Story by Sandra Davidson
David Joy’s had a big 2017: Putnam published The Weight of This World, his second novel which was described by the New York Times as “bleakly beautiful;” he wrote a much-acclaimed essay for The Bitter Southerner, and was published in the magazine Garden & Gun. This up-and-coming western North Carolina author opens up about his career, his relationship to North Carolina, and how receiving an artist fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council in 2016 helped his career in our 50 for 50 interview.
Your novels are set in Jackson County, and you’ve said you write about that place because it’s the only place you know. Will you describe your personal and creative relationship with that place?
I grew up in Charlotte. All my daddy’s family’s been there since the late 1600s. My momma’s family was in the mountains in Wilkesboro. I moved up here when I was 18. I’ve been here ever since. What I found here was an older set of values that reminded me very much of the people and place that I felt had vanished from where I grew up. I think that’s part of the tie here…finding people that reminded me of my grandmother or my grandmother’s people.
If I think about my work in the sense of a canvas, when I start to work the canvas isn’t blank in that there’s already place. Typically, when a story comes to me the place is already there, and the characters kind of crawl themselves out of that land. I think that’s indicative of Southerners in general, but especially in Appalachia. People and place here is kind of this inseparable thing.
When did you begin writing?
I grew up in a family of storytellers. They were oral storytellers which is an entirely different craft. I never could really tell a story orally, but I recognized early on that I was capable of doing so on the page. That was very, very early. There was an old typewriter in my house, and I can remember the way it smelled. It’s a very vivid memory. I wrote stories on that before I could spell. I would tell my mom what I wanted to say, and she’d dictate how to spell it. So, I was writing stories since I was tiny. When I went to college, I’d probably written a thousand pages. I probably wrote another thousand pages there. Looking back, I don’t think any of it was any good until maybe a year before I wrote that first novel, but I think I was always progressing towards what I’m doing now…it’s just I’m a pretty slow study I guess!
Did you have a moment where you thought to yourself I know I want to be a writer?
I’d say a couple of different things. I always took writing very seriously. I can remember writing something in high school [for an] assignment. We had to write a poem. Everybody had to get in front of the class and read this poem. I can remember nobody in the class cared; the teacher didn’t care – nobody cared! But I remember how much effort I put into those words and how much it meant to me. It meant something to me. And it didn’t mean anything to anybody else in the room. I think I was always different in that way.
I can remember to the first time I ever heard Silas House read, and he sounded like me. He had an accent that was incredibly thick, and hearing that and getting the chance to see him and witness him and hear his story that night really affected me. Hearing somebody like Silas House read a story that could have very easily been a story that someone like my grandmother would have come up with…I think that meant something to me.
Lastly, I’m not very good at anything else. I’ve forced myself to be able to make a living out of this because I can’t imagine spending my life doing anything else.
There’s a big step from deciding that and making that happen.
I was lucky to have some great teachers early on who pointed me in the right direction of people I needed to be reading [and] who helped me understand language. Looking back that was Diedre Elliot at Western Carolina University and Ron Rash. Ron is still a good friend of mind and a good mentor. More than anything else, I think with Ron it was watching him work and getting the chance to witness his craft. I was lucky to be there before he was a household name. I really got to see his rise and bear witness to that and bear witness to how hard he worked. I think that work ethic is one of the keys. Ron comes from cotton-farmer, tobacco-farmer people just like I do. That mentality carries on. He works harder than just about anybody I can imagine, and I try to do the same.
How did that first novel Where All Light Tends to Go come together?
I never was going to take no for an answer. I took a job as a receptionist, and I was working another job at night, and I was writing a novel. I’d be at my first job at 8 [and] stay there until 5. I’d get off and I’d go to my second job at 5:30. I’d get home at 10, I’d eat, then I’d start working about 10:30. I’d work until 4 in the morning. I did that until the book was done because I felt compelled to do so. I needed to tell a story, and that was the only time I had so that’s what I did. After that I sent a letter to an agent…the agent liked it. She asked to see the full manuscript, and I wound up signing with her. Later down the road she sold it.
I can remember one of the first times I was in New York City. I was in this big hotel overlooking the whole city, and I remember standing there in that window and being moved to tears thinking that what brought me there was a letter. I’d never been anywhere! I’d never left North Carolina. The only way I’d made it out of North Carolina was I put a letter in the mail. I think there’s been a lot of things that have fallen in place for me, and at the same time I’ve had to work incredibly hard to try and make it a reality.
You received an Artist Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council around that time. How did that help your career?
I’d signed a book deal for Where All Light Tends to Go, and that novel was coming out, but at the time they asked what I was working on, and I spitballed an idea. I hadn’t even written a word, and they said we want it, so I wound up signing a two-book deal. I didn’t even have a sentence. At that point, I had about a 7-month deadline. I knew I had to really focus on that, so I quit my job and started going at it full-time.
You probably would have had to on that deadline.
Yeah! It’s one thing to say I want to be a full-time writer. It’s another thing to try and keep yourself fed and keep the lights on while you’re pursuing that.
Looking back, I think that’s the major way that fellowship helped me. It helped me keep the lights on. The amount of time and dedication that it takes to put in the work to create a good book…[it] takes absolute focus. Fellowships allow an artist to put all that focus into the work. You look at the work that these fellowships are funding, and the reality is it wouldn’t happen without it because otherwise you’d have to do something else. At the end of the day, I’m not going to go homeless because I couldn’t make it work. If it hadn’t worked, I would have gone out and taken another job.
David Joy spoke on Weekend Edition about any essay he wrote for the Bitter Southerner:
Beyond your personal experience with it – why do you think public funding for the arts matters?
