Robert Christgau was drunk and joking when he dubbed himself the Dean of American Rock Critics, but he meant it, and it stuck. You’d never hear David Menconi make so grand a claim. It would be contrary to his accessible, informed, but almost folksy writing, and unbefitting of someone who, in the prologue of his new book, locates the soul of North Carolina music in its people’s humble pragmatism.
But he has a better claim to the state title than anyone else. Menconi is a reliable, populist rock-centric journalist and critic with an abiding interest in country, folk, and blues. His tenure chronicling local music for The News & Observer spanned three decades, beginning in the Camelot of early-nineties indie rock and ending in a wave of buyouts just last year. All of this richly funds Step It Up & Go (UNC Press), his engaging new history of a century’s worth of North Carolina’s popular music.
With chapters focusing on figures as larger-than-life as North Carolina will allow—from proto-bluegrass rocker Charlie Poole and Piedmont blues exemplar Blind Boy Fuller to golden age hip-hop revivalists Little Brother and the empyrean heights of American Idol, with stops in R&B, beach music, indie rock, and points outlying—Menconi’s loving testament to our state’s musical heritage is brisk and fun but will also be cited as a reference for years to come.
I recently called up the Dean of North Carolina Rock Critics to blab about why he gave a chapter to the forgotten seventies rock band Nantucket instead of Corrosion of Conformity or Sylvan Esso, what it was really like when the national record industry swept through Chapel Hill for the legendary Big Record Stardom Convention in 1992, and other assorted music geekery.
INDY: How bad is COVID screwing up your book-release plans?
DAVID MENCONI: Pretty bad. I was gonna curate and emcee a stage out at the North Carolina State Fair. The Waterfall Stage was going to be the Step It Up & Go stage. It was going to be lots of fun, but not to be—maybe next year, maybe someday if it does well enough for a paperback edition. So it’s all virtual. I’m doing one via Flyleaf with Jon Wurster and Tom Maxwell, one with Scott Avett via Park Road Books in Charlotte.
You’ve been writing this book for decades, really, but over what span did it actually come together?
I signed the contract on Groundhog Day in 2017, which seems kind of fitting. It took about a year longer than anticipated because the whole digital-first reinvention at [The News & Observer] just turned everybody’s lives and jobs completely upside down. I thought I could hum through about a chapter a month and was actually doing it until the digital reinvention turned us all into real-time reporters. So, three years really focused on it, but another quarter-century preceded that where I was sort of doing rough drafts of it without really realizing it.
You were able to draw a lot on your prior reporting. How much new shoe leather did you burn?
I did new supplemental interviews for every chapter, and then a few chapters were kind of from the ground up, most notably the ones on beach music and Nantucket. I went back and forth on Nantucket. You kind of wonder, should [Corrosion of Conformity] get that chapter, instead? What put [Nantucket] over the top was when I discovered that they started out as a beach band before becoming kind of the quintessential North Carolina seventies rock band. It’s like, God, that’s just so weird; I’ve got to make them the full-length chapter.
The book has a good balance of famous things people want to know more about and these interesting niches. How did you decide who would get a chapter or section and who would get a sidebar? I definitely could have seen a Sylvan Esso chapter.
Yeah, it’s funny, if I’d been doing the book like a year later, Sylvan Esso probably would have been the chapter. Rhiannon Giddens would probably get her own chapter at this point. I’m sure there are decisions I made that will not make people happy. I’ve already heard from some of them. But the great thing about North Carolina music is that you could write an equally compelling book about it with a completely different cast of characters.
Because of your framing and the transient-filled nature of North Carolina, the book winds up taking in a lot of musical history throughout the country. How did you set out to frame it as being for a general audience that likes music versus a book about and for North Carolina?
From the start, neither I or the editor, Mark Simpson-Vos over at UNC Press, were really interested in doing any sort of A-to-Z encyclopedic treatment. We were more interested in a story you could tell. To that end, it is by necessity going to be connected to larger trends, both in the industry and the culture. It was a bit of a struggle to make it all mean something other than just a collection of chapters about acts from North Carolina. It was a very involved proposal process, just refining the chapter list, the most arduous one that I’ve gone through—which is as it should be because it’s a lot more complicated book than any I’ve ever tried before.
You did a great job of weaving in everything from The Great Migration to the alt-rock boom, all these national concerns.
Were you here then, too, for that whole nineties alt-rock thing?
I got into the music scene in Chapel Hill around 1999 or 2000. I felt like I had just missed the party.
That’s like when I was in grad school at the University of Texas in Austin. The Armadillo World Headquarters closed not long after I got there, and I kind of missed that whole progressive country thing, which I wound up writing a master’s thesis about.
