Posts Tagged With: Charlie Poole

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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“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.

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“Step It Up and Go” — the Spotify playlist

StepYou can’t publish a book about music nowadays without at least one Spotify playlist to go with it. So after my folks at University of North Carolina Press told me I should put one together to accompany “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 went through the book jotting down artists and songs.

That quickly got out of hand as the list swelled to more than 250 titles, which seemed like a bit much. So I whittled that down by around 80 percent, shooting for something more manageable that a normal non-obsessive person might actually listen to.

Thus we have the Spotify playlist Songs From “Step It Up & Go,” a comparatively modest 54 songs ranging from Charlie Poole to Corrosion of Conformity. The selections touch on all 16 chapters, plus the Prologue and Epilogue. James Taylor to Jodeci, The Drifters to Doc Watson, Let’s Active to Little Brother, Etta Baker to Ben Folds Five — those and more are all there. Check it out.

Down the road, I might do more detailed playlists that get a little more into the weeds of each chapter. But for now, I think this one is a nice overview.

https://open.spotify.com/embed/playlist/7MYqYqBUenZB1ZtC8WVy3A

 

 

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Next up: “The Big Book of North Carolina Music”

ncblueNot quite a year ago, I found myself at an industry convention gathering with some of my rock-writing peers, doing what we all do at these things — swapping stories, telling lies and catching up about projects we had in the works, real as well as imaginary. Talking to another writer I knew, I mentioned that I was working on a book proposal for a history of North Carolina music. His reaction was…surprising.

“Yeah,” he scoffed, “that’ll be a short book.”

Words were exchanged, some of them unpleasant; no, it didn’t go especially well. But almost a year later, I am pleased to report that this “short book” has taken a major step from abstraction to reality. I’ve come to terms and shaken hands with University of North Carolina Press for a book with the working title “The Big Book of North Carolina Music,” which will have a format similar to UNC Press’ 2008 best-seller¬†“Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue.”

uncpressWhile this won’t be an encyclopedic A-to-Z history of North Carolina music, my “Big Book” will cover a lot of ground in its 16 chapters — from Charlie Poole in the 1920s to “American Idol” nearly a century later, with Blind Boy Fuller and Rev. Gary Davis, Arthur Smith, “5” Royales, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, the dB’s and Let’s Active, Superchunk and Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five, Nantucket and Corrosion of Conformity, beach music, 9th Wonder and J. Cole and more in between. It should come in at close to double the heft of my Ryan Adams book “Losering”; and while that still isn’t nearly as long as it could be, it’s nevertheless the most ambitious book project I’ve ever taken on.

But the beauty part is I’ve already been working on this book, piecemeal, for more than a quarter-century. I moved to Raleigh in 1991 to take the News & Observer music-critic job, and my first day was Jan. 15 —¬†two days before Operation Desert Storm started in Kuwait. That was a time when the Worldwide Web wasn’t much more than a gleam in Paul Jones’ eye, back when most people still got their news by reading it on paper or watching the 6 o’clock news.

I must confess that I didn’t come here thinking the News & Observer would be a long-term destination, but it just worked out that way. Back when newspapers were still prosperous, the desired career trajectory was to spend five years or so at a mid-sized paper like the N&O before trying to move up to the New York Times or some other prestige publication. For a variety of reasons, that never happened. Most of the opportunities that came my way over the years felt like they would have been lateral moves rather than upward ones, although I did get a call from the Washington Post in 1999. But that was right after the birth of my twins, Edward and Claudia. At that moment, starting over in a big city was just not in the cards.

So I stayed in Raleigh and I’ve never regretted it, in large part because North Carolina music turned out to be fascinating and beguiling in ways I never imagined before I lived here. When I arrived, I was fairly well-versed in the North Carolina music I’d heard from afar on college radio — Connells, Let’s Active, Flat Duo Jets and such — without knowing much of anything about the history from farther back. So I’ve spent my years here filling in the history, bit by bit, learning as much as I could about North Carolina’s wildly varied music.

Despite the many variations of this state’s music, I do see all of it as of a piece and part of the same continuum — and “The Big Book of North Carolina Music” will, I hope, tie it all together as one story. I’ve spent the past few months going through my archive of stuff to get it organized (see below), and now begins the real work. TBBoNCM will be my side-project for the next two years, the thing keeping me up late nights and weekends and days off. If all goes according to plan, it will be done and dusted by the end of 2018, with publication to follow in 2019. Fingers crossed!

And yeah, whenever it’s done: I’ll be sending an autographed copy to that colleague.

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