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 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.

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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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Bookin’, with hometown bookstore Quail Ridge

Bookin'

In the middle of a pandemic with the world seemingly falling apart is a rather strange, difficult and dispiriting time to be putting a book out into the world. But life goes on and so does relentless self-promotion (’cause God helps those who hype themselves). So on we go: Here is a very nice “Step It Up and Go” interview on the podcast Bookin,’ conducted by Quail Ridge Books general manager Jason Jefferies, touching on everything from Charlie Poole to “American Idol.” And we handled the logistics the way one does nowadays with pandemic protocols — via a remote interview over the phone, even though Jason and I actually live right around the corner from each other.

Speaking of remote events and such, I will be doing an online reading/discussion via Quail Ridge Books the evening of Oct. 19 (which is the book’s “official” publication date). Joining me will be my old friend, fellow Piedmont Laureate emeritus and noted author Scott Huler. And the silver lining to this online world of virtuality is that you can attend from anywhere, not just here in Raleigh. We’ll kick things off at 7 p.m. Eastern Time on Oct. 19. Y’all come.

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Finally, closure

It’s overly glib and probably kind of insulting, for which I am sorry, but I’ve often likened book-writing to child-bearing. Regarding both, there seems to be a part of your brain that fools you into not remembering just how freakin’ difficult it is until it’s too late. And then there you are, back in the middle of it once again and thinking, Oh yeah — DAMN but this is HARD!

So I signed the contract with University of North Carolina Press to write what became “Step It Up and Go” a little more than three-and-a-half years ago. Groundhog Day 2017, which seemed fitting. That was the culmination of a several-year proposal process that had been pretty involved, mapping out how it would go — from Charlie Poole to “American Idol.”

I felt pretty good about things because it seemed fairly straightforward. Most of the book’s primary subjects, I had covered before for the News & Observer, some at great length. So I had a roadmap of past stories and reporting to rely on. Factoring in the time for supplemental new interviews and research, it seemed plausible that I’d be able to blow through about one chapter per month. On that timeline, I should have been finished by the fall of 2018 with the book coming out sometime during 2019.

Ha. Ha. Ha.

Inevitably, life did not exactly cooperate, starting with my job at the N&O, which went through some radical changes with a “digital-first reinvention.” Various other traumas large and small cropped up as 2017 ended, and 2018 came and went with no end in sight. Probably the only reason I got to the end of it in 2019 was that I left the paper that year, which was a wrenching but necessary change.

It was well into 2020 before the whole thing was done and dusted, with pictures and cutlines and permissions and rewrites and copy-edits and all the rest. The pandemic slowed things down further, of course, but we finally put a period on it this past summer. And here, finally, is closure a month before the “official” publication date.

Today, I drove over to Chapel Hill to pick up a few copies from UNC Press. My editor Mark Simpson-Vos and I couldn’t hug it out, but we did the best we could in this pandemic age. To actually get to hold this book in my hand after all this time, to finally see it as A Thing That Exists after being just this mirage-like abstraction for so long, is kind of unbelievable.

Whew…

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On the radio — Little Raleigh Radio, that is

The main promotion for “Step It Up and Go” will get going in earnest next month, around the “official” Oct. 19 publication date, with a series of online virtual events (check the “Readings, Events & Appearances” listed here, near the top of the page). But we’ll have a bit of a preview on Sunday morning, Sept. 13, on Little Raleigh Radio. Tune in around 10 a.m. Eastern time, when LRR’s Jacob Downey will be interviewing me about North Carolina music history. Should be fun.

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The silly season: Amazon

Officially, “Step It Up and Go” won’t be published until Oct. 19, which is more than a month away. But it should start turning up in bookstores well before that, within a few weeks. The book business is weird that way, with “publication date” specifying the date by which it should be in every store where it’s going to wind up.

Anyway, it’s already listed on that South American river that controls everything, of course, with “sales rankings” for various categories including “Ethnomusicology” — which is a new one for me. I have no idea how they determined the order here or if it means anything; probably not, given that my book’s overall sales ranking is #237,017. But it’s always nice to see one’s book at #1, no matter how obscure the category.

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“Step It Up and Go” and the universal interconnectedness of all things

Step“Step It Up and Go” is subtitled “The Story of North Carolina Popular Music” rather than “The History” for a number of reasons. The biggest is that it’s not a comprehensive A-to-Z history, which seemed like too much to bite off for the amount of space I had. I was less interested in doing a Wikipedia-styled encyclopedia trying to cover everything than in telling a story where I could give each subject some room.

To that end, it unfolds in episodic fashion with 16 chapters covering about a 100-year timeline. Don’t tell UNC Press this, because they have a no-memoir policy — but yeah, it’s kind of a memoir of my decades covering music across North Carolina for the Raleigh News & Observer.

After coming here 30 years ago knowing little about North Carolina beyond Doc, Earl, The dB’s and Let’s Active, I came to regard the state’s musical history as one large and ongoing story with a through-line of hard-headed blue-collar practicality linking disparate styles — rock, soul, blues, bluegrass, country, jazz and all the rest. Raleigh writer Tracy Davis picked that idea up and ran with it in a very nice feature/interview in the current issue of Raleigh’s city magazine Walter. I’m grateful to her for taking the time, and to Walter for including so many pictures from the book. It starts on page 74 of the September issue.

Also related to “Step It Up and Go” is a feature I wrote myself for the current issue of Our State magazine. “Buskers and Music at the Crossroads” is about some of the historically significant busking spots across North Carolina, where acts including Blind Boy Fuller, Doc Watson, Avett Brothers and Charlie Poole earned their pre-fame performance stripes playing for the pocket change of people passing by. The story starts on page 158 of Our State’s September issue.

WalterMe

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