Speechifying: The North Caroliniana Book Award

One of the awards that “Step It Up and Go” won was the 2020 North Caroliniana Society Book Award, which was an honor and a thrill. But it was also a challenge because it involved giving an acceptance speech — something I’ve never been called upon to do before.

I’ve done just enough readings and such to where the prospect of public speaking no longer causes panic attacks, but it’s still a bit out of my comfort zone. As always, I kept it brief. The speech, recorded last October, is up now on the North Caroliniana Society website.

I came to North Carolina about 30 years ago not knowing a soul, to take the music-writer job at the Raleigh News & Observer. A very vivid memory of my early days here was turning on the radio in the car one night and hearing one of Raleigh’s rock stations playing that old 1970s warhorse, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Free Bird.” I lunged for the dial, as I always do when that one comes on, and switched over to Raleigh’s other big commercial rock station – which, as it happened, was also playing (yes) “Free Bird.”

The only thing to do was head for the left side of the dial, where the college and public stations dwell, and that proved to be where I hung out most of the time. As I did, I came to discover that North Carolina is a state with an amazing musical past, present and future. I was already familiar with some of the broad-brush highlights, like Doc and Earl. But North Carolina music was always surprising me.

“Oh, Nina Simone is from here? Wow. John Coltrane, too? And Link Wray? Libba Cotten? Let’s Active? Andy Griffith? And half of James Brown’s best band?!”

There were lots of other people, places and things to learn about, more obscure but no less vital. Like Charlie Poole, a pre-bluegrass string-band legend from the roaring ’20s; the “5” Royales, r&b pioneers from Winston-Salem; and UNC alumnus Orville Campbell’s very quirky label here in Chapel Hill, Colonial Records.

I was fortunate to work for 28 years at a newspaper that valued storytelling and history. So I was permitted to roam the state to document a lot of what I learned. And at a certain point, all this wonderful music and history started to seem like one big interconnected story worthy of a book.

Turning that into this book, “Step It Up & Go,” was a challenge, a long haul spanning many years. It was a true labor of love, and I needed help from a long list of enablers starting with the folks at UNC Press. I would also like to extend gratitude to Suzanne Brown, who hired me at the News & Observer way back when and was my editor and guide for many years; to my best friend and fellow soldier in the writing wars, Scott Huler; “Kindness Ninja” Joe Newberry and other sounding-board spirit guides for expert and invaluable advice; and finally, to my wife Martha Burns, who has always been patient and gracious when I’m on the book-writing grind.

Thanks to all of them, and also to the North Caroliniana Society for this award, which feels like a marvelous acknowledgement of all the work that went into “Step It Up & Go.” I am honored and thrilled. Thank you.

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Let’s Active at 40: Still wonderful

No photo description available.

For the most part, I tried to avoid too many first-person indulgences in “Step It Up and Go,” with one big exception. I began Chapter 9 by recounting the first time I ever heard the band R.E.M., which remains one of the most all-time formative moments in the development of my musical cosmos.

As producer of R.E.M.’s early records, a time when they were in North Carolina quite a bit, Winston-Salem native Mitch Easter was very much at the center of that. And he cemented his place there even further with his own band, Let’s Active, marking that combo’s 40-year anniversary with a show Thursday night at The Ramkat in Winston-Salem.

It was a wonderful evening, with Mitch and a cast of friends revisiting long-ago Let’s Active songs from their days as a female-dominated trio. Hearing those songs in the air after so long felt like a trip back in time to being 23 years old all over again. Judging from the crowd response, I’m sure I’m not the only one who felt that way.

The organizers were kind enough to let me say a few words onstage during the pre-show speakers’ portion of the event, and I am proud to say I took up the least time of anyone (hey, I know my place!). The text is below.

A night to remember.

# # #

Photo by Alanna Meltzer-Holderfield,

Place has always been an important part of music, especially rock & roll. But there have been times in the rock era when the community implied by that word, “place,” was less a physical location and more a state-of-mind network.

I’m thinking of towns like Austin, Minneapolis, Chapel Hill, Athens – and of course, Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In the 1980s, it seemed like the best & brightest bands were coming from towns like that, off the beaten path and far from the music industry’s centers. And from Winston-Salem and beyond, those towns were like outposts on an underground-rock chitlin circuit that bands both old and new toured. I was in Austin back then and saw most of the notable bands of that generation come through. And when the Replacements, Guadalcanal Diary or Let’s Active came to play, everyone in town worth knowing was in the room, too. It was a great family to be part of.

Like a lot of people who were from outside North Carolina at that time, my introduction to Let’s Active came via R.E.M., whose 1983 full-length Murmur just floored me. Hearing that for the first time blew my mind and completely reset my musical compass. I wanted to know everything about it, including where it came from and who the producers were: Mitch Easter & Don Dixon. I quickly set about acquiring every record I could find that either of them had anything to do with.

