The Nation's Pulse

Carolina on My Mind

Or is it California?

By 4.5.07

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Southern California has a vibrant music scene that dates back at least as far as the Beach Boys, and if you drive inland enough to recognize what Bakersfield did for country music, or add the Grateful Dead half of the Golden State to your reckoning, the Left Coast looms large in any fair-minded tally of American musical influences. After a month in North Carolina, however, this Californian is beginning to feel like he returned to the mother ship.

Festival season does not officially start until Spring rains have washed the heavy yellow dusting of pine pollen off windshields, but music around here is even bigger than March Madness.

What I mean is this: Seemingly every Fifties-themed diner in America has a checkerboard floor and red vinyl seats under chrome-rimmed Formica tables. But where the Pacific Ocean holds sway and Highway Patrol cruisers wear the black-and-white markings of killer whales, such restaurants use memorabilia from Route 66 or vintage soft drink marketing campaigns to decorate their walls. Not so in North Carolina. The state apparently has a law saying that you can't open a Fifties-themed diner unless you or someone you know has a longstanding subscription to the local paper: How else to explain why so many restaurants are decorated with original concert reviews and announcements under glass, looking just a little older than they did before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon or Norman Greenbaum sang about the Spirit in the Sky? Last week, I met a woman whose father had gone to school with Elvis. Things like that do not often happen around San Diego.

The sheer volume of music in these parts adds an almost Tolkienesque sense of drama to the rolling landscape. Trees enough for what John Ronald Reul called an Ent Moot dance cheek-to-cheek with the mirrored glass of business parks, the spidery alien metal of municipal water towers, and the bronze or granite of monuments to Confederate dead. For the moment, at least, dawn is awash with bird songs. Northern cardinals flit through the woods in flashes of scarlet, and robins really do rock in the treetops all day long. One wonders if the chorus of avian dialects is constantly praising God, as Francis of Assisi would have said, or sometimes occupied by lesser questions, like whether the difference between "might could" and "might should" is worth a few verses.

As can be inferred from the number of column inches devoted to NASCAR stories in the Sunday sports pages, regional differences between the east and west coasts are functions of culture rather than time. Certainly some of the people who claim ancestors among the first European settlers on the land awarded to Sir Walter Raleigh sniff at the relative youth of the American West. Less jingoistic historians realize that the California Missions were thriving a generation before the cornerstones of the red brick Baptist churches that anchor so many Carolina towns were laid. If relative proximity to centers of power is anything to go by, the Methodists tramped south hot on the heels of the Baptists, and the other Christians who followed those two groups built worship space in the suburbs.

Are there two Americas? Not as long as some of us still pledge allegiance to one flag, gripe about the complexities of one tax code, and salute the genius of one Bill of Rights. Musicians have celebrated such unity in song lyrics for years, and not simply in standards like "America the Beautiful," which I like to think of as "mom," forever trying to settle the rivalry between "Dixie" and "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" by threatening those fractious siblings with threats of "wait till your father comes home" ("Dad" in this scenario is The Marines' Hymn).

Beyond my fevered imaginings, the bluegrass band called Front Range had a festival hit in the Nineties with a song saying that "from the coast of California to the hills of Caroline, I keep your love here with me in this heart of mine." There's a hint of the same unity in the ballad of the Sloop John B, which holds a prominent place in the Beach Boys catalog while paying backhanded tribute to a ship's cook who got the fits and tossed the grits. If that's not a blend of east and west, then Patty Griffin doesn't sing like an angel, and Duane Allman wouldn't know a slide guitar from a bowl of banana pudding.

But as Lars Walker did a fine job of reminding readers in these pages recently, our common humanity does not make us all the same. At the arid end of America, you can get chile relleno with your hamburger. At the humid end, it's easier to get a side of hush puppies. I like both ends.

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About the Author

Patrick O'Hannigan is a writer in North Carolina.