Now Hear This: A Forward Look at the Music Scene in the Triangle

The current moment finds the Triangle commanding a fair amount of national and even international attention across a wide range of styles, from bluegrass to hip-hop. Here is some of what to look for and what may come to pass in 2020.
By David Menconi

Viewed from a distance, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill music scene seems to go through cycles of ups and downs—from times when local acts like the piano-pop trio Ben Folds or hip-hop group Little Brother are on the national sales charts to seemingly quiet periods. But on the ground and in the nightclubs, our music scene has pretty much always been somewhere in the vicinity of great, whether anybody in the wider world is paying attention or not.

Sam Beam | Photograph by Cherie Hanson

Possible Grammy Breakthroughs

It looks like we may have some local talent representing at the 62nd Annual Grammy Awards this year when they air January 26. And it’s about time: UNC professor Bill Ferris won a Grammy last year, Best Historical Album, for his career retrospective. But before that, it had been nearly a decade since the Triangle made a big splash at the music industry’s top awards, when Durham-based Merge Records improbably won the 2011 Album of the Year with alternative-rock band Arcade Fire’s The Suburbs. We’ve got some possibilities in 2020.

Over the course of his career, jazz saxophonist Branford Marsalis has won three Grammys—but none since 2002, when he took up residence in Durham. Marsalis is nominated in two categories for this year’s Grammys, Best Improvised Jazz Solo and Best Jazz Instrumental Album. So maybe this will be the year he wins his first Grammy as a local resident.

Fayetteville native, rapper and impresario J. Cole has yet to win a Grammy, despite numerous nominations and the fact that he’s had five straight albums hit No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart (look for The Fall Off, due out in 2020, to make it six). With four nominations in three categories, he’s got a solid shot at his first Grammy this year.
Chapel Hill resident Sam Beam, the guiding force and sole permanent member of Americana group Iron & Wine, has earned multiple nominations in recent years without reaching the winner’s circle. He’s up for two this year, in the categories of Best American Roots Performance and Best Americana Album.

Rhiannon Giddens won a Grammy a decade ago as part of Carolina Chocolate Drops, but she has yet to win one as a solo act despite six nominations. She is nominated alongside Iron & Wine in Best American Roots Performance.

Former Raleighite Justin Vernon—known as Bon Iver—won a pair of Grammys back in 2011. Bon Iver is nominated in four categories this year, including Record and Album of the Year. A number of local musicians share in those nominations, including multi-instrumentalist Brad Cook (who is also part of Hiss Golden Messenger) and guitarist BJ Burton (formerly of The Love Language). It would be their first Grammys.

Dreamville Festival | Photograph by Anfney, courtesy Dreamville

A Festival Town 

By now, Raleigh is well-established as one of the country’s top destinations for outdoor music festivals. One of its major anchors will happen April 4 at Dorothea Dix Park, the second edition of J. Cole’s Dreamville Festival.

Dreamville’s 2019 debut event was a huge success, drawing a capacity crowd of 40,000 to Dix for a day-long performance lineup of 18 acts including SZA, Rapsody, Nelly and Cole himself in the headline slot. The festival—the first at Dix—went off with almost no problems or issues, which festival management will look to repeat in 2020. Expect the lineup to be announced in a few weeks.

Come September, there’s a big festival of some sort taking up Raleigh’s downtown streets almost every weekend, including long-running events like SPARKcon and La Fiesta del Pueblo. But September’s two biggest festivals bookend the month.

First up is Hopscotch, which returns for its 11th edition the weekend of September 3-5. Acts including Solange Knowles, Flaming Lips, The Roots and St. Vincent have been Hopscotch headliners in years past. The festival’s first lineup announcements tend to come in late spring.

Then, closing out September, is the International Bluegrass Music Association’s eighth annual World of Bluegrass, September 29 through October 3. World of Bluegrass has become one of downtown Raleigh’s marquee annual events, and it drew a total attendance of more than 218,000 in 2019. The 2020 edition will be year two of the festival’s current three-year contract. So as soon as the 2020 festival concludes, intrigue will start up all over again as to whether or not IBMA will extend its stay in Raleigh. In the meantime, lineup announcements usually start up in the early part of summer.

American Aquarium | Photography by Scott Sharp

Multi-Disciplinary Work

Raleigh singer-songwriter Tift Merritt has always been game for taking on large-scale projects beyond just music, including photography exhibitions and hosting a public-radio show in Marfa, Texas. This year she’ll present The Other Side of Hungry River—a symphonic collaboration with NC State director of orchestral studies Peter Askim. Inspired by Dix Park’s previous history as a mental institution and slave plantation, the piece will debut April 19 at NC State’s Stewart Theatre, performed by the Raleigh Civic Symphony.

Also in the works is the first-ever album by North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green, about which she says, “I am both excited and terrified.” The album will consist of musical adaptations of the North Carolina Literary Hall of Famer’s poems, including Letter From the Other Daughter of the Confederacy, For the Lover Who Eats My Poems and A Litany for the Possessed. Recording details are still coming together, but the album is expected to be released sometime in 2020.

Other acts with new music on the way in 2020 are Raleigh roots-rock band American Aquarium, whose eighth studio album, Lamentations, is due out in April; Chapel Hill-based Americana duo Mandolin Orange, who have quickly graduated from headlining clubs to amphitheaters over the past few years; and Durham electronic duo Sylvan Esso’s followup to their Grammy-nominated 2017 album What Now.

Maybe the best way to ring in 2020 is with Steep Canyon Rangers’ just-released North Carolina Songbook. Recorded live at the 2019 MerleFest, it’s a compilation in which the Grammy-winning bluegrass group covers everything from jazzman Thelonious Monk to onetime Chapel Hill resident James Taylor—a pitch-perfect rendition of Sweet Baby James.

Like the North Carolina music it honors, it’s sweet.