On July 4, 1997, North Carolina lost a talented favorite son when Charles Kuralt died in New York City during the early morning hours. Kuralt is well known for his work in television. He also wrote and co-wrote about a dozen books, including North Carolina is My Home published in 1986. Kuralt described that book as “an adapted and expanded and revised and revamped and amended and improved version of a recording about my home state which I wrote with Loonis McGlohon. I wrote the words, he wrote the music.” North Carolina is My Home is also the title of their recording. In large type on the back of the record jacket, as if it were the album’s subtitle, Kuralt and McGlohon declared the album as “A 400th Birthday Gift To The Tar Heel State.”
Today, on the 31st anniversary of the kickoff of American festivities for the 400th on July 13, 1984, Morton collection volunteer Jack Hilliard and I join forces to take a look at that special birthday present to the state of North Carolina.
“America’s birthday heartache came because we lost one of our heroes that morning—Charles Kuralt. He was one of us, he believed in us, he loved us. This rumpled genius taught us that grace, humility, and a time for beauty are, like breathing, life’s essentials. And life was a joy to be lived and a story to be told.
“He is gone now, but we will remember our champion of humanity—we will always remember.”
— Dr. William Friday, in Commemorative Edition of North Carolina is My Home
It started with a series of telephone calls in early 1983 when North Carolina governor Jim Hunt was planning for the state’s 400th birthday. Ten years earlier the North Carolina General Assembly created the America’s Four Hundredth Anniversary Committee. Hunt activated the committee in 1978. The governor called lots of Tar Heels seeking input for the birthday celebration. One of those called in 1983 was Charles Kuralt. As Kuralt pondered the governor’s questions he thought about his old friend, Charlotte musician Loonis McGlohon. who had written the theme music for his CBS television program “On The Road with Charles Kuralt.”
Kuralt telephoned McGlohon. Kuralt’s section of the book’s introduction begins, “It happened this way . . .” and in it he recalled their conversation going something like this:
- Kuralt: I got a call from the Governor.
- McGlohon: I know. So did I.
- Kuralt: You got any ideas?
- McGlohon: Sure, we’ll make a record. We’ll give it to all the schools and libraries.
- Kuralt: But, I can’t sing.
- McGlohon: Right, but you can type. Start typing.
- Kuralt: What’ll I type about?
- McGlohon: The mountains, the shore. Barbecue, moonshine, pine trees, Thomas Wolfe, wild swans, tobacco barns, textile mills, all that stuff. You know.
So Charles Kuralt began typing what would become a masterpiece. The first piece to emerge from his typewriter he titled “Roanoke 1584.” Kuralt sent it on its way to McGlohon in Charlotte. McGlohon recalled in his section of the introduction that, “As soon as I read the first page I grabbed a sheet of manuscript paper and headed for the piano to start writing.” Kuralt noted that from that point forward, he and McGlohon “put the words and music together by letter and by telephone.”
On the record album as published, “Roanoke 1584” is the second track; it begins with music, then Kuralt reads in voice-over:
On a morning in July of the year 1584, two English gentlemen in armor, accompanied by soldiers, well armed, stepped into a small boat from the great ship in which they had crossed the Atlantic. . . . Sunlight flashed from their helmets as their boat was rowed toward shore. . . .
The next piece Kuralt sent to McGlohon was “Backroads and Byways.” McGlohon’s described that piece as “a bigger challenge. When you examine Charles’ text on this piece it becomes apparent how much homework and research he did—matching rhymes and turning up little-known anecdotes about the towns and crossroads which North Carolinians call home.”
It also presented McGlohon with a problem. “Charles, for whatever reason, overlooked my home town, Ayden. When I wrote him, scolding him for the omission, I included my own bit of homework, rhyming Ayden with Badin and Maiden. I will take credit for that one line.”
Badin and Ayden
and Maiden and Wise.
Ranger, Granger, Angier and Spies.
Dallas, Frisco and Providence too.
Now where’s the town that’s home to you.
In an interview shortly before his death, Kuralt said the hardest thing about writing is getting started. With two pieces completed, Kuralt began turning out pages of voice-over text and song lyrics at a rapid rate. During one of their phone conversations, McGlohon told Kuralt, “North Carolina needs a new state song. Nobody can sing the old one. So I’ve written a new one.” He then played it for Kuralt and added, “I’ve got the title: North Carolina is My Home, now you write the rest of the words.” The song became the title track for the album, which both opens (with vocals by Marlene VerPlank, Mary Mayo, and Jim Campbell) and closes the album (as a “vocal reprise”).
When the music and lyrics were complete, McGlohon invited a group of his musician-friends to the Eras Recording Studio in New York. Among the group was conductor–arranger Billy VerPlanck, banjo and guitar artist Eric Weisberg, vocalists Marlene VerPlanck, Mary Mayo, and Jim Campbell, along with a select group from the New York Philharmonic. In total, thirty-five musicians contributed to the project. They recorded their creation between July 16th and 19th, and on the 21st. Additional material was recorded in Charlotte at Reflection Sound Studio.
Piedmont Airlines produced the album and Charles Heatherly was the project coordinator. A Winston-Salem Journal article noted that Charles Heatherly, Director of Travel and Tourism for North Carolina, made the connection with Piedmont Aviation, Inc. in early 1984. According to an article Heatherly wrote for the November 1985 issue of The State, Piedmont Airlines funded about $40,000 for the album’s production.
Kuralt and McGlohon finished their masterpiece in time to fall within the state’s official 400th birthday celebration, which lasted from April 27, 1984 to August 18, 1987. These dates were the 400th anniversaries of the departure of Philip Amandas and Arthur Barlowe Expedition from Plymouth, England and the birth of Virginia Dare. The album was not, however, an official publication of America’s Fourth Hundredth Anniversary Committee.
