Shepherds of books

“Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk” came out in paperback last month, March of 2023, and one positive side effect is that the book has been reborn as “current” enough to start picking up another round of coverage. The latest comes from the book website Shepherd.com, the keepers of which were kind enough to ask me for a best-book list related to my book.

Given “Step It Up and Go”‘s subject matter, what seemed appropriate was this list of “The best music books to come out of North Carolina.” Featuring choice titles from Mark Kemp, piano pop star Ben Folds, folklore legend Bruce Bastin, the Merge Records braintrust and Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle, it’s a set of books that had a pretty major impact on me. Check it out.

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CreativeMornings: The Update

The local lecture series CreativeMornings Raleigh was kind enough to have me as a guest in the spring of 2021, when I did a full-length speech via Zoom. And because that was online rather than in-person, they brought me back the morning of Nov. 18, 2022, for a quick in-person update during their monthly presentation at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. It’s below, a brief overview of what I’ve been up to since last year.

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Greetings! I was a CreativeMornings guest speaker back in April of 2021, when I did a presentation about procrastination as part of the creative process. And I guess I’ve spent a lot of time procrastinating over the past year and a half, because I’ve kept pretty busy.

At the time of that presentation, I had just published a book called “Step It Up & Go,” about the history of North Carolina music – which I don’t believe is in the museum gift shop here although I wish it was, hint hint – and I was pleasantly surprised to win a couple of awards for it. The paperback edition should be out next spring.

Since that last CreativeMornings appearance, my main accomplishment was finishing another book, this one a history of Rounder Records. Rounder is a folk-music label that has had some big-selling acts like Alison Krauss. But mostly it puts out esoteric records of banjo music or field hollers. Rounder’s founders were basically hippies who spent the ’60s hopping freight trains and hitchhiking to folk festivals, so of course they started a record company, because why not? “Oh Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Music” will be out in time for us to launch it at the big World of Bluegrass festival in late September of 2023, Lord willing and the creek don’t rise.

Perhaps inevitably, given my demographic, I’ve also been doing a podcast. “Carolina Calling” is a new podcast about the music and history of North Carolina, produced by The Bluegrass Situation, and I am the host. This past spring’s first season had episodes about Asheville, Shelby, Greensboro, Durham and Wilmington. Season two is coming in 2023 with episodes about Nina Simone, Doc Watson, Libba Cotten and more. You should be able to find “Carolina Calling” wherever you get your podcasts. Come find me after this, and I’ll give you one of these very spiffy stickers.

Otherwise, I keep busy writing for area arts councils, magazines and websites. You can find me most months in Walter magazine, VisitRaleigh.com, The Bluegrass Situation and various university alumni publications. I’m also on That Station 95.7-FM twice daily, 8:30 a.m. and p.m., with “North Carolina Backtracks.” Coming up on four years since I left the News & Observer, I occupy a sort of netherworld between marketing, PR, journalism, criticism and I don’t know what else. But hey, it works.

I hope to see you out there.

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Step right up and get your free copy of “Step It Up and Go” from North Carolina Reads

Here’s another solid accolade for my book “Step It Up and Go”: It’s one of five books selected by North Carolina Humanities for its 2023 North Carolina Reads book club. And if you’re a North Carolina resident, you can even get a copy of the book for free through this program.

North Carolina Reads features books that “explore issues of racial, social, and gender equality and the history and culture of North Carolina…(posing) critical questions about how North Carolinians view their role in helping to form a more just and inclusive society.” That’s a worthy, lofty goal, and it’s an honor for me to be in this lineup:

  • Carolina Built by Kianna Alexander (February 2023)
  • Game Changers: Dean Smith, Charlie Scott, and the Era that Transformed a Southern College Town by Art Chansky (March 2023)
  • Money Rock: A Family’s Story of Cocaine, Race, and Ambition in the New South by Pam Kelley (April 2023)
  • Under a Gilded Moon by Joy Jordan-Lake (May 2023)
  • Step It Up and Go by David Menconi (June 2023)

Each of the selected authors will be doing an online event, and you’ll notice that they’ve got me in the closing position for June 2023. I’ll have details about that soon.

Meantime, you have until the end of this month (Oct. 31, 2022) to put in your request for free copies of all five books. First come first served, while supplies last. If you’re requesting on behalf of a reading group, you can order up to 15 copies of each. Here’s the individual order form, and the group order form.

Put in your order and let’s do this, y’all.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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