Here are 2017’s breakout acts, shows, social media moments, reality TV stars and even a cat

Here are some of the NC references in “Stranger Things.” Have you caught them all?

The Duffer Brothers, born and raised in Durham, drop quite a few Durham-area references in the Emmy-winning hit sci-fi series “Stranger Things” that they write, direct and produce.
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The Duffer Brothers, born and raised in Durham, drop quite a few Durham-area references in the Emmy-winning hit sci-fi series “Stranger Things” that they write, direct and produce.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times –it was 2017, all year long. But this year was not without its breakout stars and moments from North Carolina, too. Let’s revisit.

North Carolina

The Old North State itself was ready for its closeup this year, serving as backdrop and reference point in quite a few cultural artifacts. Chief among those was “Stranger Things,” the Netflix television series masterminded by the Durham-born writing/directing team of Matt and Ross Duffer. While “Stranger Things” is set in the fictional town of Hawkins, Ind., it’s liberally sprinkled with Durham names and places: Eno River, Jordan Lake, Cornwallis Road and so on. The show won several Emmys and picked up some Golden Globe nominations too.

Duffer brothers
The Durham-born writing/directing team of Matt and Ross Duffer are behind the Netflix TV series “Stranger Things,” which has garnered acclaim from fans and critics alike. Curtis Baker/Netflix

As for “Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri,” it’s set in the Ozarks but was nevertheless made in the Appalachians (thanks in part to financial incentives from the North Carolina Film Office). “Three Billboards,” which has been cleaning up with nominations during awards season, was filmed last year in the Jackson County town of Sylva, population 2,644.

Three Billboards
France McDormand stars in the acclaimed film, “Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri.” It’s set in the Ozarks but was made in the Appalachians and was filmed last year in the Jackson County town of Sylva, population 2,644. Twentieth Century Fox TNS

Thanks to basketball, the Triangle turned up in a few song lyrics. Steve Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers’ twisted breakup song “Caroline” has a line about the protagonist seeking someone “who swears a blue streak when the Tar Heels lose the quarter-finals.” And Duke fan Randy Newman set “The Great Debate” in “Durham, North Carolina/The heart of the Research Triangle!”

“I’m a sports fan and already knew about Duke and Cameron (Indoor Stadium), and that just popped into my head – there it was,” Newman said. “But I changed it to Research Triangle because it seemed fitting that it be in a place famous for science.”

Rhiannon Giddens

The Greensboro native had a power 2017 of major proportions. After winning the Steve Martin Prize for Excellence in Banjo and Bluegrass in the fall of 2016, she joined the cast of CMT’s “Nashville” this year for an acclaimed Season 5 star turn.

Rhiannon Giddens
Rhiannon Giddens had a 2017 of major proportions. She was part of “Nashville” on CMT and delivered a much-praised keynote address at September’s International Bluegrass Music Association conference in Raleigh. She won a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in October. Scott Sharpe ssharpe@newsobserver.com

She delivered a much-praised keynote address at September’s International Bluegrass Music Association conference in Raleigh and capped it all off by winning a MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” in October.

She’ll be back in North Carolina in April to headline shows in Raleigh and at MerleFest.

American musician Rhiannon Giddens, formerly of the Carolina Chocolate Drops, delivered a powerful keynote speech at the Raleigh Convention Center to kick off IBMA's World of Bluegrass on Tuesday Sept. 26, 2017. She declared that the question toda

Reality TV contestants

A bumper crop of North Carolinians went far on various reality shows, led by singer Brooke Simpson. A native of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe in the Halifax County town of Hollister (population 674), Simpson rose through the ranks of NBC’s singing competition “The Voice.” She ultimately finished third but went one better than that on the Dec. 4 iTunes chart, where her house-shaking version of “Amazing Grace” made it to No. 2 — right beyond Beyoncé herself.

Brooke Simpson
Singer Brooke Simpson, a native of the Haliwa-Saponi tribe in the Halifax County town of Hollister, finished third in NBC’s singing competition “The Voice.” NBC Tyler Golden/NBC

Christmas Abbott, a CrossFit star from Raleigh, performed well in the field of CBS’s “Big Brother,” trying to outlast her competitors through rounds of evictions. She, too, came in third.

