By David Menconi
Nightclub lifespans are akin to dog years, which makes it all the more remarkable that the Cat’s Cradle has been around Chapel Hill and Carrboro for more than half a century. And while the ride hasn’t always been smooth, for most of its history the Cradle has thrived as a beloved institution. The club marked the occasion of its 50th anniversary with two weekends of celebratory shows at the end of December and beginning of January, drawing capacity crowds for some of North Carolina’s top acts past and present.
The anniversary shows acknowledged the improbability of the Cat’s Cradle’s venerable existence as one of the most famous live-music venues in the Southeast. For more than half its life span, the Cradle has been at 300 E. Main St. in Carrboro, its home since 1993. And it’s had the same owner for more than two-thirds of its 50-year existence.
“It’s incredible to me, too,” said Frank Heath, the Cradle’s sole owner since 1987. “The 50-year shows were amazing, like catching lightning in a bottle. A lot of people were talking about me, but I feel like I’m almost in the way of the fact that all these bands played. It was more about all of us, including people who came before me. There was a big sense of community and I was bowled over by the response, attendance and participation.”
“Cat’s Cradle Turns 50” featured 50 acts playing over six nights, from The Bluegrass Experience to Zen Frisbee. The schedule featured still-surviving old-timers like Southern Culture on the Skids, Lud, The Veldt and Superchunk, as well as a number of for-the-occasion reunions of long-gone legends – What Peggy Wants, Mayflies USA, The Popes and Flyin’ Mice among them – with genres ranging from acoustic folk to hip-hop.
A few acts that have outgrown the 750-capacity Cradle came back to play and pay tribute, including rising Americana duo Mandolin Orange, who headlined Cary’s 7,000-capacity Booth Amphitheatre last year. Another was Steep Canyon Rangers, the Grammy-winning bluegrass band that formed at the University of North Carolina in the late 1990s. Derek Powers, who has been Heath’s right-hand man as de facto Cat’s Cradle manager for 26 years, booked all the bands for the anniversary including the Rangers, who he introduced onstage by recalling the emails they used to send back and forth in the band’s early days.
"It was so easy to sell all the musicians to do this show, which had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the standing the Cradle has in the arts community,” Powers said afterward. “Everyone essentially played for free, so we could keep ticket prices low -- $50 for a six-day pass. So, 50 bucks for 50 years of music. No way could we have paid Mandolin Orange what they normally get, but they wanted to do it. And Steep Canyon Rangers. They played for free because they love the place.”
As Greater Chapel Hill’s musical epicenter, Cat’s Cradle’s reputation is such that it’s THE Triangle club for local and national club-level bands to play. It was ground zero in the early 1990s, when the national media was touting Chapel Hill as a potential “Next Seattle” in the wake of Nirvana’s commercial breakthrough.
The Cradle was home court for a 1990s wave of alternative-leaning bands like Superchunk and Polvo, and the scene was prominent enough for New York band Sonic Youth to pay tribute with the 1992 song “Chapel Hill” – which had lyrical references to “Jesse H” (that would be Helms) and hardcore kids getting “the Cradle rocking.” The club also hosted the leading national lights of the alternative-is-the-new-mainstream era. Nirvana played the Cradle several times on its way up, including on Oct. 4, 1991 – just 10 days after the band’s Nevermind album was released. Nirvana’s Seattle neighbors Pearl Jam also played the Cradle that year and drew about 100 people. The next time Pearl Jam played the Triangle was on the 1992 Lollapalooza Festival at Raleigh’s Walnut Creek Amphitheatre.
And yet the Cat’s Cradle’s earliest incarnation was more of a folksy spot. The very first Cradle opened in 1969 in a basement on West Rosemary Street, a half-mile east of the current Carrboro location. Future Red Clay Ramblers collaborator Jim Wann was one of the original owners, and the name came from Kurt Vonnegut’s 1963 doomsday science-fiction novel.
The first Cradle was tiny, with room for only about two-dozen people. One of the earliest attendees was Rebecca Newton, future ringleader of the swing band Rebecca & the Hi-Tones. Since no one was checking IDs at the door, Newton went to her first Cradle show in 1969 at age 13, tagging along with her older brother and his best friend Don Schlitz (a Durham native who later became a Hall of Fame songwriter, the pen behind Kenny Rogers’ signature 1978 hit “The Gambler”).
Newton was old enough to be a regular under her own auspices by the time the Cradle moved to 403 W. Rosemary St., a slightly bigger space that is now the club Nightlight. It was pretty much where Newton’s singing career began.
“I used to go see The Bluegrass Experience every Thursday night, which was a big community happening for years,” Newton said. “One night my big sister went up to Tommy Edwards and told him, ‘My sister can really sing.’ Next thing I knew I was onstage singing ‘Stand By Your Man’ – pretty bold for an 18-year-old, but people loved it. That’s what started me singing. I joined a bluegrass band, got some notoriety, kept sitting in with Bluegrass Experience, and then Rebecca & the Hi-Tones started playing there, too.”