When I think about how my tax dollars are spent, I can’t imagine a single better way for my money to be spent than education and art. To think of how much of our tax dollars go to things like defense budgets is terrifying, and to think that people want to strip away what tiny bit goes to support art and culture is disturbing. George Saunders had this idea about fiction. He said fiction serves as empathy’s training wheels. When he said that, I thought that’s exactly right. Fiction allows you to walk in somebody else’s shoes, and that’s an incredibly powerful thing. Literature has the capacity and the power to open doors and open eyes. I think all art carries that power, and I don’t know that I’ve ever felt that the world needs empathy more than right this second.
We are in a very fragile and volatile time where everybody is angry and everybody is pointing the finger at someone who’s not like them. I can’t think of a cure for that besides art. I don’t think there’s anything that can heal that but art.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
If I think about some of the best literature coming out of the South in the past 30-40 years, it’s coming out of North Carolina. It’s writers like Jill McCorkle, Lee Smith, Tim McLaurin and Ron Rash. I think we’re lucky in the sense that we’ve had a very, very rich tradition, and we’re very, very grounded and rooted to this place.
In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.
Story by Sandra Davidson
There’s something special about Durham’s arts scene. If you’ve followed our 50 for 50 project, you know that by now. Sylvan Esso, the Durham-based electronic pop duo, knows that too.
Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, who make music as Sylvan Esso, moved to North Carolina five years ago. Back then, Sylvan Esso was just beginning. Today they are arguably the Bull City’s most widely known band. Their songs and music videos have been streamed millions of times online, and last November their sophomore album “What Now” received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album. Two days before they debuted a new single on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Amelia and Nick met me at their studio for a conversation about why they choose to make North Carolina their home.
Where did you each grow up?
Amelia Meath: I grew up in Cambridge, MA.
Nick Sanborn: I grew up in Madison, WI.
What brought you both down here?
Nick: I have been touring for most of my adult life, and this was the only place I’d ever been where I immediately felt like it was a place that I could live. I’ve never thought that about any other place I’ve been on tour. I immediately liked it. I think it’s because it’s so much like Wisconsin. The people are very similar.
I started playing with the band Megafaun because we knew each other from Wisconsin, so I started coming down here four or five times a year for work, and then eventually just decided I wanted to stop flying here all the time and moved.
Amelia: I had just gotten done playing backup for Feist and was living in Brooklyn. We had just started the band, and I came to visit and liked it and moved here for six months. That was five years ago.
Why is this a good place to do your work?
Nick: A lot of things make North Carolina a perfect place for a musician. The cost of living being low and service jobs being a-plenty is the crucial bedrock. I try to imagine if I had grown up somewhere else where it wasn’t possible to have a job that you left all the time and a place that you lived and a practice space. Being able to get a practice space is so crucial and so impossible in other places on a bartender’s or a delivery driver’s earnings. In that way this place is kind of perfect. That’s all really doable. But it’s more than that.
Amelia: The scene in the Triangle and in North Carolina is really, really supportive. I think everyone’s just deeply excited about what everyone else is doing and whenever anyone has a show usually at least half of us show up.
Nick: [All of] that has drawn this insane group of musicians here, all of whom are working together all of the time, so there’s this bed of inspiration that keeps bouncing back and forth and careening off the walls. Then the other part [is] the average person here goes to a lot of events a year and wants to! That’s super rare [and] I don’t think people who have grown up here get how rare [it] is, but that’s just a part of what everybody does. If something sounds like a good idea people will pay and go to it, which sounds like a low bar but—
Amelia: —It’s rare.
Nick: So rare and so wonderful and it means all of these things can happen that otherwise wouldn’t be able to happen. It means that the birth of a thing is so much easier, that it doesn’t have to go through these stages of pulling teeth…of dragging people out to things. There’s this great element to the culture here where everybody wants to help something good happen and does so non-competitively.
Amelia: And there’s a lot of other stuff going on as well as music. We’ve got ADF. We’ve got Full Frame. We’ve got a number of theatre companies. There’s a plethora of different artistic pursuits happening which is so refreshing, and I know all the people that do those things. It’s very different when the scene is so small that you can see everyone at the farmers market and say, “Hey! Hi!”
Amelia: Here’s the thing...if we’re home and someone asks us to do something, we’re going to do it. It’s so fun to be involved. I wrote a song on Phil [Cook]’s record with him that’s coming out soon. I got to sing with Hiss Golden Messenger a bunch. It’s just a different way of hanging out with friends.
Nick: I think there’s this magical thing where that stuff’s just all happening all the time, which is a thing people associate with much larger cities, but it’s constant here. We started this weird little studio house like a year ago, and it’s been full pretty much since we first set up a microphone in it.
Amelia: And people have started coming here to make records from out of town and working with musicians that are here, which is also really exciting.
Nick: It just feels like this constantly stirring thing. It’s always feeding us. Right when we moved here I put on this show at Duke Performances. It was a show [with] all my friends who tended to be musicians in other people’s bands. We did this entirely collaborative show where we each backed up each other [and] rotated the front man. I can’t imagine having done that in any other place that I’ve lived and having it be that easy. Aaron Greenwald from Duke Performances it the only reason that show happened!
Amelia: We love you Aaron Greenwald!
Nick: Yeah thanks Aaron! I wouldn’t have even thought to do that had he not sought me out and demanded that I put a show together. I think that set a tone for my relationship with the entire creative community here. It felt like I was stepping into a place where not only did everybody want cool things to happen, but they wanted to be a part of them, and if they weren’t happening they came and knocked on your door and made sure you came out and did something. That’s just not the case everywhere.
How can North Carolina better support artists?
