The mural version of “Step It Up and Go”

Scott Nurkin at work painting Libba Cotten on a wall in Carrboro.

If a picture paints a thousand words, as the old saying goes, you could say that the North Carolina Musician Murals project is a much more efficient version of my book “Step It Up and Go.” Beautifully painted on exterior walls all over the state, these public-art murals tell the story of North Carolina music.

This mural project, which I just wrote about for the Orange County Arts Commission, is the work of Charlotte native Scott Nurkin — drummer in bands including Birds of Avalon and Dynamite Brothers as well as a renowned painter of murals. Painting portraits of North Carolina’s most iconic musicians has been a hobby of Nurkin’s going back more than a decade, when he began painting them on an interior wall of Chapel Hill’s Pepper’s Pizza.

The first time I interviewed Nurkin was in 2009 for a story in the News & Observer, conducted one afternoon over a couple of slices of pizza (which he got for free, as partial payment). George Clinton, Max Roach, Randy Travis, Doc & Merle Watson, James Taylor, Ryan Adams, Thelonious Monk, Ben Folds and Etta Baker were among the subjects on the wall at Pepper’s — but no “American Idols,” who Nurkin deemed “not worthy.”

Nurkin’s portraits on display at Pepper’s Pizza about a decade ago.

After Pepper’s closed in 2013, Nurkin’s portraits wound up on display at the University of North Carolina music department. So he decided to supersize his portraits into outdoor murals. He started this year and has painted murals including John Coltrane in Hamlet, Earl Scruggs in Shelby, Roberta Flack in Black Mountain, Betty Davis in Durham and, most recently, Piedmont blues legend “Libba” Cotten in Carrboro.

Check the story about this here. There are more murals to come and I can’t wait to see who Nurkin will paint next.

ADDENDUM (1/13/2021): Thanks to the Together Raleigh public-art program, a bus shelter in Raleigh has a similarly cool North Carolina music mural, by the artist Kiara Sanders. See below!

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I got 99 problems, but a book ain’t one

After you get through the long, hard slog of writing a book, publication day represents the culmination of the initial creative process. But it’s not really the end, because a whole new set of tasks begins around then: The hustle.

I must confess that I have mixed feelings about getting in touch with my inner marketing maven. Relentless self-promotion takes a lot of time and effort, if you do it right, and that might be time better-spent on the next book (especially since I already have another project in the on-deck circle). I admire writers who are Zen enough to finish writing one book and move directly on to the next thing, with nary a second thought or backward glance.

Not me. After putting years of work into something, you want it to have the best possible shot at finding an audience. And so you work it as best you can. Or I do, anyway.

To that end, I’ve been very busy lately launching “Step It Up and Go” — in part because, without in-person bookstore readings, I have to utilize whatever is at hand. I’m doing lots of online virtual events, including tonight (Wednesday, Oct. 21 at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time) at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville with special guest David Holt. You should tune in.

I’m also writing essays, articles and listicles that are tied into the book for a number of outlets kind enough to commission me to do so. Two pieces like that dropped just this week.

One is “The Page 99 Test,” which holds that if you open up any book to page 99, “the quality of the whole will be revealed to you.” Interesting theory, but I have to admit it sounds strange and a little random. Nevertheless, it worked pretty much perfectly the last time I contributed, for the 2012 Ryan Adams book “Losering.” And it works well for “Step It Up and Go,” too, especially since page 99 falls in the Doc Watson chapter. That essay can also be found on the Campaign for the American Reader blog.

Also new this week is my contribution to the music/literature blog Largehearted Boy, which publishes book-related playlists by authors. Since mixtapes are kind of my thing, I composed playlists for “Losering” and also my 2015 Ray Benson co-write “Comin’ Right at Ya” at their behest. And here is my latest one, the “Step It Up and Go” Largehearted Boy playlist.

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Avett Brothers mojo

“Fatherhood,” by Scott Avett (2013 painting)

Chapter 13 of “Step It Up and Go” covers one of the most popular North Carolina acts of modern times, The Avett Brothers. I go way back with Scott and Seth Avett’s music, which I’ve been writing about for a lot of years in a wide range of publications. I’ve also been to Avett Brothers shows from sea to shining sea — as far away as California, but a lot more right here in their home state of North Carolina. For the book, I drew from reporting, reviews and research I’d done over the years as well as an interview conducted at a 2018 show in Portsmouth, Va.