Alt-country in Raleigh went on to be a significant beat for you. You wrote the Ryan Adams book, Losering, which has been problematized since he was canceled over abusive behavior, and you lightly step over Ryan Adams as best you can in the book.
I had a really difficult, painful exchange with a superfan of his who’s still loyal to him, and she was just furious that I gave him short shrift. It was just like, we’re gonna have to agree to disagree.
And others will be furious you gave him any shrift at all.
Yeah, exactly. I didn’t feel like you could ignore him, but he wasn’t gonna get his own chapter.
We were talking about the alt-rock rush—you got here to work for the N&O right in the center of that, right?
January ‘91, the week the first Gulf War started. It was a funny, weird thing to live through. Not as funny and weird as it was for Jon Wurster and Tom Maxwell, but plenty. I liked those bands, but it didn’t occur to me that this was gonna blow up into a thing.
When people from record companies started calling, that was weird, and suddenly SPIN and U.S. News & World Report and everybody are coming around, doing this stuff about the Chapel Hill sound. It was just kind of surreal. As is covered in the book, the fact that it was the last two bands anybody would have predicted that blew up [Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five] was the strange cherry on top of the whole sundae.
I was really happy you told the story about the guy cracking a beer can in the SPIN writer’s face to describe the Chapel Hill sound. I was never sure if that was true, but it’s just so perfect. Tell me about the Big Record Stardom Convention, where that took place.
I was happy to be able to confirm that and delighted that it actually happened. [The festival] was a lovely, unpretentious affair. People from out of town seemed to take it a lot more seriously than people in town did—typical Chapel Hill. The press came: Grant Alden, who went on to cofound No Depression magazine, wrote about it for Alternative Press or somebody like that. Everybody played great. Superchunk just kind of smoked the field, of course—that was really the height of their power. I’ve seen very few bands that were better than them then, and they just went over like a house on fire.
The strange thing about it, I guess, was that it felt like this crescendo, and people were wondering, all right, wow, is somebody gonna wind up on Interscope Records and sell two million records? None of that really came to pass. But it was a hell of a party. There was kickball during the day, cookouts. It was super North Carolina, downhome and fun.
My editor was just adamant about, why are they doing this? What do they hope to gain from it? I would ask them questions like that and they’d look at me funny. You know, we’re bringing in a bunch of people to see bands and probably get written about in SPIN magazine. What’s wrong with that? My editor so wanted there to be more to it than that, but there really wasn’t.
In terms of genre, the book is pretty well-rounded. If anything, it’s a bit light on jazz, though we do get a lot of blues. Why is that?
Mostly, it’s my fault. It’s not in my wheelhouse as much as this other stuff. I’m sure there will people aghast that Monk and Coltrane didn’t get chapters, and there’s a case to be made there because there ain’t nobody more important than those two. But I feel like that’s a different book, and maybe I’ll even write that book someday.
Did you learn anything about the music of North Carolina that you didn’t already know?
Beach music was something that I hadn’t taken very seriously for a long time. To me, beach was these cover bands playing in parking lots, wearing polyester. I was a snob and not very bright, so I just kind of dismissed it. But people kept telling me there was more to it. When I delved into it, there’s this whole subtext that it came out of the Jim Crow era, part and parcel of segregation. That was fascinating.
And there were some details that only a total dork like me would get a rise out, but I found it just hilarious that the same slimeball record guy was involved with both Charlie Poole and Arthur Smith. He was the guy who wouldn’t let Charlie Poole do anything other than those old-timey records he was bored with doing. But he later signed Bob Wills, who basically was doing what Charlie Poole wanted to do. The stuff he was doing at the end of his life wasn’t too far removed from Western swing. You can see it getting there if he’d gotten the chance.
You can tell that Charlie Poole really holds a place of reverence for you, even like a mythological status.
I like the fact that he keeps coming up; he’s dotted here and there throughout other chapters, too. It’s the great sort of rock-and-roll fantasy. You don’t want to romanticize it too much, somebody drinking themselves to death before the age of 40. But he was a hard-living rock star.
What if “linthead,” the term that was used to describe millworkers like Poole, had stuck instead of “tar heel,” and they were the UNC Lintheads?
[Laughs] Should’ve given that a try, man.
David Menconi’s virtual events include talks with Jaki Shelton Green via The Regulator (Oct. 15), Scott Huler via Quail Ridge Books (Oct. 19), and Scott Avett via Park Road Books (Oct. 20); an appearance on UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch (Oct. 18 and 20); and others. Details here.
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