The roots of bluegrass run through North Carolina

tgoldsmith@newsobserver.com, dmenconi@newsobserver.comSeptember 21, 2013 

The International Bluegrass Music Association is having its conference and awards show in Raleigh for the first time this year. But the Capital City and the entire Tar Heel State have a long history with bluegrass music.

1800s-1930s

Mid-19th century: Scots-Irish fiddling and African-American banjo styles merge in the bands featured in minstrel shows. Singing schools proliferate through North Carolina, forming the basis for many of the characteristic harmonies of bluegrass.

1892: Singer-banjoist Charlie Poole, born in Spray, becomes a central figure of old-time music’s emergence as a commercial commodity on radio and records before his death in 1931.

1919: Singer-instrumentalist Curly Seckler is born in China Grove. He’ll have a long career with many top bluegrass artists and continue to play until having stroke in 2013.

1923: Doc Watson is born near Deep Gap.

1924: Earl Scruggs is born in Flint Hill.

1924: The Union Grove Fiddler’s contest starts.

1925: George Shuffler is born in Valdese. He’ll have a long career as a guitarist and bassist, most notably with the Stanley Brothers.

Mid-1920s: Raleigh radio station WPTF and Charlotte’s WBT are founded, providing a home for many of the old-time string bands whose sound led to bluegrass.

1930s: The Monroe Brothers, including bluegrass founder Bill Monroe, appear on WPTF and build popularity throughout the Carolinas. WPTF also features popular brother duos the Blue Sky Boys and Delmore Brothers. Brothers Bill and Charlie Monroe split in 1938.

1933: Fiddler Bobby Hicks is born in Newton. He’ll go on to play with Bill Monroe and many others, and he continues to play weekly in Marshall.

Bluegrass gets going

1930s-1950s

1939: Bill Monroe debuts his Blue Grass Boys, including North Carolinian Art Wooten, on the Grand Ole Opry radio program.

1945-1946: The “classic” Blue Grass Boys, including Scruggs and Lester Flatt, assemble in Nashville and define the sound of traditional bluegrass that endures today.

1948: Flatt and Scruggs both leave Monroe and soon start their own Foggy Mountain Boys band. They gain popularity on radio in Hickory and Bristol, Tenn. They record “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” in 1949.

1948: WPAQ goes on the air in Mount Airy. It remains on the air today as a presenter of old-time and bluegrass music.

1949: Brothers Carter and Ralph Stanley, one of the key acts of early bluegrass, live in Raleigh while appearing on WPTF. Legendary talent scout Art Satherley flies to Raleigh to sign the Stanley Brothers to Columbia Records.

1952: Flatt and Scruggs spend most of the year at WPTF. Three years later, they join the Grand Ole Opry and continue to build popularity. Country stars Kitty Wells, Chet Atkins, Johnnie and Jack and others also are at WPTF in the 1950s.

Folk fuels a leap forward

1950s-1960s

1958: Folk group the Kingston Trio has a huge hit record with “Tom Dooley,” based on an 1866 murder in Wilkes County. It boosts the popularity of banjo and Appalachian music.

1962: “The Beverly Hillbillies” television show debuts, beginning a string of major media exposure for bluegrass.

1965: The first major bluegrass festival is organized by North Carolinian Carlton Haney in Fincastle, Va., with the trend soon spreading to other states. Camp Springs, N.C., and other locations start festivals, often with themed presentations of bluegrass history.

Mid-1960s on: North Carolina becomes a haven for young people interested in both old-time and bluegrass music. New Deal String, an early proponent of “newgrass” music forms in Raleigh.

1969: Flatt & Scruggs split to pursue separate careers.

Heading into mainstream

1970s-1990s

1970s: Huge crowds gather for Union Grove conventions, until they are shut down because of “Woodstock”-style commotion.

1972: Influential old-time and eclectic band the Red Clay Ramblers forms in Chapel Hill.

1978: Sugar Hill Records starts in Durham. It will be the home to Ricky Skaggs, Doc Watson and many others key to the rise of second-generation bluegrass.

1987: The first full-scale IBMA “World of Bluegrass” is held in Owensboro, Ky. A teenage Alison Krauss stars, along with Monroe and many others.

1988: Merlefest debuts in North Wilkesboro as Doc Watson’s tribute to his late son, Merle. It grows through the years to include virtually every noted acoustic country performer, as well as pop artists such as Elvis Costello and Robert Plant. It draws crowds of as many as 80,000 people.

1991: Alison Krauss wins the first of 21 Grammy Awards.

1995: The annual Charlie Poole Festival begins in Eden.

1996: Bill Monroe dies

1997: Triangle native Jim Mills joins Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder band and becomes one of bluegrass’ best known banjo players, winning six IBMA awards.

1997: Enduring Eastern North Carolina bluegrass band the Grass Cats forms. By 2013, they become the first band on an independent label to top the Bluegrass Unlimited charts.

'O Brother' brings fans

2000s-present

2000: "O Brother Where Art Thou" is released, boosting the careers of Ralph Stanley and Alison Krauss and the general popularity of bluegrass and acoustic country.

2000: Avett Brothers form in Charlotte, merging bluegrass-style instrumentation with a rock approach. The band becomes massively popular as part of a new stream of high-energy acoustic performers, including Old Crow Medicine Show and Mumford & Sons.

2003: Steep Canyon Rangers form in Chapel Hill; in 2008 they will start their association with Steve Martin, the banjo player, actor and comedian with deep roots in bluegrass.

2005: Carolina Chocolate Drops form in Triangle, returning to the African-American and old-time fiddle roots of string-band style. The band wins a Grammy in 2012.

2012: Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs die.

2013: Steep Canyon Rangers win a Grammy for “Nobody Knows You.”

2013: IBMA comes to Raleigh

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