I remember hearing Let’s Active’s Cypress in the fall of 1984, and it felt like a bulletin received from this wonderful & mysterious community out there. And I got to see Let’s Active on a bill with The dB’s in Austin, at a club called Steamboat, and it was a show that was every bit as great as I hoped it would be.

All these years later, Mitch is the last member of the original Let’s Active trio still with us. But the four Let’s Active records are still in the world, as great as ever, and Mitch is still weaving spells in that amazing studio of his.

As for me, I can’t wait to hear this music played live again. Thank you.

# # #

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Photo courtesy of Thomas Ivey.

May be an image of 3 people, including Mitchell Blake Easter and text that says 'Κλ PRESENTEDBY: Paapde MUSE WINSTON SALEM R LET'S ACTIVE 40TH ANNIVERSARY EVENT + CONCERT NOV. 4, 2021 MITCH EASTER LET'CTE LET'S ACTIVE AND BAND SPECIAL GUEST SPEAKERS HISTORICAL COMMENTARY ABOUT THE BAND'S INFLUENCE AND LEGACY, AT THE RAMKAT, WINSTON-SALEM, NC FOLLOWED BY A PERFORMANCE TICKETS ON SALE JULY 14 WWW.THERAMKAT.COM'
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Contest season: The Ragan Old North State Award for Nonfiction

Looks like I’ve got a shot in at least one more contest, the Ragan Old North State Award for Nonfiction, in which “Step It Up and Go” is one of 10 finalists for the 2020-21 entry year.

Established in 2003 as successor to two earlier awards (the Mayflower Cup and Patterson Cup), the Ragan award is named for poet, critic and publisher Sam Ragan, who was also the first secretary of the North Carolina Department of Natural and cultural Resources. The award is overseen and presented by the North Carolina Literary and Historical Association; and if it’s on the same schedule as past years, the winner should be announced in November.

(UPDATE/JANUARY 2022: And the winner of the Ragan Old North State Award for Nonfiction is Gregory S. Taylor’s “Central Prison: A History of North Carolina’s State Penitentiary.” Congratulations to him, and to all my fellow nominees.)

At this point, though, I’m just glad to be in the field at all, alongside some very worthy books and authors, because it feels like I’m playing with house money. “Step It Up and Go” has already won the North Caroliniana Society Book Award for “the book that captures the essence of North Carolina by contributing powerfully to an understanding of the state,” and was also First Runner-Up in the Eric Hoffer Awards’ “Culture” category.

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North Caroliniana Society award-winner

Resources | Understanding the American South

I am honored and thrilled to announce that “Step It Up and Go” has picked up another very nice accolade — the annual book award from the North Caroliniana Society, a group that is “Dedicated to the Promotion and Increased Knowledge and Appreciation of North Carolina’s Heritage.”

The North Caroliniana Society Book Award recognizes “the book that captures the essence of North Carolina by contributing powerfully to an understanding of the state.” It is also to be one that “makes a positive contribution and appears to have the best chance of standing the test of time as a classic volume of North Caroliniana.”

This award was established in 2003 and comes with an engraved silver cup, to be presented in a ceremony on Oct. 6. Notable past winners include the 2004 historical memoir “Blood Done Sign My Name” by historian Timothy B. Tyson, and 2014’s “Talkin’ Tar Heel: How Our Voices Tell the Story of North Carolina.”

In another first for me, this makes makes two awards that “Step It Up and Go” has won. Last month, it was First Runner-Up in the “Culture” category of the Eric Hoffer Awards.

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Hoffer Awards: Thank you

As I’ve noted elsewhere, writers and journalists are funny about contests and awards. We go out of our way to pretend they don’t matter, and that we don’t care. But you don’t have to scratch too far below the surface to find that we’re just like anyone else when it comes to things like this: Whether or not it means anything, and whether or not we’ll admit it, we all think winning stuff is fun.

And so I am honored and excited to report that “Step It Up and Go” has picked up a little figurative hardware in the 2021 Eric Hoffer Awards, given out for “Excellence in Independent Publishing.” My book came in at First Runner-Up in the Hoffer’s “Culture” category, right behind the winning 2021 entrant “The Doctor Who Fooled the World” by Brian Deer (John Hopkins University Press). “Step It Up and Go” also made this year’s Hoffer Grand Prize Short List. The judge’s note in The US Review of Books reads:

Started in 2000, the Hoffer Awards are in memory of the late American philosopher and author Eric Hoffer. Their stated mission is “to honor freethinking writers and independent books of exceptional merit” published on small, academic and independent presses. This is the second time I’ve won a Hoffer Award, after a culture-category “Honorable Mention” for 2012’s “Ryan Adams: Losering, A Story of Whiskeytown.” But First Runner-Up is a step higher than Honorable Mention, so maybe I’ll get to the top someday!