Nick: I know this isn’t you guys but those film subsidies going away were a huge deal. Like most musicians, I’ve worked in a lot of film myself and have a ton of friends who work in film. It’s just one of those no-brainers. It pays for itself so many times over. I never understand why states take them away because they bring in so much business for a creative class and all that does is generate income for everybody. That would be a gigantic win for North Carolina’s creative force. Look at other states where that’s happening right now! New Mexico is having a film renaissance because their film subsidy [went] up. They gave film companies tax breaks and [had] the arrival of Meow Wolf. All it took was these two pieces to get in motion to enable an entire group of creative people to bring back entire sections of a town.
Amelia: And [it involved] people who wouldn’t have necessarily been creative in the first place, and I think that’s the thing that makes me really excited when I think of a utopian North Carolina.
Art is created by people who have time, and time is only available to those who can afford to have it. The more people we can give time to, the more art we’ll create.
Nick: Which trickles into everything. It’s all-intersectional. The affordability of real estate and the cost of living affects the creative class anywhere. [In] Durham right now the rents are going up like crazy. If I moved here now, it’s not a place that I would be able to do the thing that I’m talking about.
Why do you believe public funding for the arts is important?
Nick: Why do you think Google is here? I think a thriving arts scene makes a city a desirable place to go and live and start a business. Where do you want to live? What do you want to be happening in the place that you live? Do you want everybody just to wake up and go to work and go home? What would be the purpose of living in a city? Why do I want to tell people that this is a great place?
Amelia: It’s the food. It’s the music. It’s the people.
Nick: It’s the things that are happening. It’s the energy of the city.
Amelia: Art is enriching [and] Durham has always been full of amazing art makers.
In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.
Story by Sandra Davidson
2018 North Carolina Heritage Award recipients Glenn and Lula Bolick have carried many traditions of North Carolina's mountains and piedmont into the 21st century through the pottery and music they've made together for over 50 years. In this special podcast profile, Lula, a fifth-generation potter from Seagrove, NC, and Glenn, a fifth-generation sawmiller from Caldwell County, reflect on their lifetime commitment to preserving and sharing their family traditions.
This episode features music by Phil Cook and the Bolick Family.
If there were such a thing as North Carolina pottery royalty, then Lula Bolick comes from it. The rich piedmont clay that lies just beneath the topsoil drew her family to Seagrove over a hundred years before it was the pottery destination it is today, and Seagrove is North Carolina's most famous pottery community in part because of her family's work. Her great-grandfather founded Seagrove's Owen's Pottery in the late 1800s. But Lula didn't start throwing her own pots until after she married her husband Glenn Bolick. Glenn was born and raised in Bailey's Camp, a mountain community just outside of Blowing Rock.
Glenn grew up surrounded by music, storytelling, and sawmilling. He comes from a long line of craftsmen who've worked timber of the Appalachians as sawmillers since the 1880s.
Glenn and Lula met in the parking lot of a drive-thru grill in 1962. At the time, Lula was working third-shift at a local hosiery factory and Glenn was working at a nearby quarry as a rock crusher. They married several months later.
Glenn learned pottery under the tutelage of Lula's father, who had a booming pottery business in Seagrove. In 1973, Glenn and Lula bought back his family farm in Caldwell County where they moved to start their own pottery business.
"It wasn't easy when we moved here," says Lula. "He worked at a paper mill, sawmills, [and as a] rock crusher down at Lenoir before we actually made it with pottery. We didn't have an already established business. We had to do it ourselves."
Today Glenn and Lula's family farm includes an antique sawmill, a pottery studio and shop, and a stage where they hosted bluegrass jams for years. They have taken their pottery and music to folk festivals and fairs across the state, and today their daughter Janet Calhoun and her husband Michael continue the pottery tradition through their pottery business Traditions.
Glenn, Lula and Janet will perform in their family band at the North Carolina Heritage Awards Ceremony on May 23. Tickets to the North Carolina Heritage Awards are available at here.
In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council’s 50th anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots reflected on how our state shapes their work and why public funding for the arts matters. These interviews were conducted in 2017 and 2018.
Story by Sandra Davidson
Asha Bala is on a mission to make Bharata Natyam – an ancient South Indian classical dance – a celebrated American dance form. In this special 50 for 50 podcast, meet 2018 North Carolina Heritage Award recipient Asha Bala.
Asha teaches the history and technique of Bharata Natyam to girls and women of all ages at the Leela School of Dance in Cary, NC. The dance began in the temples of South India, and it communicates ancient Hindu spiritual fables and messages. Performers are trained to convey nine sentiments – love, laughter, sorrow, fear, heroism, disgust, anger, wonder and peace – through intricate hand gestures, facial expressions, and footwork. Bharata Natyam can be traced back thousands of years.
"This dance form is one of the oldest dance forms in the world," says Asha.
"It used to be done by a particular segment of society, a group of people called Devadasis. These were servants of God. These were temple dancers and dance was a part of temple worship. These Devadasis were highly talented and highly accomplished not only in the dance, but in all the related arts of music and history and philosophy. They had the responsibility of preserving this tradition."
The dance’s story is filled with drama around religion, culture, and politics. It was banned during British colonial rule and revitalized during the Indian independence movement, during which it was taken from temples into secular spaces. Asha, who was born in Mumbai in 1952, first encountered Bharata Natyam during an era of national cultural revitalization in a newly independent India.
"I started learning dance when I was very young. My mother and my grandmother tell me that my early classes they took me in the perambulator…so I was that young," says Asha. "Many people were doing it. We didn’t have television, we didn’t have computers, there was no digital media. So, you could just soak yourself into this dance form, and it was still a time when we had these masters…these teachers. They belonged to the traditional caste of gurus. They gave you a very strong foundation, but along with this art form we learned a whole way of life."
