The Key of NC: 10 Songs About North Carolina

The Key of NC: 10 Songs About North Carolina

With its thriving sounds spanning multiple genres, the Tar Heel State has always served as an influence for a lot of incredible music. After all, our state holds plenty of direct name-checks from musicians. Here are 10 songs about the North Carolina we think you should know.

1. James Taylor – “Carolina In My Mind

As perhaps the first NC-centric song most people think about, James Taylor‘s 1968 folk classic encapsulates a deep homesickness for the Old North State. Recorded in England, Taylor’s song combines a gentle groove with impressionistic lyrics to create a wistful ode to his Southern heritage. And because of harmony vocals from Paul McCartney and George Harrison, the song grows a little softer and more bittersweet.

2. Petey Pablo – “Raise Up

Bursting onto the mainstream rap scene in 2001 with this tee shirt-waving anthem, Greenville’s own Petey Pablo created a booming rallying cry for North Carolina in “Raise Up.” As a result of its enduring legacy, the song has become a fixture at UNC – Chapel Hill sports games. In 2018, the Carolina Hurricanes adopted Pablo’s bombastic boast of NC pride as their official goal song. Because what says victory more than this defiant boom of a track?

3. G Yamazawa – “North Cack” (featuring Joshua Gunn & Kane Smego)

With references to sweet tea, southern drawls, barbecue sauce, and their hometown of Durham, rappers G Yamazawa, Joshua Gunn and Kane Smego create a spiritual successor to Petey Pablo’s Carolina classic. “North Cack” maintains the energetic bounce of “Raise Up,” but rather than simply name-check their home, the rappers express how their North Carolina roots have influenced their styles. Not only is North Carolina on the map, it’s got something to say because of rappers like these three.

4. Kooley High – “Dear Raleigh

On the mellower side of things, Raleigh’s Kooley High offers a another kind of North Carolina anthem on “Dear Raleigh.” Emcees Tab One, Charlie Smarts and Rapsody wax poetic about the Oak City, shouting out Raleigh institutions like Cup-A-Joe and Char Grill. They give a beautifully produced, heartfelt love letter to the city that made them.

5. Sonic Youth – “Chapel Hill

Sonic Youth‘s noisy jam provides a snapshot of a distinct time in Chapel Hill’s music scene. Singer Thurston Moore drops references to the beloved venue Cat’s Cradle, murdered Internationalist Books owner Bob Sheldon and firebrand conservative politician Jesse Helms, all because of their impact on his time there. Though it’s a song not written by residents, “Chapel Hill” perfectly captures the complex political and musical climate of North Carolina in the 1990s.

6. Des Ark – “Carolina Girls

A rare homesick ballad that’s rooted in acceptance rather than nostalgia, Des Ark‘s “Carolina Girls” is a song about the true meaning of home. For Aimee Argote, North Carolina isn’t just a collection of favorite cafes or parks. It’s also the people living there, the people from her own childhood and the experiences that colored her identity. And because it’s a song about North Carolina, it’s rooted in Piedmont folk and Chapel Hill indie rock tradition.

7. Townes Van Zandt – “Greensboro Woman

Though Townes Van Zandt was a Texan, his song “Greensboro Woman” makes a fine addition to any list of songs about North Carolina. Unlike most of the songs mentioned so far, “Greensboro Woman” doesn’t make much mention of the Tar Heel State, but it does share the breezy, lilting feel of a lot of North Carolina folk. Its influence can be found today in the music of Piedmont acts, like Hiss Golden Messenger and Phil Cook.

8. Elizabeth Cotten – “Freight Train

Another example of lilting Piedmont folk, Elizabeth Cotten‘s “Freight Train” documents the trains that rumbled through Cotten’s hometown of Carrboro. Like “Greensboro Woman,” “Freight Train” doesn’t overtly mention North Carolina, but its sound ties it indelibly to the state’s musical identity. Cotten’s signature guitar style, an adaptation of southern ragtime playing, has become a chief and enduring influence on North Carolina’s folk music tradition.

9. John D. Loudermilk – “Tobacco Road

Written in 1960 about his experience growing up in Durham, John D. Loudermilk‘s “Tobacco Road” is one of the most enduring songs about North Carolina. Dozens of artists have covered it, ranging from The Nashville Teens to the Jackson 5. And so the song has become a standard across multiple genres.

10. The Marshall Tucker Band – “Blue Ridge Mountain Sky

Progenitors of the Southern rock sound, The Marshall Tucker Band‘s “Blue Ridge Mountain Sky” is a rollicking celebration of western North Carolina’s natural beauty. The song documents both the homesickness one feels when traveling and the serenity of being back in one’s home. But contrary to fellow Appalachian O. Henry’s belief, you actually can go home again.

Want more North Carolina music? Check out our list of musicians you might not know are North Carolinians. And also make sure to drop by our Lifestyle coverage for down-home views of our state’s features!