Songwriter Brad Cook once told journalist David Menconi that "The older I get, the more I think that we didn't choose North Carolina, it chose us." Brad and his brother Phil moved from Wisconsin, formed the power folk band Megafaun in Durham, joined Hiss Golden Messenger and generally helped build a vibrant contemporary scene. Brad called the move and the community “the greatest thing that ever happened to us."
Mike “M.C.” Taylor, the singer-songwriter mastermind behind Hiss Golden Messenger, one of the national breakouts from Durham and a current Grammy nominee, is quoted in a new Menconi book voicing a similar sentiment from a performance celebrating the 2018 Oxford American music issue, themed around the state: “Music is what drew me to this place and made it home for me.”
For transplants and natives alike, there is and has been something special about the state’s musical environment and history, as Menconi documents in his new book Step It Up And Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from UNC Press. In Episode 159 of The String, he says (from his base in Raleigh), “some really signpost musicians and events, people, places and things in American music history are right here. Which, if you don't know where to look, you might not even realize. I was just fortunate to show up at a time when a lot of it was still around, people were still alive. And I had good guides who kind of pointed me in the direction.”
That arrival was 1991, when as a young music reporter working in Boulder, CO, he was tipped about a staff job at the Raleigh News & Observer. He got the gig and spent 28 years there, chronicling the past, present and future of a wide range of artistry. The book synthesizes all that reporting and experiencing while taking the journey farther than a daily reporter gets a chance to. He chronicles Charlie Poole’s rowdy rambles of the 1920s, the rise of the Piedmont style of acoustic blues, Earl Scruggs and his contribution to the banjo and bluegrass and the beach music offshoot of R&B. The coverage of the modern era in rock and pop is especially compelling for a NC native like myself, who grew up on college radio’s new South heroes, R.E.M. (recorded by producer Mitch Easter in Winston Salem), Let’s Active (Easter’s jangly power trio) and the dB’s, the state’s answer to Big Star and Television.
North Carolina didn’t build many music businesses in the 20th century, but it did see a number of notable broadcasters play and promote native talents on radio and television. A chapter on musician/entertainer/entrepreneur Arthur Smith proves a fascinating window into that aspect of the scene. Doc Watson is a central figure, the state’s most famous and beloved folk music icon, and Menconi captures his spirit while also elevating and celebrating the women and African Americans who left beautiful legacies of song and craft: Etta Baker, Elizabeth Cotton, Blind Boy Fuller and Alice Gerrard among them. Some greats are born in the state and achieve greatness elsewhere, such as Nina Simone and John Coltrane. Other, like the Cooks, the bluegrass-loving Swiss-American Kruger Brothers and M.C. Taylor, enrich as newcomers.
Since the 1990s, NC music has only accelerated and taken on more national import. Menconi writes at length about the Squirrel Nut Zippers and its role in the boom of (once) indie label Mammoth Records. His chronicle of Merge Records looks at a more recent success story, home as it is to Arcade Fire, the Magnetic Fields and Hiss Golden Messenger. And the state’s folk/roots/Americana legacy continues to grow, meriting profiles of the Backsliders, Whiskeytown, 6 String Drag, Mandolin Orange and a whole chapter on the Avett Brothers.
For M.C. Taylor, Durham and its Triangle partner cities Raleigh and Chapel Hill have proven to be a fruitful place to create and launch a national career. We speak about his move to the area for graduate studies in folklore (he studied a Latino low-rider subculture, not musicians) and the virtues of a city that’s made a journey from a tobacco and cigarettes town to a high-tech center with strong backing for the arts.
“There's a history of forward-looking musicians being here,” Taylor says. “There was also a large black community that was part of part of the musical circuit back in the day. And then fast forward several decades and we have institutions like Merge Records who are based in Durham and are sort of flying the flag for independent music. And then finally, you know, there are a lot of colleges here. This is a very progressive place. There's so much brain power here, so much visual art and different food ways and cooks, and just a lot of creativity.”
Listen to the North Carolina-centric Episode 159 of The String here:
Here’s Hiss Golden Messenger’s latest single, “Sanctuary.”