The dance's rich traditions and complicated techniques have enchanted Asha since she was a child. Her mastery of the form enabled her to travel and perform extensively across India as a professional dancer. Her desire to understand the dance's history and place within the broader dance community led her to pursue two graduate degrees in dance – one in India and one in the United States at American University in Washingto D.C.
"When I came to American University as part of our assignments we had to go to performances and write about them. I realized that as much as it was interesting and exhilarating, there was very little presence of our dance form in these colleges," says Asha.
"They were happy offering them for one semester, but not [as] a regular instituted program in dance, and that set me thinking. I did my master's thesis within the context of multicultural education [and] how do you make dance education more inclusive? The argument is that it is a multi-cultural society, but the education system is still Eurocentric.”
Asha moved to North Carolina after completing her degree at American University to teach modern dance in the Cumberland County School system. She taught students about many different types of dance including Bharata Natyam. From there, she went on to teach at Fayetteville State University, the India Foundation, and finally at Leela School of Dance in Cary. Many of her students are Leela are part of our state's Indian diaspora community.
"They are very much a part of American culture," says Asha, "But for the time they are with me…there is a switch, and they become connected to their roots in India.”
All told, Asha's educated over 500 North Carolinians about Bharata Natyam, and she wants the dance to reach new audiences beyond the diaspora community. Asha views winning the North Carolina Heritage Award as a victory for the dance itself.
"Growing up in India, being a dancer, you are a part of a cultural environment where this dance is so highly respected, and it has such a presence in the country, such a standing in the country. It is the cultural heritage. It is respected as one of the national treasures of the country," says Asha.
"When I came over here, I was surprised to see that there was very little presence of this dance in this national cultural stage of this country. A dance form of this complexity, of this richness, of this depth, needs to be front and center, and this is one step that gets it closer to the national cultural fabric of this country. It shouldn’t just be limited to diaspora. It should become part of a bigger conversation of this country, and that is what I want to be able to do, to advocate for this art form. If I’m able to do that, that will be great. I don’t know if I can, but I will try.”
Story by Sandra Davidson
Dick Knight says there's something about Kinston.
"It’s hard to leave Kinston. They say if you drink some of the Kinston water you won’t go nowhere," says Knight. "It seems like a quiet town but there’s so much happening. At one time Kinston was like a little New York. Five or six different bands on the weekend [that] you’d go out there to see and play. It was great."
Knight is a professional musician, retired school teacher, and 2018 North Carolina Heritage Award recipient. He's is one of several excellent soul, R&B and funk musicians with deep ties to eastern North Carolina, but his Kinston story is an unlikely one. In this episode of Arts Across NC, we get the scoop on how Kinston led this music-loving Georgia native to James Brown, and a fulfilling career as an arts educator.
The episode features original music from The Monitors and a clip from James Brown's Grits & Soul album.
Dick Knight was born and raised in Camilla, Georgia. Music was a part of his life from the very beginning. His mother played organ at church and his father played the blues. He was 6-years-old when he got his first trumpet and not too much older when a band teacher at school changed his life.
"He had gone to A&M and he was playing so well, and I said I just want to be like this man. I want to do this. I wanted to be like everybody that was good," says Knight, who saw Florida A&M's legendary marching band when he was in middle school. "When I saw that band I think I was in 8th grade at that time. I knew then that was it. I wanted to be a professional trumpet player and a band teacher. There wasn’t a question about it."
Florida A&M was home to the crown jewel of college marching bands, and Knight set his mind to being a part of it. He was only 16 when he graduated from high school and traveled to Tallahassee to audition for the legendary program.
"When I went there they had 30 members in the trumpet section. About 100 freshman trying to get into that school…about 100 trumpet players. We had to go two weeks before the school was open and they had 5 slots available. They selected five out of the 100. I was in the five," says Knight.
Knight sped through college and graduated in three years. His department’s job placement program identified two positions for new graduates in North Carolina: one in Kinston and one in Farmville. Knight and a friend flipped a coin to see where they each would go and as luck would have it he ended up in Kinston.
"Never in my life had I ever heard of it," says Knight. "Never head of Kinston."
He took a job as a band teacher at Savannah High School in Grifton. He was only 19-years-old when he showed up for work, and he had no idea what he was walking into.
"When I came to Kinston I wanted the band at Savannah where I taught to be just like Florida A&M. At the time I came up here the band room was upstairs in the gym in the shower room. My principal was a man by the name of Mr. Rufus Flanagan. He said: I’m going to send for the band members. The band members came over – there were about 17 or 18 - and they played for me. When I heard that sound I said, 'Oh is this really it? Do I have to live with this now?' I didn’t have a bicycle, a car, or nothing. If I had a car I think I would’ve gone back to Florida at that time," remembers Knight.
"But I sat down with him and explained and he said ‘You’re in the real world now. You wanted a job, you got it. And we expect you to build a band program.’ So that’s what I did."
As luck would have it, Knight quickly fell into a community of ambitious, active musicians like himself. He became friends with Melvin and Maceo Parker - the brothers who later became influential members of the James Brown band - and Nat Jones, a fellow band teacher at a neighboring school, who left Kinston a few months after Knight arrived.
"Next time I hear of Nat, he was in New York. He was the band leader for James Brown," says Knight.
"So he called me on a Wednesday. He said, 'Dick Knight, do you want to be the first trumpet player for James Brown?' I said, 'Yeah, but I don't have any money [and] I don't know if my principal and my superintendent will release me.' And he said, 'Well find out, and I'll call you back tomorrow. I want you to be at the Apollo Theater 4:00 on Friday evening. The job is yours if you want it.' So, I talked to the principal and I told him what I wanted to do and the next morning he carried me to the superintendent and they released me. That Friday evening I was knocking on the back door of the Apollo."