So I’m happy to have their support for the book, on a number of fronts. Singer, songwriter, Avetts co-founder and painter Scott Avett will join me online at 7 p.m. Tuesday night (Oct. 20) for a virtual event we’re doing in conjunction with Charlotte’s Park Road Books, near their hometown of Concord. In addition to “Step It Up and Go,” we’ll probably talk a little about the Avetts’ recently released new album The Third Gleam, too — plus whatever questions come in from viewers like you tuning in (hint, hint). Register here.

Avett Brothers bassist Bob Crawford was also kind enough to invite me onto his podcast, “The Road to Now,” where I did an interview the other night with his co-host Ben Sawyer. Avetts manager Dolphus Ramseur was also part of the conversation, which ranged far and wide across the state because Ramseur (a member of the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame) is something of a history buff himself when it comes to North Carolina music. I hope you’ll take a listen.

On the Zoom video call with “The Road To Now” crew, Ben Sawyer and Dolphus Ramseur.

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“Step It Up and Go”: Publication day

Today is Monday, Oct. 19, which makes it official: It’s “Publication Day” for “Step It Up and Go,” which is now formally released to make its way into the world. That actually seems a bit anticlimactic, as the book has already been available in most stores for the better of a part of a month now. But anyway, it’s no longer “upcoming” or “impending,” but “released.” Yay! Fly, little book, be free! And lookee here, it’s even Amazon’s No. 1 best-seller in the category of Ethnomusicology (ahead of David Byrne, no less). All right, then.

Had all gone according to the original plan, right now I would be in the midst of a bunch of in-person events all over the state, many of them involving live performances. Unfortunately, the virus pandemic put the kibosh on all of that Oh well, so it goes. We are pressing on with virtual/online events instead — and the silver lining of these days of miracle and wonder is that people can tune in from anywhere with ease. My guests at this week’s events are worth tuning in for, too.

We’ll mark today’s publication day with my hometown independent bookstore, Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books, which is sponsoring a virtual event at 7 p.m. Eastern Time tonight. My guest will be my fellow Piedmont Laureate alumnus Scott Huler, an amazing raconteur and noted author himself. Also my best friend, y’all.

Scott Avett from The Avett Brothers will lend some star power to a virtual event on Tuesday, sponsored by Park Road Books in Charlotte. I expect that Chapter 13 of the book, which covers the Avetts, will be the focus of our discussion. Please join us at 7 p.m. Eastern Time Tuesday (Oct. 20).

The late great Doc Watson’s longtime accompanist David Holt will join me for a “UNC Press Presents” virtual event at 6:30 p.m. Eastern Time Wednesday (Oct. 21), sponsored by Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe in Asheville. David is a four-time Grammy winner, host of “David Holt’s State of Music” and renowned keeper of the flame.

Closing out the week on Friday (Oct. 23), my fellow scribe Eddie Huffman will be my guest at 7 p.m. Eastern Time that evening for a virtual event through Greensboro’s Scuppernong Books. I was honored to edit Eddie’s first book, the excellent 2015 John Prine biography “In Spite of Himself.” I eagerly await his next book, a Doc Watson biography coming next year on University of North Carolina Press. So yeah, you can expect some talk about Doc, which is always a good thing in my book.

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The News & Observer: For old time’s sake

Turn to page 287 of “Step It Up and Go” and you’ll come to the book’s “Acknowledgements,” a couple of pages where I give thanks to some of the many people who helped me out over the years. And that section begins thusly:

I owe thanks to so many people, places, and things, but especially to the Raleigh News & Observer, my professional home from 1991 to 2019.

That paragraph goes on to thank a long list of some of my former co-workers starting with Suzanne Brown, the editor who hired me to be the N&O’s music critic and brought me to Raleigh. I was there for 28 years, and as I’ve told more than one interviewer, covering music for the paper for so long was kind of like working on the first draft of this book the whole time.

It’s been well over a year since I left the paper, amid many tears, and life beyond it has been better than expected. I was unsure I’d be able to continue making a living as a writer without the N&O’s safe harbor — but so far, so good. Between book stuff, magazine freelancing work and writing for various arts councils, I keep busy and get by.

Nevertheless, it still feels weird not to be in the N&O newsroom anymore. I still catch myself using or thinking the word “we” in regards to the paper, which is probably an instinct that will never go away entirely.