Two newspapers articles printed on Monday, October 7th state the album had its debut on Sunday, October 6th with a live performance at the Stevens Center at the University of North Carolina School for the Arts in Winston-Salem. In a Winston-Salem Journal article, Kuralt recalled another snippet from one of his early conversations with McGlohon about their project:
Finally Loonis said, “What we’ll do, we’ll make an album and give it to all the school kids and all the libraries in the state,” and I said, “We will, will we?”
The Burlington Daily Times article was actually about the naming of Howard Cosell to the North Carolina Broadcasters Hall of Fame later that evening, but it included mention of the Kuralt/McGlohon performance. (Morton’s 1985 planner includes both events.) The album cover features a Hugh Morton photograph, so it comes as no surprise that Hugh Morton was there for both events. There are three 120-format color negatives of this autumn scene in the Morton collection, but negative used for the album cover is not extant. Both articles also indicate that the distribution to schools and libraries across the state would be forthcoming.
Here’s the album’s playlist:
- North Carolina is My Home
- Roanoke 1584
- Backroads and Byways (Tar Heel Places)
- Mountain Sampler
- “…and the Strong Grow Great”
- Barbecue Blues
- The Farmer
- Dinner on the Grounds
- Carolina Memories
- North Carolina is My Home (vocal reprise)
Currently these songs are available on YouTube. (Note: they could be removed at any time.)
North Carolina Is My Home generated interest beyond turntables. According to McGlohon, “Someone, listening to the album for the first time, said “These words from Charles Kuralt should be in a book to be read and enjoyed over and over.” McGlohon thought was “a fine suggestion.” In 1986 East Woods Press in Charlotte published a book with Kuralt’s magnificent lyrics. Eleven of the book’s approximately seventy-five photographs (it depends on how you count them!) are by Hugh Morton—including a variant view of the scene used on the album cover, but the image is laterally reversed. (It’s still a classic). Again, mysteriously, this negative is not in the Morton collection.
Then someone suggested taking the group on the road. Kuralt could certainly identify with that since he had been on the road for CBS News since 1967. A third printing of the book with a slightly different hard cover fabric in June 1987 also saw the publisher change to The Globe Pequot Press located in Chester, Connecticut. The copyright, however, remained with Fast & MacMillan Publishers. This printing may likely coincided with book sales at live performances.
The road tour continued with an early 1987 stop at Wright Auditorium on the East Carolina University campus in Greenville. This concert was unique, because WUNC-TV brought in their TV cameras and videotaped the proceeding, as the East Carolina Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of Robert Hause, provided the musical background for Charles, Loonis, and singers. A performance at Memorial Hall Auditorium at UNC on January 23rd served as a fundraiser for an endowed chair named in honor of Kuralt’s father, Wallace, in the School of Social Work.
The tour rolled into Greensboro on May 28, 1987. The historic Carolina Theater was the venue and on this evening Steven Karidoyanes and the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra performed with the featured players. Master of Ceremonies for the evening was my dear friend and executive producer at WFMY-TV, Lee Kinard. In the afternoon, Kuralt had stopped by the TV station and taped a lengthy interview with Kinard for his morning program.
In a June 14, 1987 interview in the News and Observer, Kuralt recounted that they made the album “for school children, and I keep emphasizing it’s not a very sophisticated piece of work, but gosh there’s demand for it. God help us, we’ve done it in Chicago, and we’re going to do it in Vancouver and London in December. That’s Piedmont Airlines doing that. They’ve started flying to London so they’re trying to drum up interest in North Carolina amongst the British. I don’t know who’s going to come to it, but we’re going to do it in December.”
As the tour continued, there were stops in Arizona, New York, and other stops up and down the East Coast. The two performances in London were held at the American Embassy on November 25, 1987 and once again Hugh Morton was there. The tour count was more than fifty.
In late 1991, the North Carolina Public Television Foundation produced a video of North Carolina is My Home. Hugh Morton helped the production team select scenes for the production which was offered on the market just before Christmas. Loonis and Charles appeared on a special edition of North Carolina People with William Friday taped at the Friday Center for Continuing Education on the UNC campus. They promoted the tape . . . proceeds went to public television.
A month before his death, Belmont Abbey College honored Kuralt and McGlohon with honorary degrees. It was about this same time that the two performed “North Carolina is My Home” for the final time…a performance with the Charlotte Symphony. The backstage crew knew that something was wrong…the audience never suspected there was a problem.
Then, on July 4, 1997, came the sad news that Charles Kuralt had lost his battle with lupus. Four days after Kuralt’s death, WUNC-TV carried live the memorial celebration of his life. At the service, UNC Chancellor Michael Hooker, former governor Jim Hunt, television personality Charlie Rose, Hugh Morton, and former UNC presidents William Friday and C.D.Spangler, Jr. celebrated their friendships with Charles Kuralt.
The North Carolina Symphony’s Brass Ensemble played the theme from “North Carolina is My Home,” and Loonis McGlohon played the music track to the “The Farmer” segment, the one he called his favorite.
Following the presentation from UNC’s Memorial Hall, the station aired an encore videotape performance of “North Carolina is My Home.”
In 1998 The Globe Pequot Press published a commemorative edition of its 1986 book North Carolina is My Home with remembrances from Charles Kuralt’s friends and colleagues.
As we wrapped up this piece Jack Hilliard wrote in an email to me, “As I look back on what we have done, it’s ironic that we handled this post much like the way Charles and Loonis handled their effort: I sent you something . . . you added to it and sent it back . . . etc.” Nice observation, Jack. We hope our readers enjoy this post!