North Carolina's music: From Nina Simone to ‘American Idol'

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — Sometimes being a packrat pays off.

Over David Menconi’s nearly three decades writing about music for The News & Observer, he got into the habit of tucking away the notes and mementos he collected in the course of research and interviews for his articles. It made for a daunting amount of office clutter, but it came in handy when he decided to start writing his book on North Carolina music history, “Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk.”

One seed that gave rise to the book was a family tree of sorts — a giant hand-drawn diagram Menconi made for The N&O in the mid-1990s that charted out the North Carolina popular music scene at the time. It was impressive to behold, and it barely scratched the surface of years and genres.

Menconi knew that virtually every branch bore a story he was uniquely positioned to tell, and that there was a whole forest’s worth of trees just like it to explore.

About five years ago, after completing a book about Texas-based Western swing kings Asleep at the Wheel, he dug out all those bits and pieces of North Carolina music history he’d stashed away and got to work in earnest.

“I had just boxes and boxes of stuff, interview transcripts, demo tapes and CDs and little tchotchkes and things, and step one was going through all of that to jog some memories,” said Menconi, who left the N&O in 2019.

“Step It Up and Go,” published by UNC Press on Oct. 19, spans around a hundred years of history, from Charlie Poole, who took up the banjo to escape from work in textile mills in the 1920s, to the state’s outsized share of winners and high-profile runners-up on TV’s “American Idol.”

But Menconi acknowledges he didn’t cover everything — and he didn’t try.

“I didn’t want to try to tackle an encyclopedia, just sort of a set of Wikipedia entries,” he said. “I was more interested in coming up with kind of the story with a through line, and a group of artists and chapters that made sense to be together.”

But he couldn’t resist a few tasty asides, which appear in shaded boxes sprinkled through the chapters.

One zooms in on an iconic video for the song “’74-’75” by 1990s Raleigh jangle pop band the Connells. The video, by director Mark Pellington, featured then-and-now photos of 16 members of Broughton High School’s class of 1975. In 2015, Menconi worked on an N&O project that updated the video for the class’ 40th anniversary, “the project I’m proudest of from all my time at the paper,” he writes.

SIGNATURE SONGS

Menconi’s book takes its name from a 1940 song by Durham’s Blind Boy Fuller that endures as a symbol of the Piedmont blues that arose as a byproduct from the region’s tobacco industry.

Black workers employed by tobacco factories rose to a comfortable middle class that was hungry for entertainment, and plenty of talented musicians — most notably Fuller, Gary Davis and Sonny & Brownie — were able to oblige. Their songs and signature style were heard on front porches, then record players, throughout the Triangle and far beyond.

Not every state can merit a hefty book about its music history, or fill an index with so many well-known names.

It’s notable that there’s so much to North Carolina’s music scene that even one of its biggest names, James Taylor, can only be spared a short excerpt in the book (a full-page one, though). Titled “Carolina in My Mind,” the mini-story traces Taylor’s childhood in Chapel Hill, his garage band with his brother and his scene-stealing, toga-clad set at Chapel Hill High School’s 1965 Junior Follies Variety Show. Not long afterward, Taylor left North Carolina for bigger stages, but of course the state continued to figure prominently in some of his most-loved songs.

North Carolina offers fertile ground for music just as much as for tobacco, Christmas trees or college basketball.

“North Carolina has always had a very strong populist tradition,” Menconi said.

He traces that history back to people who settled here because it reminded them of faraway homes and gave them hope they could make a living and put down roots on their own terms.

“I’ve always thought of it as kind of the day-job state where the arts are concerned,” Menconi said. “There’s more of a historical context here than a lot of places for the band, where everybody’s working a day job and they’re putting their records out on their own. That’s not too far removed from what was going on in textile towns a hundred years ago.”

Menconi, asked to swing his view from the state’s musical past to its future, said he sees that independent spirit becoming more important than ever.

“Americana is extraordinarily strong right now,” he said, pointing to ascendant Triangle bands like Hiss Golden Messenger, Lydia Loveless, H.C. McEntire, and Sylvan Esso.

“I think that’s going to just go right on, simply because it seems so self-sufficient,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to rely on outside support and that’s very important at a time like this when there is no outside support, and nightclubs and record companies and everything are gasping for breath and you don’t even know if they’re going to survive at this point.

“As for what’s the next big stylistic breakout, that’s a good one. That’s the beautiful part about it. Nobody really knows.”

DETAILS & BOOK EVENTS

“Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk,” by David Menconi. Published Oct. 19 by University of North Carolina Press, 320 pages, $30

Find a playlist Menconi created to highlight some of the artists and songs mentioned in the book on Spotify. Search for “Songs From ‘Step It Up & Go.’