North Carolina’s deep-rooted musical history has more to offer than James Taylor singing “Carolina in My Mind”. Like its geography, the Tar Heel state’s music comes from the backroads, the dirt paths, the main streets, the warehouses, street corners, and porches, from the Great Smoky Mountains to the Outer Banks.
David Menconi, who spent 28 years as staff writer for Raleigh’s News and Observer, travels all the aforementioned byways for Step It Up and Go, talking with musicians, historians, fellow journalists, and fans. It’s a journey worthy of Peter Guralnick’s tireless work documenting the rich lives of blues, soul, and country artists.
Menconi examines the rocky life of the rake and ramblin’ Charlie Poole, Spray, North Carolina’s unsung hero of country music whose accomplishments have been overshadowed by the likes of Jimmie Rodgers (and who still hasn’t gotten his due from the Country Music Hall of Fame). He points out the similarity in sound and repertoire of Poole and Wadesboro native Fulton “Blind Boy Fuller” Allen, who both recorded many of their sides during the Great Depression. Blind Boy Fuller was part of Durham’s burgeoning blues scene. Fuller, Gary Davis, and the duo Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee – unofficially known as Durham’s “Big Four” – would busk in the tobacco warehouse district. They’d collect what they could under the table, away from the sight of social workers who kept track of the blind (except for McGhee) musicians’ disability payments.
Step It Up and Go continues its travels through the groundbreaking banjo technique of Earl Scruggs, the rhythm and blues of the “5” Royales and the Drifters, the folk revivalists that included the influential Deep Gap-born Arthel “Doc” Watson, to the beach music of the mighty Embers-still going strong after over 60 years.
The book is divided into genres instead of following a chronological template, which makes a difficult undertaking such as this easier to follow and digest. It also allows you to draw through lines from, say, the ’70s major label success of pop-funk-rockers Nantucket to the punk-thrash metal-southern-rock of ’80s and ’90s trailblazers Corrosion of Conformity. Menconi makes stops along the way to visit Mitch Easter’s power-pop of Let’s Active as well as his recording of Athens, Georgia’s R.E.M., and their seminal full-length debut, Murmur.
Hitmakers from the Connells to Petey Pablo, Roberta Flack to Link Wray and, yes, James Taylor, are discussed, as is the rise of movements like Y’alternative (Whiskeytown, the Backsliders) and the Chapel Hill indie scene, which for a moment was poised to become the next Seattle. North Carolina’s storied record labels are examined, such as Sugar Hill, Merge, and Yep Roc, as is the state’s unique role in jazz history (John Coltrane, Nina Simone, Thelonius Monk).
North Carolina is still churning out talent, as profiles on the Avett Brothers, J. Cole, Sylvan Esso, and 2017 MacArthur Fellowship recipient Rhiannon Giddens make clear. Menconi makes a note of the Old North State’s better-than-average showing on American Idol through the years as well, through Clay Aiken, Fantasia Barrino, and country singer Scotty McCreery.
As a native and lifelong resident of North Carolina, I approached this tome with skepticism, but with each turn of the page, I found myself either nodding along in acknowledgment or, more often than not, raising eyebrows at something I hadn’t known before. Step It Up and Go is thoroughly researched and ceaselessly enjoyable.
Menconi may not be a native Tar Heel, but he’s lived here long enough that we’ve come to claim him, and his work in North Carolina music history was already well established but is further cemented with this work. It’s a story that’s long overdue. Maybe it was just waiting for the right person to tell it.