Knight joined the James Brown band and performed on several of his records. He even toured with Otis Redding. But life on the road wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and he never stopped dreaming of being a band teacher.
"You know you think it’s so great, but when those lights up there go out, that bus is outside getting ready to go. And you better be on it or you going to get left. All the admiration and all the stuff people thought was going on…the lights go out then you’re back to reality. It’s all dead," says Knight.
"It was a great experience to do that, but it means a lot to come home and get in your bed every night and work with children. My reward wasn’t money. It’s just like now – a lot of kids say, 'Oh that’s Mr. Knight! You taught me in high school. You did this you did that!' And I feel so good about it. That’s my reward."
Knight taught music for 47 years, many of them in Miami. He moved back to Kinston in 1998 and taught music in elementary and middle schools until 2007. Today he performers with The Monitors, and as a solo act called The Captain. He’s thrilled about winning the North Carolina Heritage Award.
"I made pretty good money out on the road, but this award means more to me than money," says Knight. "To win it…I almost fainted! I said what! Ain’t nowhere else left to go."
You can see Dick Knight performing at the 2018 NC Heritage Award Ceremony and Concert on May 23 in downtown Raleigh. You can get your tickets here.
Interview by Sandra Davidson | Video by N.C. Department of Natural and Cultural Resources | Editing Support by Scott Stegall
Earlier this summer Wilson, N.C. welcomed home a native son: legendary jazz drummer Billy Kaye. Born Willie King Seaberry in Wilson in 1932, Billy has performed with jazz titans like Billie Holiday, Thelonious Monk, Lou Donaldson, and George Benson. His performance career began in 1950 when he played with Percy Mayfield. A performer, composer, and educator, Kaye was the featured drummer for jazz workshops at the inaugural Newport Jazz Festival and is currently a music educator in the New York City public school systems through the Jazz Foundation of America’s Jazz in Schools program. Billy learned to play drums during his tenure in the U.S. Air Force, and has traveled the world as a musician. His concert on June 7th at the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park marked the first time he ever played in his hometown.
Tell me what you remember about growing up in Wilson.
I was born in ‘32 a couple blocks from the train station near the Cherry Hotel, one of the top hotels in Wilson. My grandparents’ home was 517 Church Street which was something like a two-block walk to the train station. It was a block off Nash Street. Most of the employment was done there. Nash Street had [a] drug store, dentist, doctor. There was a Ritz Theater on Nash Street. There were three churches in that area. That was basically it. I grew up running around the yard playing the Lone Ranger with a broomstick between my legs. I used to enjoy coming home in the summers when I was a youngster to play in the dirt, climb the trees, play under the house. That kind of stuff.
Tell me how you came to be a jazz drummer.
That’s a hard one. It wasn’t a thing that I decided as a boy. During World War II, my folks moved to Brooklyn. Back in the ‘30s and early ‘40s, many people bounced back and forth wherever the work was. The music started in grammar school in Brooklyn. We had a class called Music Appreciation. My teacher played music and we had to identify, “What do you think this person who wrote this music was thinking about? What do you hear in this music?” [Once] the teacher [played] the William Tell Overture. We didn’t know that. All we could think about was, “Oh, that’s the Lone Ranger.” No, that’s not the Lone Ranger. We learned that was the finale from William Tell by Rossini. So, we start to learn about these writers. That’s where the life came into the music. They were musically photographing, so to speak, their imagination or what they were thinking about.
Then I had to start taking piano lessons. I had this thing about “I think I want to play the drums,” [but] my father said, “You’ll learn how to play a piano so you’ll know what you’re beating on those things about.”
It didn’t make me want to be a drummer, but as things went on and I grew older, I started listening to jazz, and I started hearing different things. I started listening more closely and fooling around on my grandmother’s piano. That really started the music.
You’ve played with some amazing jazz musicians, and you’ve toured all over the world. Is there a recording you’ve done that stands out as your favorite?
That’s hard to say. Financially, [that’s] one thing, but spiritually speaking, is another thing. I think the greatest thing that really did something was the Sugaralbum with Stanley Turrentine because that was [a] pretty outstanding thing with Ron Carter and the group involved in that. Ron Carter had gotten a new electric bass, and he wanted to play his electric bass. He literally laid down and pouted because he couldn’t play his new electric bass on that particular recording. That particular recording is what really took off. Had it been electric, who knows?
I have to say this. There was never any music to read on these sessions. I [once] did a session where there was music, but it was not [with] any one of those guys. It was just a recording session, and I was trying to play and read at the same time. I was telling the producer, “Hey, what’s going on over there? I’m trying to check out what this music is about.” He says, “The melody tells you what it’s about. That’s just a reference. Just play the music.”
So, a lot of it’s about feeling the music?
What does it feel like to play?
Well, that’s what I learned from Papa Jo. He was the mentor of all of us—Art Blakey, Max Roach. Even though he was a drummer, he was always telling you that the melody tells you what’s supposed to happen…where you put your exclamation point, question mark, period, comma. The music tells you that. It don’t need to be on the paper. It’s in the melody, so just listen to the melody and you’ll get by. Alright. It worked.
Will you tell me about your relationship to the Jazz Foundation of America?