Raleigh native and Enloe High School graduate Robert Green went deep into this season’s “So You Think You Can Dance” on Fox. He made the Top 10 of the finals, high enough to be on the “All the Right Moves Tour” that came to Durham Performing Arts Center in October.

Jeff Varner
Greensboro’s Jeff Varner, top left, made an impression on the CBS series “Survivor,” after he disclosed that fellow contestant Zeke Smith, top right, is transgender, a move for which he was roundly criticized on and off camera. Jeffrey Neira CBS

Finally, Greensboro’s Jeff Varner made an impression all right on the CBS series “Survivor,” a season that also featured Fayetteville’s Sandra Diaz-Twine, but not a positive one. Varner was voted off after he disclosed that one of his fellow contestants is transgender, a move for which he was roundly criticized on and off camera. He ultimately lost his job.

Grammy breakthroughs

At the 2017 Grammy Awards in February, a pair of North Carolina artists notched their first wins. “Kid-hop” artist Secret Agent 23 Skidoo of Asheville was victorious in the best children’s album category. And classical singer Lucas Meachem, a Triangle native who now lives in Minneapolis, won for best opera recording.

“The whole thing was super-cool, almost surreal,” said Meachem. “Yeah, I’d been thinking, ‘Whether I win or not, no big deal’ – until I won. Suddenly, it was a big deal.”

Marlanna “Rapsody” Evans, shown in 2015, is nominated for Grammy Awards for Best Rap Album and Song of the Year. Kevin Estrada 2015

In 2018 nominations announced last month, three Triangle acts registered their first-ever nominations. Durham electronic duo Sylvan Esso is up for best dance/electronic album. Sam “Iron & Wine” Beam, who moved to the Triangle in 2013 and now lives in Chapel Hill, was nominated for best Americana album. And Duke Chapel organist Christopher Jacobson is part of four nominations: best choral performance, best surround sound, best engineered classical album and classical producer of the year.

Then there’s Marlanna “Rapsody” Evans. After sharing in Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 album of the year nomination, Rapsody has the first nominations of her own this year, for best rap album and song.

Artist Dare Coulter spent a week of long days and nights completing a 30 foot wide, 20 foot tall mural to call attention to free speech and the right to protest. She made art and a lot of new friends along the way.

Dare Coulter

The Triangle is overrun with interesting murals, but perhaps the most striking one of all is the mural painted by artist Dare Coulter, a 24-year-old NC State College of Design graduate. This summer, she painted her huge mural on downtown Raleigh’s Boylan-Pearce building facing Salisbury Street. Commissioned by the American Civil Liberties Union, it depicts protests over the years up to and including this past January’s “Women’s March” on Washington.

It attracted notice all over, including in The New York Times, and has become a regular spot for selfie-takers.

Tucker is a 20-year-old half-Mane coon cat who ballooned up to 31 pounds through downtown apartment living. Now he qualifies as a Raleigh celebrity.

Tucker the Celebrity Weight-Loss Cat

After peaking at 31 pounds last year, Tucker the cat entered a weight-loss regimen when his owner Ron Kirk started taking him on exercise walks around downtown Raleigh. Tucker seemed to enjoy the attention from those who stopped to gawk at the huge feline lumbering down sidewalks. Even with his current celebrity status, he remains open to humans petting him.

At last report, Tucker’s daily constitutional strolls had dropped him below 25 pounds. You can follow his adventures as Oak City Kitty on Instagram, where Tucker has more than 2,000 followers.

Randy Jones
Randy Jones, the original cowboy in the Village People waves to the crowd on Ninth Street in Durham Sept. 27, 2014. The 65-year-old Raleigh native made the Billboard charts for the first time in decades, this time as a solo act, with the single “Hard Times.” Chuck Liddy cliddy@newsobserver.com

Randy Jones

It’s been four long decades since Randy Jones – aka the Village People’s iconic “Cowboy” – was on the Billboard charts. But the 65-year-old Raleigh native made the charts again, this time as a solo act. Jones’ single “Hard Times” made Billboard’s chart, where it peaked at No. 42.

“It’s my fifth decade of show-biz, which sounds weird coming out of my mouth and resounding in my ear-pans,” he said then. “I’m just walking through this life depending on the kindness of strangers and a shaded lightbulb.”