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A few thoughts on procrastination

CreativeMornings/Raleigh was kind enough to have me as speaker for their monthly meeting on April 30, giving a talk on the theme of procrastination. It’s a topic I had some affinity for, because every book I’ve ever written has involved long stretches of me procrastinating to no apparent purpose — except there actually is a purpose to it. For more, read on. Here is the talk that I gave.

# # # #

I have published four books over the past 20 years, with a fifth in progress. So while I don’t exactly have a track record, I’ve been around the block enough times to recognize process patterns when they come up. And those process patterns used to alarm me a great deal, especially when it came to procrastination.

With every book, I always wind up at some point contemplating a large mass of background material – papers, notecards, recordings & random gewgaws with a lot of post-it notes, stuffed into folders and piled into mail tubs. And for a long time, just the sight of that will bring on something like narcolepsy. All I have to do is see or even think about it, and I want to pass out and take a nap.

Eventually, however, I do get around to going through everything and arranging it into enough of an order to be useful. Then it’s time to get to work generating even more material, by interviewing a bunch of people – and the same thing happens all over again. The prospect of picking up the phone and calling somebody fills me with exhaustion, even dread. I’d say I have to experience at least a half-dozen instances of this, maybe more, before I can summon the gumption to actually begin conducting interviews.

But that finally happens, too. Then it’s time to take all this old & new material, put it together and actually write the book. And here we go again. Waves upon waves of fatigue come crashing down as I fret and I nap, and it takes a while to actually get underway.

Now I used to be puzzled by this three-step process, because it’s not how I’ve ever operated with the dayjob. I worked in newspaper newsrooms for more than 30 years, and there was never enough time to do anything. So you just put your head down, plowed ahead and got it done. The result might not be the most artful thing in the world, but it was still better than having a blank white space in the next day’s paper where your story was supposed to be.

Books, however, are different, at least for me. And one big reason is they’re a lot longer. Where most newspaper or magazine articles I write come in at a thousand words or less, my most recent book ran to almost 100,000 words. I’m working on another one at the moment that will probably clock in at about 80,000 words.

Not only are books longer, they’re also supposed to have more staying power, at least in theory. So that means you put more into them, working up enough energy to tackle them with a higher degree of focus. Which takes, yes, procrastination, although I don’t think of it as wasting time so much as letting the tank fill up.

And so I have come to recognize these bouts of paralysis, filled by naps or puttering around the house rearranging the silverware drawer, as a necessary phase. I used to try and just power through them, only to discover that I always seemed to write myself into a corner. So I’d have to stop for a while – go cut the grass, rearrange the CD collection or the bookshelf – and come back to it. And then a way out always seemed to present itself.

One problem with this recent book, “Step It Up and Go,” was: How to begin? I tried all sorts of approaches for the opening prologue, from big-picture at-a-distance to up-close and personal. After wadding up and throwing away a half-dozen opening scenes and napping on it, I decided it needed a remembered scene involving a relevant person, place and thing.

Two and a half years of writing later, figuring out how to end it was just as difficult. I could not seem to hit the right closing note with the end of Chapter 16, about North Carolina’s “American Idols.” So after some puttering around, what came to me was closing with a postscript epilogue: another scene, this one from the streets of downtown Raleigh during the big fall bluegrass festival. That turned out to be just the thing to tie up a few thematic loose ends.

I’ve always wished I could blast out a first draft from start to finish without going back to edit as I go. But that’s just never worked for me. For me, at least, book-writing is a slow and torturous process that goes chapter by chapter, section by section, paragraph by paragraph, sentence by sentence and even word by word. The only way I can do this is to write and rewrite something over and over, trying to figure out the best way to say something.

Each of the 16 chapters in “Step It Up and Go” is 5-6,000 words, broken up into about a half-dozen sections. My process was to start writing a section and get as far as I could. Initially, it would break down into something that looked like a rough outline after not too many paragraphs. So I’d go back to the beginning of that section and start over, again and again, as many drafts as it took. I’d get a little farther each time, and eventually that section would be solid enough to where I could go on to the next one.

I’d liken it to building a ridge of dirt with a shovel. You have to pat down, firm up and stabilize each section before it’s strong enough to bear your weight and allow you to move on to the next part. So yeah, it’s the literary equivalent of ditch-digging – interspersed with procrastination naps. Two/three years later, there’s your book.

And for the record: I procrastinated LIKE HELL before writing this.

Notes by Abra Millsaps.
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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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