A conversation with David Menconi, author 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"
Q: You note that, “Music is North Carolina's tuning fork — not tobacco, basketball, NASCAR, or even barbecue — because it's not just in the air here, but also the soul.” I love that observation. Could you talk more about it?
A: North Carolina really is one of the most musical places I’ve ever been in, and the musical experience is one that just feels more important here than in a lot of other states. With so many of the best artists here, from giants to journeymen, music is not just what they do, it's who they are. And North Carolina music really does seem to function as a homing beacon—if you need to get here, you will. More than one North Carolina musical immigrant I’ve interviewed over the years has talked about this state as a place they were drawn to and instantly felt as if they’d just come home.
Q: Where are you from originally? When did you move to North Carolina, and what brought you here?
A: I was born in San Antonio and split the first half of my life between various cities in Texas and Colorado. After attending college in both states, I graduated from the University of Texas. I finally moved to North Carolina in January 1991 to take the music-critic job at the Raleigh News & Observer, and I’ve been here ever since. I’m not a North Carolina native, but I have lived here longer than anywhere else.
Q: Is it unusual for a state to have a book dedicated to its music? What makes North Carolina a good candidate for this kind of volume?
A: It is unusual! There are a handful of states that are head and shoulders above everywhere else in terms of the sheer amount of musical importance and influence (New Orleans/Louisiana comes to mind), but North Carolina is not far behind. We’ve given the world some of the most iconic musicians of the 20th century, including Nina Simone, Doc Watson and John Coltrane, and North Carolina has had a foundational role in the evolution of styles including blues, jazz, soul, folk, bluegrass and hip-hop. In the book’s introduction, I liken North Carolina musicians to essential role players who contribute the key missing ingredient, whether it’s Scruggs-style banjo creating bluegrass or “5” Royales leader Lowman Pauling’s cutting guitar becoming an essential element of soul music.
Q: You mention that the Piedmont Blues of the 1930s has had a lingering influence in popular music. How so?
A: Piedmont blues was an important subset of blues, separate from what was going on in the Mississippi Delta, and many of its best-known songs have entered the popular-song repertoire. Onetime Durham stalwart Rev. Gary Davis’ “Samson and Delilah” has been covered by everyone from Peter, Paul & Mary to Bruce Springsteen. Led Zeppelin were big fans of Blind Boy Fuller, rewriting his song “I Want Some of Your Pie” into “Custard Pie.” The Rolling Stones titled a 1970 live album after Fuller’s song “Get Your Ya Ya’s Out.” And a number of bands even copped their names from Piedmont blues artists and songs, including Pink Floyd and Jump Little Children.
Q: Is there a particular thread that ties all of these stories of, and profiles in, North Carolina music together?
A: Yes. When I asked Winston-Salem native Ben Folds what growing up in North Carolina gave him that he would not have had elsewhere, he said, “A fierce sense of artistic independence” —as well as a willingness to work for it, without worrying about validation or approval from the usual gatekeepers. I’ve always thought of North Carolina as “The Dayjob State,” because there’s a no-nonsense pragmatism about how people approach their art here. Moreso here than in most places, there’s a thread linking mill-working string-band musician Charlie Poole to the latterday alternative band whose members work dayjobs and put out their own DIY records.
Q: How is the book organized?
A: The story proceeds more or less chronologically, starting with the pre-bluegrass stringband music that arose in North Carolina mill towns in the 1920s and ending in the present day. I briefly considered combining Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson into a single chapter but ultimately decided they were both just too important to do that. Also, because I’m sort of a hopeless dork, there are a couple of numerological jokes. Winston-Salem r&b band The “5” Royales is the subject of Chapter Five, naturally. And the chapter about record companies is Chapter 11, the bankruptcy code.
Q: Let’s talk about beach music. How would you define it?
A: Well, that’s a big tent. Broadly speaking, beach music is music for shag-dancing, at the “Optimal Shag Tempo” of 110-130 beats per minute. It encompasses songs by everyone from The Drifters to Bruno Mars, plus wildcards like Texas roadhouse legend Delbert McClinton. But in terms of its history, beach music has its roots in the Jim Crow era of segregation, when white kids on beach vacations would sneak over to the black joints across the tracks to listen to the forbidden fruit of rhythm & blues. Eventually those kids grew up, went off to college and took their music with them. Over time, beach music and dancing became a subculture that still exists today.
Q: Your book has an accompanying Spotify playlist (Songs From "Step It Up & Go"). How did you decide which tracks to include?
A: Narrowing that down was hard! When I first went through the book jotting down song titles, it came to about 250 songs. That just seemed like far too much. So I cut that down to 54, which is still more than three hours of music. I tried to have at least one song per chapter, to cover as broad a swath of North Carolina music as possible.
Q: Were there any artists that you cover that you feel are in danger of being forgotten, and why?
A: Probably the biggest is Charlie Poole, who is not remembered nearly as well as he should be given how many of his songs are bluegrass standards. The fact that he still isn’t in either the Country Music or Bluegrass Hall of Fame is a travesty. Poole died almost 90 years ago and has just never had a prominent-enough advocate for his memory, the way Johnny Cash kept alive the legacy of the Carter Family after they were gone.
Durham’s blues legacy was almost forgotten in the 1990s, but there’s been something of a revival in recent years with the occasional plaque or mural going up around town. You could have said the same for The “5” Royales up until they belatedly got into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2015 (at which point they were all, alas, no longer living).
Q: Other than James Taylor’s “Carolina in My Mind,” are there other songs that are closely associated with our state?
A: There most certainly are. The main ones are probably Elizabeth Cotten’s Piedmont-blues classic “Freight Train” and the Kruger Brothers’ immigrant anthem “Carolina in the Fall.” There’s also rapper Petey Pablo’s “Raise Up,” a roll-call of prison towns across North Carolina. Last year, the NHL’s Carolina Hurricanes picked that as its new “goal song” to play whenever the home team scores.
Q: You observe that North Carolina, a state with just 3 percent of the total U.S. population, has produced 20% of the nation’s American Idol winners. What has been American Idol’s effect on how people view the music of the state? And what accounts for North Carolina’s domination on the program?
A: I don’t get the impression that too many people outside of North Carolina are even aware of the state’s American Idol dominance. Almost every time I bring that up, the reaction is some variation of, “Wow, I did not know that.” I’ve asked a lot of people in and out of the music industry about possible reasons why this happened, and the bottom line is nobody has any idea. It just seems like a strange but kind of cool fluke.
Q: "Step It Up and Go" underscores North Carolina’s “quietly influential place in American music,” which, you say, is “hiding in plain sight for those who care to look. It’s still ongoing, too.” What’s happening in today’s music scene that you’re particularly excited about?
A: Even though the music industry has all but collapsed in recent years, that hasn’t seemed to stop anyone in North Carolina from continuing to play and record music, putting it out there any way they can. Top to bottom, the local talent pool is as broad and deep as it’s ever been, across a wide variety of styles. Hiss Golden Messenger, Rapsody, Sylvan Esso, Steep Canyon Rangers and Rhiannon Giddens are just a few of the North Carolina acts that have released spectacular albums over the past year.