There's no doubt about it: North Carolina's left a mark on how America sounds. From jazz to indie rock to hip-hop, the state's lent a lot of talent to the musical landscape over the years.
And the North Carolina Musician Murals Project is doing its part to show just how widely that legacy is spread across the state.
Folks in Cleveland County, west of Charlotte, are seeing that work unfold now in honor of two native sons. Artist Scott Nurkin just wrapped up a 30-foot-tall mural of bluegrass icon Earl Scruggs at Newgrass Brewing Co. in Shelby, and he's already working on a similarly large depiction of country songwriter Don Gibson just down the street.
Mary Beth Martin, director of the Earl Scruggs Center, says she hopes the mural helps introduce the musician's work to a new generation. In fact, it's already started. As Nurkin worked on bringing the towering Scruggs – trademark banjo in hand – to life, people gathered to take photos.
"It was kind of fun to be out there those days he was painting in the evening to see how many people grabbed a beer at Newgrass and just watched it for hours," Martin said. "I expect as more people are able to get out and about, when it's safe, that it'll continue to attract attention."
The Scruggs-Gibson art is a $25,000 project funded through a city of Shelby tourism grant, Martin said. It took Nurkin about five days to complete the Scruggs mural. But, really, it's part of something that's been in the works for more than a decade.
Nurkin's a Charlotte native, but he moved east to attend UNC Chapel Hill. That's where he got familiar with Pepper's Pizza, a since-closed restaurant where, he says, "everybody who worked there was in a band or dated somebody who was in a band." The owner asked Nurkin to make a mural, and he came up with an idea: a map of North Carolina with portraits of the state's famous musicians near their hometowns – Nina Simone in Tryon, Charlie Daniels in Wilmington and Doc Watson in Deep Gap, to name a few.
When Pepper's closed, UNC bought the portraits and hired Nurkin to paint others. And that's when Nurkin, who's a professional muralist as well as a musician, said he "put two and two together." What if he could take the "map" idea outside and into the actual towns where some of North Carolina's most renowned musicians were born, painting murals across the state to help tell its musical history?
"I've been sitting on it, dreaming of it, really for the last 10 years," he said.
So Nurkin and friend Greg Lowenhagen – founder of Raleigh's Hopscotch Music Festival – started pitching various municipal governments and looking for wall space.
The project officially kicked off last month with a 60-foot-tall mural of jazz legend John Coltrane in Hamlet, a small town about 75 miles southeast of Charlotte.
Nurkin says he wants folks to be curious and learn more about what people from across the state have contributed to American music.
"That's something to be proud of, in my eyes," he said.
Up next: a mural of Grammy-winning singer and musician Roberta Flack in Black Mountain near Asheville. He's particularly excited about that one: Flack's one of his "big four" North Carolina music icons, the others being Coltrane, Simone, and Thelonius Monk, who was from Rocky Mount. (And he's quick to point out that a fifth of his favorites, George Clinton, was born in Kannapolis.)
Nurkin has a few more murals on tap – including at least one in Charlotte — but didn't share details since plans haven't been formalized.
Right now, the goal is to complete 15-20 murals over the next two years, but that could be just the start. Asked how many North Carolina music legends he hopes to honor with hometown murals, Nurkin said, only half-joking, "all of 'em."
"We want people to follow and investigate and look into who might be coming next, because there are really so many musicians," Nurkin said. "I did 40 portraits for (UNC), but you could double that if you really want to go out and explore. And those are just the big names, but there are so many talented side men and women or backup singers that really need to get recognition...
"I could do this for the rest of my life."
A version of this story originally appeared in our weekly arts and entertainment newsletter, Tapestry. Subscribe here.
And if you're a music fan who wants to learn more about Charlotte area musicians, check out WFAE's Amplifier podcast.