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Greensboro: Crossroads of American Culture

While professional and collegiate sports, barbecue, craft brewing, and a healthy business environment define Greensboro for many, there is much more to the city’s identity—including a vibrant, walkable downtown with galleries, public art, parks, late-night music venues, cafes, eclectic restaurants, and the four-mile Greenway and bicycle loop. Greensboro boasts a pleasant, four-season climate, charming neighborhoods, and a gracious Southern style coupled with a passion for hospitality—all with an urban twist.

The largest of three cities making up the Triad, Greensboro is centrally located in the heart of the state—the historic hub of North Carolina’s picturesque Piedmont region. Nicknamed the “Gate City” in its early railroad days, today Greensboro enjoys easy access by air, road, and rail—strategically located at the center of more interstate highways—I-40, I-85, I-73, and I-74—than any city in the Carolinas. Greensboro is less than a day’s drive from New York and a mere five hours from both Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, and is just a few hours’ drive from both the Blue Ridge Parkway and North Carolina’s Atlantic beaches.

For nearly two centuries, these travel routes have converged in Greensboro to create a remarkable melting pot of cultures and traditions. Crisscrossing trails, railroad lines, and interstate highways brought explosive growth to the city, also bringing in a mix of musical styles through the years.

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The Only Common Thread to the Music Greensboro Produces Is Its Uncommon Diversity

Greensboro and the Piedmont have become home to a wide array of artists—white, African American, Asian American, Montagnard, Latin American, Haliwa-Saponi, and more—who maintain artistic traditions that are an integral part of the fabric of North Carolina culture. While old-time, blues, bluegrass, country, gospel, and banjo and fiddle playing have been passed down in Piedmont families and communities for generations, new traditions are emerging as people have immigrated to the area from around the globe.

That diversity was celebrated in September at the inaugural 2018 North Carolina Folk Festival, which grew out of a three-year first-ever Greensboro residency of the venerable National Folk Festival. More than 300 artists—from North Carolina, Texas, New Orleans, the Caribbean, and Mongolia to the Maritime Provinces, East Africa, and beyond—converged in Greensboro for the launch of this free festival, which attracted more than 150,000 music lovers from across the state and region for a remarkable three-day weekend.

Presented on the second weekend of September in downtown Greensboro, the 2019 North Carolina Folk Festival is scheduled for September 6, 7, and 8. The free annual event is produced by ArtsGreensboro in collaboration with the City of Greensboro and other sponsor-partners.

Greensboro native and GRAMMY winner Rhiannon Giddens has been an advocate for the Festival from the start. Performing in 2014 as part of the National’s first season, Giddens, who won a MacArthur “Genius grant” in 2017, returned this year as guest curator of the new NC Festival, inviting a wide range of artists with whom she collaborated through performances, workshops, and panels throughout the weekend.

But Giddens is not alone in calling Greensboro home. John Coltrane went to high school just down the road in High Point. James Brown discovered Maceo and Melvin Parker in Greensboro: they dropped out of N.C. A&T to join him on the road, and the energy they brought to his band inspired “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag” and other groundbreaking hits.

Artists who spent time making music in Greensboro before moving on to greater fame include Ben Folds, fiddler Bobby Hicks, Emmylou Harris, and 1970s r&b stars LTD. Andy Griffith recorded his career-making comedy single “What It Was, Was Football” at a gathering of life-insurance employees on the outskirts of the city. In the 21st century, Greensboro and surrounding Guilford County have spawned members of rising Americana bands (Mipso, Lowland Hum) and a string of artists who launched their careers on TV competitions such as American Idol and The Voice (Chris Daughtry, Fantasia Barrino, Vanessa Ferguson).

Greensboro is home to hip-hop, country, punk, jazz, bluegrass, gospel, and beach music. Inez and Charlie Foxx, a brother-sister vocal duo from Greensboro, scored a Top 10 hit in 1963 with the original version of “Mockingbird”—a song revived a decade later by Carly Simon and James Taylor. Billy “Crash” Craddock had a No. 1 country hit in 1974 with “Rub It In.” Greensboro was also the hometown of Rick Dees, who scored one of the biggest novelty hits of the ’70s with “Disco Duck”—and who went on to become a nationally syndicated DJ. The Greensboro band Collapsis had a post-grunge hit in 2001 with “Automatic.”

Longtime Muddy Waters sideman Bob Margolin has called Greensboro home for decades. So has Eugene Chadbourne, a jazz-critic-turned-experimental artist who has recorded with Camper Van Beethoven, John Zorn, and Henry Kaiser. Chadbourne is known for such musical innovations as the electric rake and the cadaver, a “body” made from metal parts, wired with pickups, and chopped up in a room-clearing cacophony.

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A Storied Past and a Bright Future in the Arts

The region’s music and culture reflect its history—from its Native American roots and the pacifist traditions of its 18th-century Quaker settlers to its use as a major “Deep River” stop on the Underground Railroad to its development as the center of the world’s textile and furniture industries to, in 1960, its emergence as the birthplace of America’s sit-in movement at the Woolworth’s lunch counter during the civil rights movement.

The city is now in the midst of an arts-driven entrepreneurial renaissance. Construction cranes can be seen in the construction of the coming 3,000-seat Steven Tanger Center for the Performing Arts in the heart of Center City, while just a few blocks away, the city’s iconic art deco Carolina Theatre is nearing completion in a game-changing renovation. The recently completed nearby Van Dyke Performance Space features a barrier-free stage and a 2,400-square-foot dance floor with a seating capacity of 350 plus. The multi-use facility was made possible in 2016 through a gift from Greensboro dancer, teacher, and choreographer Jan Van Dyke, and was built in collaboration with the City and ArtsGreensboro.

In 2017, Americans for the Arts reported that arts and culture generate an annual economic impact of more than $162 million each year for the city—and nearly 6,000 full-time-equivalent jobs. Greensboro’s arts community is more representative of a city twice its size, with professional live theatre, a symphony orchestra, opera, art museums, galleries, and festivals (including each summer’s Eastern Music Festival): in all, more than 100 arts and cultural entities serve the community, state, and nation.

At the hub of the arts community is the city’s arts council—ArtsGreensboro—the only umbrella organization dedicated to strengthening the entire arts landscape. Throughout its 50-plus-year history, ArtsGreensboro has served as both arts council and community catalyst, through providing direct grants to arts initiatives and artists, bringing the city and state together around major arts events, addressing arts facility needs, and advocating for a strong arts ecology.

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For more information about Greensboro, its rich cultural history, and its burgeoning arts community, visit www.artsgreensboro.org and www.visitgreensboronc.com.