“Step It Up and Go” — literally onscreen

StepWell, folks, I can tell you this: There are better times to publish a book than in the midst of a ravaging worldwide pandemic and catastrophic economic meltdown. Still, we’re doing what we can to mark this fall’s rollout of “Step It Up and Go” — coming Oct. 19 from the fine folks at UNC Press.

Alas, a number of scheduled in-person events have come and gone from the calendar, like the “Step It Up and Go” stage I was going to curate and emcee for one day of the NC State Fair. So we’re pressing on with online virtual events. Below is what we have on the books so far; more events are in the works, so please continue checking here for schedule updates.

Meanwhile, UNC Press has begun rolling out the multi-media promotional stuff, starting with this short preview trailer below. A longer one is in-process and will be coming soon, too. Check that out and I hope to cross paths with you sometime, virtually if not physically.


 

Readings and Events

Tuesday, Aug. 25 (7 p.m.) – Virtual event with novelist David Goodwillie and writer/musician Kelly Crisp, via Page 158 Books, Wake Forest.

Wednesday, Oct. 14 — “History @ High Noon” talk on beach music, virtual event via North Carolina Museum of History, Raleigh.

Monday, Oct. 19 (7 p.m.) — Virtual event with Scott Huler via Quail Ridge Books, Raleigh.

Saturday, Oct. 24 — Record Store Day at Schoolkids Records, Raleigh.

Thursday, Oct. 29 (6 p.m.) — Virtual discussion with Jon Wurster and Tom Maxwell via Flyleaf Books, Chapel Hill.

 

 

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TV age: “North Carolina Bookwatch”

I’ve been angling to get onto the public-television program “North Carolina Bookwatch” pretty much ever since I started writing books two decades ago. So it was a thrill when the show invited me on to chat about “Step It Up and Go.” As one does in the Coronavirus age, we taped it via Skype this afternoon — host D.G. Martin from the UNC-TV studio, me from my basement against a backdrop of CDs — and when nobody was looking, I did a little screengrab to remember the experience by.

The “Step It Up and Go” episode of “Bookwatch” should air in October, publication month for the book.

Bookwatch.JPG

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“Step It Up and Go” — the Spotify playlist

StepYou can’t publish a book about music nowadays without at least one Spotify playlist to go with it. So after my folks at University of North Carolina Press told me I should put one together to accompany “Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk,” I went through the book jotting down artists and songs.

That quickly got out of hand as the list swelled to more than 250 titles, which seemed like a bit much. So I whittled that down by around 80 percent, shooting for something more manageable that a normal non-obsessive person might actually listen to.

Thus we have the Spotify playlist Songs From “Step It Up & Go,” a comparatively modest 54 songs ranging from Charlie Poole to Corrosion of Conformity. The selections touch on all 16 chapters, plus the Prologue and Epilogue. James Taylor to Jodeci, The Drifters to Doc Watson, Let’s Active to Little Brother, Etta Baker to Ben Folds Five — those and more are all there. Check it out.

Down the road, I might do more detailed playlists that get a little more into the weeds of each chapter. But for now, I think this one is a nice overview.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/playlist/7MYqYqBUenZB1ZtC8WVy3A

 

 

SpotifyUNCP

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From North Carolina…Michael Jordan!

MJNCSo I have this book coming out in October that’s kind of like the box-set anthology drawn from three decades spent covering the music of North Carolina in all its wide-ranging splendor. It’s called “Step It Up and Go,” named after the Blind Boy Fuller Piedmont blues classic, and it covers a lot of ground beyond just music. The storyline also touches on economics, racism, gentrification and technology as backdrop to the music that made North Carolina famous — the way that life had an impact on the way people made and heard music, from mountain farms to tobacco warehouses, textile mills to college campuses.

Since I’ve been studying up on All Things North Carolina for many a year, I’ve had my antenna up for books and articles about the same subject. And I am filled with admiration and envy at this story, “Michael Jordan: A History of Flight,” by ESPN senior writer Wright Thompson. It’s an astounding masterpiece of reporting and writing, yielding essential insights into how North Carolina shaped Wilmington native Jordan. As background to the recent Jordan series “The Last Dance” (and North Carolina in general), it’s amazing. I cannot recommend it highly enough.

