North Carolina Women in Music

"Aunt Samantha" Bumgarner plays a banjo with a man at the Asheville Mountain Music Festival, circa August 1938.

Whether it’s the “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA,” or “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” North Carolina women have made it big in the music world.

Across genres of country, folk, bluegrass, pop,  rhythm and blues or gospel, female singers from North Carolina have won awards and respect worldwide. A few of the many are highlighted below.

Featured Artists

While there's no way to list all of the women from North Carolina who have made an impact on music, we've written a brief sketch of some of more famous ones below, and linked to places where you can learn more about each.

Donna Fargo

Mount Airy, Surry County

Fargo's “Happiest Girl in the Whole USA” was one of the hits that kept her in the Country Top 10 throughout the 1970s. Unlike many of her contemporaries, she wrote some of her songs, and in recent times wrote poetry and greeting cards.

Learn More About Fargo

The album artwork for "Killing Me Softly With His Song" from Roberta FlackRoberta Flack

Black Mountain, Bumcombe County

Flack's smooth jazz-based stylings that kept “Killing Me Softly with His Song” on top of the charts for five weeks in 1973, and earned three Grammys, including Record and Song of the Year. Flack continues to perform today.

Read More About Flack

Samantha Biddix Bumgarner

Dillsboro, Jackson County

In 1924, the Columbia Phonograph Company of New York recorded 12 songs of Bumgarner's songs. That made her the first Appalachian banjo player and the first female country performer to make a commercial record.

Discover More About Bumgarner's Pioneering Recordings

Etta Baker

Morganton, Burke County

A Piedmont blues guitarist, Baker influenced many musicians. She recorded sporadically for more than 40 years, her last album in 1991. Her songs “Railroad Bill” and “One Dime Blues” are standards of the Piedmont blues sound. 

The album artwork for Little Eva's "Loco-Motion"Eva Narcussus Boyd “Little Eva”

Belhaven, Beaufort County

A move from Belhaven to Brooklyn, N.Y. helped put “Little Eva” on the map. She was a baby sitter for the songwriting team of Carole King and Gerry Goffin and recorded their song “Loco-motion” as a demo. It became a number one pop hit in 1962, and other hits followed.

More on "Little Eva" and Her Number One Hit

Emmylou Harris

Greensboro, Guilford County

Singer-songwriter Harris is a native of Birmingham, Ala., and attended UNC-Greensboro. While there, she began performing in coffee houses and clubs and released several country albums in the 1970s. In 1980, she won a Grammy for “Roses in the Snow.” 

Tift Merritt

Tift Merritt

Raleigh, Wake County

Singer-songwriter Merritt moved to North Carolina from Texas at an early age, and got her start in Triangle clubs playing with bands like Two Dollar Pistol. She won a songwriting contest at Merlefest in 2000. Among her recordings is the Grammy-nominated “Tambourine.”

Nina Simone

Tryon, Polk County

Singer-composer-pianist Simone performed jazz, rhythm and blues, and protest songs in the 1960s. Her rendition of George Gershwin’s “I Loves You Porgy” was a top 40 hit. Simone made records into the 1990s. 

Fantasia Barrino

High Point, Guilford County

Winner of the third season ofAmerican Idol in 2004, singing “Summertime” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. In 2006, she received four Grammy nominations and also has starred on Broadway.

Shirley Caesar

Shirley Caesar

Durham, Durham County

One of the most awarded of North Carolina’s musical mavens, Caesar sang with the group the Caravans before launching her solo career in 1966. Known as the First Lady of Gospel, she has been recognized with 11 Grammy awards, 17 Dove awards, 12 Stellar Awards, and was inducted into the Gospel Hall of Fame in 2000. 

Her best known songs include “No Charge” and “Don’t Drive Your Mama Away.” She has appeared on Broadway in Born to Sing andMama, I Want to Sing. She serves as pastor of a Raleigh church in addition to performing.

African American Music Trails

Many of the Tar Heel State's most famous female musicians are also African American, and the African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina is the first publication designed to help travelers explore African American music in eastern North Carolina.

Researchers, writers and photog­raphers have worked with local residents and arts organizations to provide in-depth insiders’ views of music and musicians, and the result is rich guide that helps you meet musicians in the places they call home.

Explore the Project