I was traveling with Leon Thomas, the scat singer, when I joined the foundation. I came off a road trip and somebody brought my attention to it, and I got interested in it. They were working on a program [to] get guys strung out on drugs out of their drug thing. It was just [a] small organization. What little money they could get—they got. So I got involved. I had a snakeskin jacket that Miles Davis gave me. I saw it in his closet when we were at his house. I liked it and [said,] “That’s a bad jacket, man.” He said, “Yeah, you can have it. I don’t bother with that.” So, he gave me that jacket. I wore it once and put it in the closet. [When] the foundation had a fundraiser, I gave them that jacket. Two people bid, and they were fighting together. They had a deal with each other, “I’ll keep it this time, and you keep it that time.” That was the first $25,000 that came in [to the foundation].
You did tour with one of North Carolina’s most famous jazz musicians—Thelonious Monk. Did you talk about how you were both from North Carolina?
No, we never even talked about it. We just knew. We were born 18 miles apart. We ended up playing together. I met him through The Baroness. I was crossing the street leaving my gig at Count Basie’s. She was a Rolls Royce fanatic. She drives up, and she stopped. With her accent, she leaned out and says, “Get in.” It’s like, “Alright!” She drove me downtown to meet Monk. That was my first meeting of The Baroness.
We only have time for one more question. What is it like for you to play your first hometown show?
It’s hard to explain. It’s the biggest thing that ever happened. Playing at home was something I wasn’t even about when I left here. I had no history. I was just a guy that moved up [North]. I played in Greensboro some years back. It was okay. It was North Carolina, but it wasn’t Wilson. Goldsboro—that was great, but it still wasn’t Wilson. Home is where I was born. So, this thing here, it’s hard to explain. I’m playing at home. I’m seeing things that I didn’t see and appreciating things. I see these trees, the most magnificent things. There’s nothing there but trees. Man, they are the greatest trees I’ve ever seen. It’s like home.
Interview and video by Sandra Davidson | Photos courtesy Thomas Sayre
Thomas Sayre came to North Carolina for college, but he stayed because of our state’s preternatural creative appeal. Part sculptor, part visual artist, part architect, Raleigh’s Thomas Sayre built his career from the ground up. From “Gyre,” the three large rings that adorn the North Carolina Museum of Art’s fantastic art park, to “Shimmer Wall,” a glittering homage to the City of Oaks mounted on the side of the Raleigh Convention Center, Sayre’s large-scale earth-castings and sculptures speckle landscapes across the state and the world. A long-time advocate for public funding for the arts, Sayre’s has served on the North Carolina Arts Council board for well over a decade and is a champion of thoughtful, place-driven public art projects.
What are your earliest memories of making things?
I grew up in the shadow of the Washington Cathedral. We lived on the grounds of the cathedral, and that was an amazing place to grow up. My father made cherry cabinets in the basement. That was his way of not being an Episcopal minister, and he was very skilled. So, I made stuff in his shop, but the earliest things that I [made that I] still have are little lead soldiers that I cast on the family stove. The lead came from the roof. I would climb 200 feet up the scaffolding and find little snippings of lead on the floor of the scaffolding. I would gather them in my backpack, scamper back down and cook them on the family stove to make lead soldiers. Can you imagine lead? All my siblings are okay. They’re not damaged (laughs).
Why were you drawn to working with your hands in that way?
Well, through the cathedral came a lot of personages. Some very famous people…presidential candidates, Martin Luther King, and famous artists. They were held in a certain reverence, but I noticed the workers, the laborers, the stone carvers, the masons, [and] the carpenters who were building the cathedral were held in this magical light by my parents and by everybody. I saw that this reverence had to do with [how] they were getting the spirit of the place there through their hands – not through fancy words or great elocution – but by every day sweating away working with their hands…with materials. I saw magic enter the cathedral from that. At an early age, I knew that space was capable of expressing deep human emotion and meaning, and I think that meaning got there through the many hands that made that place.
When did you decide you were going to pursue creating art for your career?
I very timidly stuck my toe in the art world so to speak at college [in] the Art Department at UNC. I didn’t regard myself as an artist at that point. I made things, and I loved making things, so I quietly took classes and majored in English. When I graduated from UNC in the Vietnam era, it wasn’t cool to get a job because that was working for “the man,” so I just proclaimed I was an artist and I worked for myself. I’ve never had a real job.
What did “I’m an artist” mean for you in terms of how you spent your time and what you did?
I didn’t want to teach. I wanted to make. The obvious place to do that would have been New York City, and that just seemed scary and daunting to me. I sensed that I needed to live life a bit, so I moved to Western North Carolina to the lawless northern part of Rutherford County and bought a farm which one could do for practically nothing, and I built a house from scratch with my own hands knowing nothing about that. It was the first time I put a shovel into our wonderful dirt here in North Carolina. That began my making in North Carolina. First a dwelling, then a studio, and it wasn’t too long after that I started making things out of concrete.
Concrete is a great material. You don’t buy it at the art store, but it’s everywhere, and it’s been around for thousands of years. We make sidewalks out of it and driveways and buildings. I like that kind of common man quality to that material. It’s pretty inexpensive and if you work it right it can be very, very strong, so I started using concrete to make outdoor things. I was interested in things that work in the landscape [but] don’t take over the landscape.
Eventually the molds got looser and looser and rougher and rougher, [and] the older I got, the more I could take imprecision. I started thinking, “Well what if I dug a hole in the ground and filled it up with concrete?” Which is an odd thing to do, but I now know why I thought about it…it’s because there’s an inherent interaction between the human hand and the hand of nature…or the hand of God depending upon how you want to look at. Nature pushes back and the exact contours and the exact color and the exact way the castings come out have everything to do with what lives in the earth. That interaction of control and not control is of great interest to me.
I’m attracted to art that asserts itself but listens to the world and actively collaborates with what’s in the world, rather than trying to control everything.
So, an underlying value and philosophy that drives that your work is a curiosity about and an investment in the notion of place. Why place? Many people are drawn to your work because you are drawing from the physical soil in which it is created. Why is that important to you?