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Coming in Rocktober: “Step It Up and Go”

StepHowdy, campers, it’s been a minute — during which time I left the News & Observer, parted ways with University of Texas Press, had a radio show start/stop and, oh yeah, WATCHED THE BOTTOM DROP OUT OF EVERYTHING, just like everyone else on earth. Whew!

But on a possibly more positive note, you’ll soon be seeing more of me in this space again, because my next book is nigh. It’s called “Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk.”

If I may be so bold, it’s kind of my life’s work boiled down to a few hundred pages between covers. Depending on how you reckon things, writing it took either three years or the 28 years I was at the N&O.

So here’s the cover. It’s part of the UNC Press fall catalog; and yes, it’s available for pre-order at the link above ahead of the “official” Oct. 19 publication date. I’m told that, for a limited time, the discount code 01DAH40 is supposed to get you 40 percent off.

There may or may not be readings, bookstore events, festival appearances and such this fall. Alas, I’m afraid that’s mostly going to depend on the state of the world by then. But at least we’ve all become somewhat accustomed to virtual events in recent months. So if we have to make do with online rather than in-person events, we’ll manage.

I’ll be seeing you!

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Dollars, cents and sense of book-publishing

Something I always tell people: Don’t go into writing books for the money, because there’s a lot less of it than you’d think. Sure, books are worth writing and publishing, enough so that I put a lot of effort into both writing and editing them. But for those of us who aren’t J.K. Rowling, say, you’d be amazed at just how little money can change hands over it.

Case in point is the annual royalty statement from University of Texas Press that hits my mailbox every year around this time. I have a small back-end interest in the books I’ve brought in to the American Music Series at UT Press, and a few of them have “earned out” — sold enough to recoup their advances and generate back-end royalties. Valhalla!

UTP$

It comes to a few hundred dollars every year, which is good to have and I’m happy to get it. No, it’s not a living or much of a contribution to the retirement account, but every drop in the bucket helps here on Planet Freelance. The work is still fun to do, and it’s satisfying to feel like I’m involved in putting good things out into the world. That’s still more important to me than money.

But yeah, this is the time of year I pay attention to the money, especially since I have an even more direct rooting interest in one of those UT Press titles — because it’s a book I wrote, “Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown.” It was published way back in 2012 and did pretty well; sold decently by university-press standards while picking up mostly (but not unanimously) positive reviews and even winning an award.

Losering.JPGNaturally, I still feel like it could have done multiples more in sales if I’d caught a break or two — a review in the right place, the right person tweeting something about it at the right time — but that was not to be. All of which is to say that, while I’m still proud of “Losering,” it has yet to earn out and get to the promised land of back-end royalties.

But man, it’s close. By my back-of-the-envelope calculations based on this statement, it needs to sell only around 40 more copies to get there.

Seems like a sure thing, right? Guess again.

In the wake of that bombshell New York Times feature back in February, which accused Mr. Adams of various #MeToo misdeeds, his career pretty much came to a full stop. He was to have released three albums this year while touring the world, but that was all canceled.

It’s hard to tell if this is going to be a temporary lull or a permanent ban for Ryan, or if he has it within him to do what needs to be done for him to resume his career. I’ve not been able to bring myself to listen to his music since the news broke, which leaves me with profoundly mixed feelings. But in the grand scheme of things, the fate of my little university-press book on Ryan is an insignificant little blip. This time next year, I kind of expect it will still be in “Unrecouped” purgatory. So it goes.

Meanwhile, I’m just about done with my next book — this one for UNC Press, a history of North Carolina music — which has been my main side-hustle project for close to three years. There have been times when it’s felt like a sanity-keeping labor of love, others when it’s felt like an anchor I’m lugging around. But it should be done and dusted by the end of this month, with publication to follow in fall 2020.

The advance is just about the same amount I was paid to write “Losering.” Maybe this one will take less time to earn out.

(Originally published on the Piedmont Laureate blog.)

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Attention is the sincerest form of flattery

PopMattersIt’s always nice when your work gets noticed, however tangentially, and here’s a nice little gift from the universe that feels like a drink of water in the desert. I’ve been involved with the American Music Series at University of Texas Press for close to a decade now, writing one of the titles myself and also co-editing a fair amount of the 14 total titles we’ve published. More books are on the way and we’ve had some decent success, including accolades and even a bonafide New York Times best-seller.