Mandolin Orange
Mandolin Orange, the folksy Americana duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, headlined bigger venues in 2017, ending the year by opening for the Avett Brothers at Raleigh’s PNC Arena. Contributed

Mandolin Orange

It wasn’t that long ago that Mandolin Orange, the folksy Americana duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz, played small clubs around the area. But this year saw them move up to headlining large venues like the 2,800-capacity NC Museum of Art’s outdoor theater, which the Chapel Hill duo sold out in July. That matched crowd sizes with better known acts like Sheryl Crow, Punch Brothers and Jason Isbell while contributing to a record-setting concert year for the museum.

Raleigh’s PNC Arena is the next big local stage Mandolin Orange will play, where they’ll see off 2017 by opening for the Avett Brothers’ annual New Year’s Eve show.

Nina Simone

Nina Simone
Tryon native Nina Simone is on the cover of Oxford American’s annual Southern Music Issue. Inside stories highlight North Carolina music, from the mountains to the beach and everywhere in-between. Past and present get their due, from Simone and John Coltrane to contemporary Triangle-based stars Rapsody and Sylvan Esso. AP

More than 14 years after her death, Tryon native Simone’s profile is higher than ever. Step one was an acclaimed documentary film, director Liz Garbus’ “What Happened, Miss Simone?,” which picked up an Oscar nomination last year. Step two was a huge pink-and-orange Simone mural, which the Polish-born crochet artist Olek installed on a wall of the Raleigh Convention Center in October. And step three was this month’s announcement that Simone had been voted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 2018 class, alongside Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Bon Jovi, Dire Straits, The Cars and Moody Blues.

Maybe someday Simone’s fellow North Carolina native Link Wray will get in, too.


On Nov. 9, Raleigh lawyer Catherine Lawson posted a picture of herself at age 14 on Twitter, using the hashtag #MeAt14 and declaring: Can’t consent at 14. Not in Alabama. Not anywhere.

#MeAt14, a riff on the #MeToo social-media signifier, was tweeted as a response to accusations that U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore had sexually molested a 14-year-old girl when he was 32, accusations he continues to deny. But it arrived at a moment when victims of sexual assault came forward in droves in the wake of sexual harassment and assault allegations against movie executive Harvey Weinstein.

Even though Lawson has less than 1,000 followers on Twitter, #MeAt14 took off and spread like wildfire across social media. Thousands of other women across the world posted pictures of themselves at 14, too.

“I hoped people would share their pictures, but many went on to show powerful vulnerability,” Lawson told the News & Observer last month. “I’ve been incredibly moved by stories of innocence and of exploitation that remind us every child deserves a community that protects them.”

WeRateDogs (@dog_rates)

Onetime Campbell University student Matt Nelson has proved an old truism with his Twitter phenomenon WeRateDogs: The internet has a boundless appetite for cute pet pictures.

WeRateDogs went online in late 2015, became an instant hit and continued rolling along this year. More than 4.7 million people follow it on Twitter now, leading to a spinoff book — “#WeRateDogs: The Most Hilarious and Adorable Pups You’ve Ever Seen,” published this fall – and a profile of Nelson in Esquire magazine. Hhe’s created another account, Thoughts of Dog (@dogfeelings), occasionally has weighed in on net neutrality and continues to get national publicity.

And still, the tweets go on: “This is Luna. She was having an unremarkable day until she was informed that she is indeed a very good girl. Numb with gratification. 13/10”

McMansion Hell

Whispering Pines native Kate Wagner started the McMansion Hell blog (McMansionHell.com) last year to poke snarky fun at generic castle-sized houses, both inside and out: “don’t u hate it when ur air vent gets in the way of ur bootleg sistine chapel ceiling.”

Zillow, the online real-estate database company from whence Wagner’s pictures came, was not amused.

Zillow hit Wagner, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, with a cease-and-desist order accusing her of copyright violation and computer fraud and abuse. But the non-profit Electronic Frontier Foundation took up her cause.

“McMansion Hell has become part of the national dialogue about contemporary design,” Wagner’s attorney argued.

Zillow dropped its complaint and McMansion Hell lives on.

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

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