David Menconi is one of the preeminent voices on North Carolina music. Since leaving The News & Observer in 2019 after 28 years as a music critic and arts journalist, Menconi has freelanced, had a tenure as Piedmont Laureate, and penned Step It Up and Go, a primer on the state’s music history published in 2020. He also has another on the way.
Recently, Menconi has also shifted into podcasts as the host of Carolina Calling, a new collaboration with The Bluegrass Situation and Come Hear North Carolina that is available on Apple Music.
The debut season of the series focuses on the music emanating from specific locales in the state, with episodes on Asheville, Greensboro, and Shelby highlighting the likes of Bob Moog, Rhiannon Giddens, and Earl Scruggs and Don Gibson, respectively, with scheduled releases featuring Durham and Wilmington still to come.
Midway through season one, we caught up with Menconi to discuss his experience navigating this new form of storytelling, how the team chooses which artists to highlight, and what’s next for both him and Carolina Calling.
INDY WEEK: The last time you spoke with the INDY, you had just released Step It Up and Go. Since the podcast covers similar territory in terms of North Carolina music history, how has the experience differed between the two projects?
DAVID MENCONI: It is similar territory, but this is the first podcast I’ve ever worked on and there’s definitely been a learning curve. How much I actually do varies from episode to episode. I’m the host and the voice of the show so I at least write the intro and outro for every show. I do a lot of the interviews and the writing of some of the interstitial stuff too, but there’s a team of about a half dozen people, all of whom have input. I’m not exactly a hired gun but closer to that than a mastermind.
Has there been a lot of crossover between the research you did for the book and what you’ve done for the podcast?
Oh yeah! It’s produced by The Bluegrass Situation, which is a publication that covers bluegrass, obviously, but they also produce events and do a lot of podcasts. They are out in California and various people on the team have ties here, but I’m kind of the person on the ground.
In a lot of cases, they sort of rely on me to figure out who we should talk to in each city as well as storylines and throughlines, things like that. We’ll do these weekly Zooms and they’ll be wondering aloud about something, and I’m usually able to at least point them in the right direction for us to be able to find out something.
Is a similar format planned for the next season?
We’re in the midst of proposals, but at the moment, yes. As originally envisioned, the first series was going to be full-length episodes—each about a city—and then some shorter mini-episodes about individual artists. We stuck with the cities, kind of learning to walk before we run, but season 2 will probably mix it up with some of those mini-episodes, Nina Simone and Sonny Terry in particular. There’s been talk about one on beach music or one on Merge Records, over and above the Chapel Hill episode, so it’s still taking shape.
But yeah, the last episode [of season 1] runs at the end of March, and we should already be working on season 2 by then. I would expect that’ll probably come out in the fall.
Who is the intended audience for Carolina Calling, and is there anyone else in particular that you hope listens to the podcast?
I would think that the people most interested are the ones who are here and somewhat versed in the music and cultural history of the state but want to know a little bit more. But sort of like with my book—which I think of as kind of a primer to introduce you to North Carolina music no matter where you’re coming from—I would hope it would attract folks from farther afield. North Carolina has had an important foundational role in a lot of musical styles coming together, but it’s not widely known. That’s what I hoped to do with the book, and the podcast is kind of another iteration of that.
How do you handle being one of the authoritative voices for and about the state’s music and the stories that get shared? You seem to make a point on this podcast of elevating the stories of marginalized artists.
That’s certainly a priority for us on this podcast—and also the Come Hear North Carolina and North Carolina Arts Council folks—to center those more marginalized voices that haven’t been heard so much, and I do feel like that’s important. Rhiannon Giddens has certainly made much of her career about bringing that to the forefront, and it’s really key to do.
I tried to do that at the paper, too. There are lots of things that go into that when what to cover, especially in recent years, became so much about online traffic and getting the clicks that serving those other needs of coverage became a real challenge. It’s nice to be working on something where those metrics aren’t as important, at least as communicated to me, and elevating those voices that haven’t been heard is important
Do you have any other projects in the works?
I’m working with UNC Press on starting up a new music series, similar to what I was doing at the University of Texas Press, which was called the American Music Series. I helped them launch that back in the early 2010s and the Ryan Adams book I did came out on that.
So we’re launching that and we’ve got a few books signed—a book about the Stanley Brothers, a book about the jazz pianist Bill Evans, and my Rounder Records book are the first three books in this series, which is still unnamed. I’ll be the editor, and those books ought to start coming out sometime next year.
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