But you love all your books the same, no matter their fate, just like you love all your children the same. And the reason I love this Pop Matters “Revenge of the She Punks” review is that the critic, Megan Volpert, singled out for praise two books I brought into the series and co-edited: “Madonnaland” and “Chrissie Hynde.” I’m quite fond of both, even though they’re far from our top-sellers.

But I’d say this is just proof of Volpert’s outstanding judgment, perception and taste!

 

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A few words about…Ryan Adams

DRANYTBack on Feb. 13, when the New York Times dropped its bombshell piece alleging sexual misconduct by my old book subject Ryan Adams, about a half-dozen emails with the story link appeared in my inbox within two minutes of it going online. Most of them were along the lines of OMG have you seen this?! But there were a few inquiries, too, people asking what I thought or if I’d be writing about it.

One of the people who asked if I was going to write about it was an editor at the paper, to which I responded: “I’m not touching this with a 10-foot pole.” Figuring that the world did not need my hot take on the situation, I opted to leave it alone.

And yet that did not stop anyone from asking.

I was scheduled to do a few events at last month’s North Carolina Book Festival, and I figured (correctly, as it happened) that I’d get asked about Ryan. So I wrote out a statement that I read at my Feb. 23 presentation about book-writing, figuring that would be the end of it.

Weeks later, however, people are still asking — and I figure I’ll get still more questions next week, when I’m at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. So what the heck, I’ll put the statement on here, too, even though I have no grand revelations. I wish I did.


I have said very little in public about the recent Ryan Adams allegations. Almost nothing, in fact, and I’ve had my reasons.

Ryan has been gone from Raleigh for a very long time, and he has not even played a show anywhere in North Carolina in nearly 14 years — since June 2005. He and I have not communicated directly in many years, either, so whatever insight I may have once had into him as a person does not seem relevant to his current circumstances. Moreover, I have not wanted to give the appearance of trying to sell books or otherwise capitalize on a terrible situation.

For whatever it’s worth, I never witnessed or heard about anything like the allegations in the New York Times story, either back in the day or while reporting on him after the fact. This should not be surprising. Ryan’s time in Raleigh was more than 20 years ago. He was just breaking into the music business and did not yet have his own recording studio, record label or standing in the industry to boost anyone else’s career.

Of course, I heard some stories because everybody in Raleigh of a certain age who was crawling clubs back then has at least one Ryan Adams story. As told to me, they were mostly humorous anecdotes in which no one took him too seriously — like the time he jumped into a hot tub full of women uninvited, or got chased out of a house and down the street in Boylan Heights with a broom.

In light of recent revelations, stories like that don’t seem nearly as funny or as innocent as they once did. I think of Phoebe Bridgers, a singer/songwriter and one of the women quoted in the New York Times story. She wrote a song about her time with Ryan, “Motion Sickness,” that kind of induces shudders from the very first verse.

I hate you for what you did
And I miss you like a little kid
I faked it every time but that’s alright
I can hardly feel anything at all…

That leads to the chorus, in which Bridgers declares she has “emotional motion sickness” and croons in a shell-shocked voice, There are no words in the English language I could scream to drown you out.

At least we got to actually hear that song. Some of the other women in the New York Times story gave up music altogether, and the word “tragedy” seems somehow inadequate to describe that.

At this point, I have no idea what a right or just outcome would look like. It’s not my place to either condemn or defend Ryan. I’ve written a lot about Ryan over the years, very possibly too much. So right now, what seems appropriate for me to do is this: to listen.

(Originally published on the Piedmont Laureate blog.)

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Left of the dial: You’re gonna hear me on your radio

That-Old-State-Radio-Hour

Logo by Andy Menconi

Radio is like the weather: Everybody (including me) complains endlessly, yet nobody ever seems to do anything about it. So when I was recently offered the opportunity to become part of the problem, what could I do but answer, “Of course”?

Thus we have “That Old North State Radio Hour,” my new radio show about the music of North Carolina. It airs at 7 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesdays on “That Station,” 95.7-FM, the Americana-leaning commercial station that started up in Raleigh back in May. It was their idea for me to do a local-music show, probably because they got tired of me snarking about their playlist.