Whether we like it or not, part of our role as humans on the planet is to make places. We need shelter. We need towns. Maybe we need cities…and we fashion our spaces accordingly. I think that we could do a better job of balancing what is already here on the planet with what our needs are, so the way I create place is to do that in concert with the physical place. I sometimes work in urban spaces, and there it’s a matter of injecting the human…the handmade…the quirkiness of who we are as people into those often-sterile cityscapes. When I work out in nature, it’s very different. There [I’m] trying to create place in a humble insertional way where there’s a little bit of humanness inserted into the landscape to help us understand that landscape…like the beauty mark was said to do on the face of a Victorian woman.
What has made this state a good place to do what you do?
Well, I didn’t set foot in North Carolina until I was 17 or 18. I show up in Chapel Hill and lived in the rural community right around Chapel Hill…and here I was in the agricultural south which I knew nothing about! I realized there was a richness here. It’s not surprising that richness has produced art here for 2500 years, starting with the Native Americans. [It’s] produced unbelievable music, pottery, [and] storytelling. It is a very rich place. I have learned that our Arts Council has done an amazing job in fostering and encouraging the art that comes from the richness that lives in the land of this state. It’s done a surprisingly good job in all 100 counties of saying, “This part of our state is important. Our culture of makers and players and singers is really important to the spirt of this state.” The arts council has said that through thick and thin and [they’ve] encouraged, in a way that a lot of other states have not, our own culture and held it up high.
Why do you believe in public funding for the arts?
The arts feed the soul of the public in so many different ways, so why shouldn’t the public pay for art? I mean it doesn’t pay for all of it! Art is going to happen no matter what. Artists will make art no matter what – funding or not. But with funding magical things will happen more often, more fully, for more people to consume and enjoy and be uplifted by.
How can the North Carolina Arts Council better support artists?
I think the North Carolina Arts Council does an amazing job connecting to the whole state. It’s in all 100 counties, and it’s very aware of the differences across our state of what arts groups need what kind of support. I think younger artists are under-supported because they’re riskier. Supporting the arts is risky business in general, but I think we all need to get more conversant with how technology is intersecting with the arts. I think we need to take more risks in how we support these younger artists and enterprises that are not just individuals. Not all of them succeed! That’s the risk part, but that’s okay. Real art is inherently risky, and we all need to understand that. Great things come from that, but so do nonstarters and so do things that don’t blossom. One has to go through times of failures to reach success.
Interview* by Sandra Davidson | Photos Courtesy Cynthia Hill
I first heard of Cynthia Hill in an undergraduate folklore class at UNC-Chapel Hill. One morning my teacher, folklorist and rock-and-roller MC Taylor, screened “Tobacco Money Feeds My Family,” Cynthia’s first feature film, as an example of a folklorist’s approach to documenting something controversial — and cultural — like tobacco. In the film, Cynthia chronicles the lives of tobacco farmers from her hometown while reckoning with the deathly implications of the crop. It was the first time I’d seen a documentary about a North Carolina community like the one I am from, and the first time I’d heard of a woman from our state doing that kind of work. It was life changing, and it greatly influenced my own choice to pursue documentary work.
It’s been over a decade since Cynthia scrapped together the resources to make that film, and things have changed dramatically for her. She’s produced two feature films: “The Guestworker: Bienvenidos a Carolina del Norte” (2006), a film about Hispanic farmworkers in rural North Carolina, and “Private Violence” (2014), a documentary about women who are survivors of domestic violence which was screened on HBO. She’s won two Emmys and a Peabody Award for her hit television show “A Chef’s Life,” and moved Markay Media, her production company, from her house into an office-space in Durham, where she now employees around 10 people full-time. In our interview, she reflects on her unlikely journey to filmmaking, her dream of making North Carolina a celebrated documentary hub, and how she managed to get unprecedented access to film one of the best NASCAR teams in the country.
What got you interested in making films?
It’s not a natural path for me to get to being a filmmaker. I grew up in eastern North Carolina in a very rural community. Professions for women were pretty much schoolteacher, nurse, and then pharmacist, [which] was an outlier but I had a direct connection with the pharmacist in town because my mom worked for him. I thought, “That sounds like a pretty good profession.” I was always really good at science and math, so it seemed fairly logical and I went to pharmacy school. When I was in college, I wasn’t necessarily enthralled with pharmacy, and you had to have a huge chunk of hours in a pharmacy, and I just kept putting it off because I didn’t really like it.
At the time I was bartending [at a place] called the Omni Europa. I met this crew [there] from Los Angeles, and they were there doing one of these accident reconstruction shows that was really popular in the early 90s. I started hanging out with them and going on set and I thought, “This is kind of fun.” So, I went to LA. that next summer and worked in a pharmacy, but [I] got to hang out with people who were doing more creative things. [I] realized there were other things out there you could do besides science and math. It was just a whole new world, and I didn’t even know it existed.
So when I came back to school, everything I started doing had a video component to it. If you were supposed to write a paper, I would make a video instead. I [had] this weird roundabout way of getting into it. I just was good at it, and I don’t know why.
I was just good at storytelling. I think that’s probably something about being Southern and hearing your grandma and your granddaddy tell stories all your life. You just sort of pick it up, and you don’t even know you’ve picked it up.
I was going to ask you about that. I notice narrative similarities in how approach documentary work and the way my family has always shared stories. I’ve wondered if you felt that when you’re putting together a story or a film.
