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.