Since I’ve been studying North Carolina music for a long, long time, my playlist will draw on music from all over the state, beyond Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill. And the first show, from Aug. 1, seemed to go pretty well. Take a listen to the archived version here, and scope the opening-week playlist below. I hope you dig it enough to return in coming weeks — starting this Wednesday, Aug. 8, at 7 p.m. Eastern Time.

Listen over the air at 95.7-FM if you’re within range, or online at ThatStation.net.

# # # #

“That Old North State Radio Radio Hour” — playlist for show #1 (Aug. 1, 2018)

Intro/theme song: “Pink Gardenia,” Flat Duo Jets (Chapel Hill)
“Shot From a Cannon,” Rachel Kiel (Carrboro)
“One-Dime Blues,” Etta Baker (Morganton)
“Song,” Sylvan Esso (Durham)
“Indian,” Third of Never (La Grange)
“The Carolinian,” Chatham County Line (Raleigh)
“Another Love,” Michael Rank (Pittsboro)
“Praying Mantis,” Don Dixon (Chapel Hill)
“The Better Man,” Peter Holsapple (Rougemount)
“Blink,” Django Haskins (Durham)
“Oxcart Blues,” Spider Bags (Carrboro)
“Kick Out the Chair,” Skylar Gudasz (Durham)
“You Will Never Take This Song,” Cardinal Family Singers (Raleigh)
“Right Around the Corner,” “5” Royales (Winston-Salem)
“Miles Away,” Phil Cook (Durham)

https://omny.fm/shows/95-7-fm-that-station/8-1-18-that-old-north-state-radio-hour/embed

https://omny.fm/shows/95-7-fm-that-station/8-8-18-that-old-north-state-radio-hour

https://omny.fm/shows/95-7-fm-that-station/8-15-18-that-old-north-state-radio-hour

 

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Places That Are Gone: The Brewery

On this date in 2011, a piece of local-music history died when the Brewery came down — leveled to make way for a fancy student-housing complex. And even though it’s been gone for seven years and plenty of other fine venues have sprouted up since then, I still think of the Brewery as Raleigh’s definitive live-music club. That’s probably a function of age, but it’s an icon in my personal pantheon.

What follows is a rumination inspired by the Brewery and other joints around town that have vanished in the 27-plus years I’ve lived in Raleigh. I read this onstage at Kings nightclub in Raleigh on April 29, as part of the spoken-word series “7 Stories.”

# # # #

PLACES THAT ARE GONE
(with apologies to Tommy Keene)

7storiesmeMy name is David Menconi and I have been writing for the News & Observer for 27 years, three months and 14 days — all in that dingy old building around the corner from here. Tonight finds me in a weird moment of limbo, between work addresses.

This past Thursday, April 26, was our last day at 215 S. McDowell St. Pictures were taken, graffiti scribbled, maybe an object or two broken or lifted on our way out the door. Tomorrow morning, the N&O takes up residence in the Bank of America building on Fayetteville Street. We’re all expecting the old building to be bulldozed soon for a skyscraper.

This very club Kings has a transient history, too. For its first eight years, 1999 to 2007, Kings was right down the block from the N&O, across McDowell Street. The old Kings was the first place I ever saw the Avett Brothers, Little Brother and even Bon Iver and Megafaun — although those last two were the same band back then, DeYarmond Edison.

7storiesposterThe old Kings didn’t have the best layout, with the bar in the middle dividing the room in half. But it did have a lot of funky thrift-store charm. This new Kings we’re in now has been here since 2010 and it’s better in every way. Yet I still think of the old Kings as Raleigh’s definitive indie-rock joint. And contemplating the grassy spot next to Poole’s Diner where it once stood, I got to thinking about other music places that have come and gone in Raleigh’s rush into whatever it’s becoming.

When I moved to Raleigh in January 1991, I lived on Clark Street, just across from Cameron Village. I got here too late to experience the Cameron Village Underground and nightclubs like The Pier, which closed in the mid-’80s. But there was a Record Bar over there — remember record stores? — even though the Cameron Village Record Bar was not my go-to store.

No, my go-to back then was The Record Hole, on Hillsborough Street near campus right across from the Brewery. Run by John Swain, an irascible character straight out of “High Fidelity,” it was one of those joints that was closed til it was open, open til it was closed. John could be pretty gruff, until you proved to him you were alright. I passed his test one day when another customer asked the name of Robert Gordon’s first band, and I knew the answer: Tuff Darts. After that, John would save me records he thought I’d like, which was wonderful while it lasted. He was only 42 years old when he died in the summer of 1991, and the Record Hole died with him. That spot has been Curious Goods ever since.