In the mid-1980s, the Cradle moved to Franklin Street, where it occupied two locations. It changed ownership a couple of times and survived several potentially serious calamities, including a 1983 bankruptcy over unpaid taxes. Heath entered the picture in 1986 when David Robert sold it to him and Richard Fox, who bowed out a year later. That left Heath as sole owner, and he’s been at the helm ever since.
“I love Frank Heath,” said Newton. “He’s the king and it’s amazing he’s kept it going for so long. Lifetime kudos to Frank. Look at how long it’s been operational, with a great reputation. I feel lucky to have been around at the beginning, and that I got to watch it grow.”
In 1993, when the Cradle lost its last Franklin Street location to developers, the club went on hiatus for six months while Heath searched for a new spot. He wanted to keep it in Chapel Hill and described Carrboro as “a last resort.”
“Nothing against Carrboro,” he said at the time, “but the Cradle is a Chapel Hill thing.”
Nevertheless, Carrboro is where it wound up, in the former Nice Price Books space. For its first year in Carrboro, the Cradle shared space with Overdub Lane before the recording studio finally moved.
Cat’s Cradle’s configuration has shifted and evolved, with the entrance at different ends of the building at various times. It was among the first clubs in the Triangle to go smoke-free in 2003, at Powers’ behest (an outdoor smoking patio out back accommodates those who need a nicotine fix). And while various nooks and crannies have come and gone over the years, the current layout is a large open space with room for 750 people.
The Cradle also has an unusual number of long-term employees, including Powers, who describes himself as “Guy Who Does Stuff” rather than manager. “I sure don’t feel like the ‘manager’ when I’m on my back disconnecting a toilet,” Powers noted. “You can say that Frank’s the owner, and everyone else works for him.”
One Cradle employee predates Heath, former UNC football player Billy Johnson, who was manager at the time Heath bought it. You’ll find Johnson, whose Cradle tenure is at 38 years and counting, still checking IDs at the door most nights
“He’s a very reliable gentleman, a comfort to have around,” Heath said.
The Cradle is something of a repository of local history and art, too. One of its most recognizable visual features is a painting (by Zen Frisbee guitarist Laird Dixon) of the Piedmont blues legend Elizabeth “Freight Train” Cotten, who grew up right down the street. Another is an abstract painting of monsters and spaceships that hangs above the bar – the work of Will Taylor, now assistant dean and professor at UNC School of the Arts in Winston-Salem.
In recent years, the Cradle has expanded with Cat’s Cradle Back Room, a smaller satellite club next door. At least one of the clubs is open most nights, and the schedule includes everything from tribute bands to rising stars and the older heritage acts that are still active.
The Cradle has outlasted plenty of other storied Chapel Hill musical institutions, including the Lizard & Snake/Hardback Café (the demise of which was lamented in Ben Folds 5’s 1995 song “Where’s Summer B.”) and Pepper’s Pizza, where scores of local musicians worked over the years. As to the future, however, no one knows.
Chapel Hill is still a boomtown, and developers have been eyeing the Cradle’s block of Carrboro (which also includes Carrboro ArtsCenter) for years. There have been ominous periods when it seemed like the wrecking ball would soon be swinging, but none of those projects panned out. While nothing seems imminent, it’s hard to look at the large new buildings on either side of the Cradle without wondering how much longer it can withstand the prevailing tides.
"I would say all is quiet on the western front,” Heath said. “Developers have been talking about building a hotel behind us, on the empty junkyard lot, for a long time. The talk comes and goes. So – maybe, yes, no, perhaps. We’re still sitting where we are and maybe we’ll be here another five or 10 years. Who knows?”
Powers echoed that sentiment, with a tone of whistling past the graveyard.
“The day the wrecking ball hits the wall, I’ll probably be loading in cases of PBR,” said Powers. “’Oh. I guess we’re closing.’ Maybe I don’t WANT to know. I’ll just keep me head down, stay here and keep going.”
Though it’s unimaginable for the long-timers, there will come a day when the Cat’s Cradle will be no more – or at least, when Heath is no longer the owner. Running a nightclub is a grind, and there are times when the 57-year-old Heath longs for the simpler pre-internet old days of phone calls and fax machines.
“When I started, the show would get booked, I’d do some flyers and two months later the band would show up, do soundcheck and play the show,” Heath said. “Now there are dozens more interactions for every show on the marketing and technical side. There’s just more of everything now, and also a lot more bands and venues and shows – a 3D chess board where it used to be more like checkers. Not that it’s rocket science, but there’s just a lot more of everything to deal with now.
“So, I’ll do it until I don’t want to anymore,” he concluded. “Dean Smith would always say, ‘I’ll decide after the season whether or not I feel like doing it next year.’ Every year the answer was yes, until it wasn’t. It’s still something I enjoy doing. I just try to roll with everything. Nothing’s ever perfect, just make the best of what’s out there. That’s what we’re doing. Trying, anyway.”
About the Author
2019 Piedmont Laureate David Menconi covered music for the Raleigh News & Observer for 28 years. His book "Tobacco Rogue," a history of North Caroling music, will be published in the fall of 2020 by University of North Carolina Press.