skids hail from. Cat’s Cradle (300 E. Main St. Carrboro. 919-967-9053, has been in business for over 40 years. The list of names who’ve played the 750-seat venue on their way to larger arenas seems endless and includes such diverse acts as Nirvana, John Mayer, and Public Enemy. In Chapel Hill, two long-standing go-to clubs for live music are the Cave (452 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. 919-968-9308,, a small, subterranean dive bar, and Local 506 (506 W. Franklin St., Chapel Hill. 919-942-5506,, a larger venue featuring an array of acts of different genres.


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