I am, however, delighted to be back in the N&O’s pages today for the first time since February of last year, thanks to the book. There’s a generous Sunday-paper spread in advance of Monday’s “official” Oct. 19 publication date, with an excerpt (the opening of Chapter 10, about Chapel Hill’s 1990s “Next Seattle” phase) and a very fine interview/feature by my longtime pal and fellow N&O alumnus Stacy Chandler. They put my byline on the excerpt, and seeing my name in that familiar spot makes it feel kind of like old times — a nice closing of the circle.

Meanwhile, the “Step It Up and Go” PR campaign is picking up steam on a couple of fronts now. Also today on this Sunday, Oct. 18, I’ll be on UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch,” airing at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time (and repeating at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 20). It’s an interview with “Bookwatch” host D.G. Martin, which we taped back in July.

And at 4 p.m. today, I’ll be one of this week’s guests on the latest episode of the “Secret Monkey Quarantine Half-Hour Show,” starring longtime local-music fixture Jeff Hart with family, friends and guests. This week’s other guests include Alice Zincone, Adrienne Meddock and Steve McGowan.

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Indy Week: “The Dean of North Carolina Rock Critics”

In my 28-year tenure at the News & Observer, I was accustomed to thinking of the Indy Week as my competition. There were a few interludes when that competition was heated and not altogether pleasant — but more often than not, things stayed cordial and friendly over the years. They’ve been quite kind to my past books, as well as to my time as Piedmont Laureate last year.

Because we were covering the same turf, there was always just enough of an edge to where it felt like we made each other better, which seemed as it should be. Of course, circumstances change, and I even wrote a piece for Indy Week last year after leaving the paper (a remembrance of the late great Sara Romweber). That means I’ve had a byline in Indy Week more recently than the N&O, which I have to admit feels a bit strange.

And in the here and now, I must thank Indy Week and writer/editor Brian Howe for the extraordinarily kind coverage they’ve given “Step It Up and Go,” complete with a headline I can’t help feeling unworthy of: David Menconi, the Dean of North Carolina Rock Critics, Pens a Loving Landmark History of Our State’s Popular Music.

Holy Robert Christgau, that is amazing. Shucks, y’all — thank you. I am beyond honored.

Events at the INDY - INDY Week

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Kicking things off on WPTF

A number of radio stations figure prominently in the storyline of “Step It Up and Go,” especially WPTF-AM in Raleigh. Going all the way back to the 1930s, WPTF was one of the stations across the Southeast that aired the “Crazy Barn Dance” show with performances by that era’s old-time and emerging country acts including the Carter Family, Briarhoppers and Carolina Tar Heels. WPTF was also the last place the Monroe Brothers played together in the summer of 1938, before younger brother Bill Monroe struck out on his own and eventually invented bluegrass with Earl Scruggs. All this and more is in the book.

So I am pleased and proud to note that, fittingly, I’m going to be on WPTF myself Monday night for an interview about the book. I’ll be appearing on WPTF’s long-running “Tom Kearney Show” from 9 to 10 p.m. Eastern Time on Monday, Oct. 12. Tune in 680-AM/98.5-FM in the Raleigh vicinity, or stream it online from wherever.

I will also be on Hillsborough’s community radio station WHUP, 104.7-FM, a couple of times this week to talk about the book. First up will be Monday’s “3-D News” morning show with host Bob Burtman, scheduled for the 8:20-8:40 a.m. slot. And then I’ll be on WHUP again on Tuesday (Oct. 13) afternoon around 2:30 p.m. on “The Charlie Brown Show,” chatting with Ed “Charlie Brown” Weiss. As a Beach Music Hall of Famer, he’s in Chapter 7, so I expect we’ll be talking a good bit about beach music. If you’re not anywhere close to Hillsborough, there’s an online stream.

Speaking of beach music, I’ll also be doing a virtual “History @ High Noon” talk on the subject through the North Carolina Museum of History at noon on Wednesday (Oct. 14), titled “Breaking Color Lines at the Beach.” It’s in conjunction with the museum’s new exhibit  “Beach Music: Making Waves in the Carolinas.” It’s free, of course, but there’s advance registration to get the Zoom link.

This week also brings a virtual appearance with North Carolina Poet Jaki Shelton Green, 7 p.m. ET Thursday (Oct. 15) via Durham’s Regulator Bookshop; and an interview on UNC-TV’s “North Carolina Bookwatch” with host D.G. Martin at 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday (Oct. 18).