7storieslineupDowntown on West Street, across from Roast Grill, stood the Fallout Shelter — a subterranean spot that had anything and everything. I remember the insane 1993 bidding war over the local band Motorola, who played a showcase at the Fallout Shelter for seemingly every record-label A&R scout in the free world. There were more industry people than paying customers, which was sadly indicative of how the renamed Motocaster’s career went after that, too. The Fallout Shelter closed a few years later, around the time Motocaster was breaking up.

In the mid-1990s, what is now the Lincoln Theatre on Cabarrus Street was called Gillie’s. All I remember about the place was its seating around the bar — swings that hung down from the ceiling, which was pretty precarious late at night after a few drinks. The Pour House over on Blount Street was different back then, too, called The Grove.

Raleigh’s main R&B club downtown was The Vibe, upstairs at 119 E. Hargett St. — where you’ll find Alter Ego hair salon now. In the late ’90s, when Public Enemy was on hiatus, their deejay Terminator X moved to the area and bought an ostrich farm in Dunn. And he’d come down to The Vibe to spin records and hang out with the owner, Greg Dent. A few years earlier, Greg ran another Raleigh club called The Zoo and one of his regulars there was a young man named Christopher Wallace. You might know him as Notorious B.I.G.

Just down Martin Street, the Berkeley Cafe is still there, although its old music hall is now Capitol Smokes next door. But the Berkeley still has bands play on the back patio, which is kind of a shrine to the old Sadlack’s Heroes — the funky beer joint that anchored the Hillsborough Street strip for three decades. That block of Hillsborough is a fancy Aloft Hotel nowadays, but countless musicians worked and played at Sadlack’s over the years. It is, of course, where Ryan Adams formed Whiskeytown in 1994. But that’s another story.

Hillsborough Street is pretty much unrecognizable now from the early ’90s, with the Rathskeller, Western Lanes, Velvet Cloak and IHOP all gone, or going. Even Logan Court, “Faithless Street” to those in the know, was recently torn down. I miss them all.

Still, the long-gone place that lingers strongest in my memory was down at the west end of Hillsborough Street, the Brewery. It’s been gone since 2011, torn down to make way for the student housing complex Stanhope. But in December of 1990, when I came to Raleigh for my job interview at the N&O, the Brewery was the first place here I ever saw a show. Rev. Billy C. Wirtz, who was a lot of fun. While the Brewery wasn’t too long on creature comforts, I quickly became a regular, especially during the eight years when I lived a block away.

In 1992, the band Blind Melon needed to get out of L.A., so their label moved them to Durham. The story I heard was that they needed to go someplace “less druggy,” which is both funny and sad. But that summer of 1992, before their album came out, Blind Melon played every Sunday night for a month at the Brewery, and I was shocked at how terrible they were. At least they remembered to send the Brewery a platinum album to remember them by after they hit it big. I remember seeing it on the wall behind the bar, and I’ve often wondered where it is now.

I also saw the Cranberries at the Brewery, playing for about 40 people a few months before they blew up on MTV. Paul Westerberg, Stereolab, Don Dixon, COC, Flat Duo Jets — too many to count. The Brewery was also one of the sets for the movie “Bandwagon,” which you should see if you haven’t because Jac Cain is in it.

The most fun of all was in the second half of the ’90s, when the Brewery was the CBGBs of alternative country. It was home turf for the Backsliders, who recorded a live album there and called it From Raleigh, North Carolina. Whiskeytown, 6 String Drag, Pine State, $2 Pistols and more all seemed to play the Brewery at least once a month. And at least one band I know of formed there: Tres Chicas, in the women’s bathroom. The acoustics in there were solid, I hear.

A breezeway connected the Brewery with the Comet Lounge next door, and that was the best between-band hangout spot. I especially remember SPITTLEFEST, the “Southern Plunge Into Trailer Trash & Leisure Entertainment,” which brought together a bunch of twangy bands every year. They’d set up a potluck in the breezeway, and I can still picture it. Even smell the barbecue if I try really hard.

Because yeah, I was there. And I’ve even got the T-shirt to prove it.

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