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On The Beach

Depending on how you reckon it, I either spent three or 28 years writing “Step It Up And Go.” Yes, there were the last few years at the end, when I was directly working on the book. But that was preceded by a quarter-century were I was kind of writing “the first draft of history” of it all in the News & Observer, with features about the “5” Royales, Doc Watson, Nina Simone and more. That produced a body of work I could use as a roadmap in various chapters.

There were a few chapters, however, where I had to basically start from scratch and build them from the ground up — most notably Chapter 7, “Breaking Color Lines at the Beach: The Embers and Beach Music.” Being a snob (and also not too bright), I didn’t take beach music all that seriously for a lot of years. Nevertheless, when it came to the book, beach was just too important a subject to pass over.

The beach chapter actually turned out to be one of my favorites in the entire book, tracing the style’s origins as a product of its era of Jim Crow segregation in the years after World War II. And it fit very neatly alongside Chapter 5 about North Carolina’s most important 1950s-vintage r&b group, Winston-Salem’s “5” Royales, who have a few songs in the beach-music/shag-dancing canon.

If you’re interested in a demonstration showing more about what beach music is and where it came from, the North Carolina Museum of History just opened an exhibit about it that’s well worth checking out. “Beach Music: Making Waves in the Carolinas” will be on display through next September, with an impressive array of artifacts. Here’s a piece I did about the show for the city of Raleigh.

I’ll be doing an online talk about the museum’s beach-music exhibit and my book’s beach chapter at noon on Wednesday, Oct. 14 — History @ High Noon: Breaking Color Lines at the Beach.” The event is free (as is the exhibit to attend), but it does require advance registration to get the Zoom link.

Drop on by (virtually) and ask some questions.

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More Spotify fun with “Step It Up and Go”

A wonderful aspect of this wired world we live in is that it’s very easy to point people toward music, and let them hear something you’ve written about. To that end, I’ve been slowly but surely getting Spotify playlists together to accompany various parts of “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 started out with a single playlist covering the entire book, “Songs from ‘Step It Up & Go'”54 songs clocking in at more than three hours (whew!). It’s a decent overview, but kind of cursory by necessity given how much ground there was to cover.

The next one I did covered Raleigh, assembled at the behest of the Greater Raleigh Convention & Visitors Bureau. “‘Step It Up & Go’ Songs: Raleigh” is a comparatively modest 17 songs, ranging from the Monroe Brothers to Corrosion of Conformity in a bit over an hour.

Now there’s one for greater Chapel Hill, on behalf of the Orange County Arts Commission. “‘Step It Up & Go’ Songs: Orange County” has 19 songs in 75 minutes, with a little of everything — Libba Cotten, Red Clay Ramblers, Superchunk and so on. I hope you’ll check all three playlists out, maybe as background listening while reading the book.

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Next up: Rounder Records

Now that I’ve caught my breath a bit from “Step It Up and Go,” it’s time to look forward, and I have some news about my next project. I’m pleased to announce that I’ve signed a contract with University of North Carolina Press to write another book, this one a history of Rounder Records.

“Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music” is the working title, and the book will trace the story of the legendary folk label that marked its 50-year anniversary in 2020. Initially based in Massachusetts, Rounder has been label home for everybody from Alison Krauss and Sarah Jarosz to George Thorogood and even Rush over the years, earning platinum records in addition to Grammy Awards.

UNC Press is a logical imprint for this book, since Rounder founders Ken Irwin, Marian Leighton Levy and Bill Nowlin have their archive housed at UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection. And I’d like to think that I’m the logical author for it, since I’ve always had folk/Americana leanings as well as a perverse fascination for the music business. “Step It Up and Go” even has a chapter about North Carolina record companies, after all.

uncpress

So if everything goes well and the schedule holds up, I’ll be turning in the manuscript about a year from now and it will come out sometime in 2022. Here’s hoping.

Meanwhile, the “official” publication date for “Step It Up and Go” isn’t until Oct. 19, but the book is already pretty much out in the wild. It’s picking up a nice response so far, people are posting pictures of it, I’m getting requests for signed copies — this stage of the process is always very pleasant, even if it’s not possible to do in-person bookstore readings this fall here on Planet Pandemic.

Nevertheless, we are carrying on with some cool online events featuring notable guests including Scott Avett, drummer-to-the-stars Jon Wurster and even North Carolina Poet Laureate Jaki Shelton Green, among others. Hope to virtually cross paths with some of you folks out there in the coming weeks.

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