I think so. It’s also [about] trying to make connections. All my life I’ve been really shy. I’d stand back. I don’t usually engage. That’s how I developed as a filmmaker. I’ll go into a scene, and I won’t say anything. It makes me a really good observational filmmaker. These things felt like deficits when I was growing up. I wasn’t really comfortable engaging with people, or having conversations. But what it’s allowed me to do is just be really curious about other people. I’m a really good listener. I pay attention. That is something I’ve carried over to the filmmaking process.
How did we get from you making films associated with coursework to you making your first independent project?
I started really brewing on this idea of wanting to tell the story of tobacco because through pharmacy school and graduate school, tobacco was really vilified. I grew up working in tobacco, and my family did that kind of work. That’s what I did every single summer. I was struggling with how to compartmentalize my affinity for the crop. I didn’t know what to do with knowing it was so harmful. I also could see tobacco farmers struggling, and I could see on the horizon that things were really going to change for our community and the regions that depended on tobacco. So I had this notion that I was going to make a film about tobacco farming. I set out to try to raise $10,000, and I was going to spend a season filming tobacco farmers. I was going to have a film by the end of that. Five years and about $100,000 later, I had my first film.
It just was an organic process of having a story inside of me that I needed to tell. I’ve tried to continue on that path of telling stories that are important to me. [I’m] not just doing this to be a media maker. The drive for me is the story. If I don’t have that, it’s hard for me to do anything. It’s hard for me to work if I’m not really passionate about the story itself.
When did you first identify as a documentarian?
After my second film. Or maybe it was my third film. It took me even longer to call myself an artist because I didn’t feel like I really was.
And why was that?
I don’t know. I just didn’t feel like I was legitimate. Until this past summer, I was still on the roster of Walmart and working periodically as a relief pharmacist. It took me that long to feel, one, financially comfortable with letting go of that security blanket of being a pharmacist, and two, to say, “I really am a filmmaker, and that’s what I do.”
How has that changed the way that you carry yourself as a working artist?
Now when I fill out forms, filmmaker is the first thing I put instead of pharmacist. When they say occupation, filmmaker is the first thing because before I would put pharmacist/filmmaker.
I think that would surprise people.
I struggled with it. I think it’s because I didn’t have any training for it. I didn’t go to film school. I didn’t do any of the coursework. I didn’t know the history of the format. When I think about what is my training as a storyteller, I watched a ton of T.V. growing up. That’s what I did. That’s it, and listening to the folks around me tell stories, and just being observant. That’s really my training. For a long time it felt like I’m just sort of dabbling in filmmaking. I realize I’m no longer dabbling. I’m really making films.
When did “A Chef’s Life’ become a concept that you wanted to pursue?
Vivian reached out to me because she was really interested in telling these stories about the dying foodways of our region. We met a couple times and talked about it. I got to know her and realized that she could be a good conduit for that story. Her story in [and] of itself was really compelling. She was impressive, and I really didn’t know that. We grew up together, [but] she was much younger than me. I knew she had come back to Kinston and opened a restaurant, but I honestly didn’t think it would succeed because that town was dying, but she was doing it anyway. I admired her drive, her tenacity, and her bravery. Then I realized she really knew what she was talking about, so it made sense to try to use her as a conduit.
At the time, I had this loose connection to somebody in New York who was like, “Yeah, I can get something on the Food Network.” So I talked to Vivian and was like, “Let’s just shoot the pilot and just see if we can get it on the Food Network. The Food Network said no. Vivian was an unknown in the South. I was an unknown in the TV world. They didn’t pay us any attention whatsoever.
I knew we had something special, but I needed somebody else to realize that we had something special. I sent my friend from the PBS station in South Carolina [an] 11-minute clip and she called me back in 12 minutes. She was like, “Oh my God. This is so good.” It took off from there. I think both Vivian and I were naïve enough and passionate enough just to jump [in] headfirst. We didn’t care if it was going to be successful. We just wanted to do it because we felt like it was important. That’s the reason it is successful, because our motives were pure. We wanted to tell a story about our region and the people we love. We felt like the South had been maligned for a very long time, and we felt like we needed to tell a different story about the South.
To see what has happened in Kinston as a result of what y’all have made together definitely shows the power of the arts. How has the success of that show changed or challenged the way you think about impact?
It’s like how do you repeat that? That’s really the scary thing, and also it’s sort of scary thinking that we can’t stop. It seems like there’s a lot that relies on us telling these stories and having that presence on national T.V. We do recognize the power of that. We recognize that it’s much larger than either one of us. That’s a lot of pressure.
Well tell me about your new NASCAR series which seems like quite a lane shift.
Yes and no. It might look like it from the outside, but for me it’s one of those iconic, Southern topics that people think they know. I’ve had this list of things I would love to do, and it’s always been in the top five. I grew up watching it on Sundays because my granddaddy was a huge Richard Petty fan. You had to watch it. There was no choice. It was on.
I think that you have to be really passionate about what it is that you want to do in this world because, if not, you lose your way. You really do. You get so many roadblocks in the process. You have to be driven.
Sometimes things work out for you, and that was the NASCAR thing. We had a connection via another connection who sent notes to Hendrick for us, and then we got a reply back. Within six months of us proposing it, we were filming with Hendrick Motor Sports, which, I would say, is the most successful NASCAR team/company out there. We were getting access like no one else was getting access, especially to their teams because they were so private, but they really liked the work me and the team had done, and they understood what we were trying to do. It was really challenging for us, but I’m really proud of what we were able to accomplish.
What’s in the hopper now?
We are working on a new concept with Vivian that’s going to be an hour-long and on primetime. It’s still rooted in the South, but it’s about looking at other communities in the South — immigrant communities and native communities — and their foodways and how our food overlaps. The first season is going to be six episodes. It’s different. It’s a new challenge for both me and Vivian and the team. We’ll see, but just because you’re successful with one thing doesn’t mean that it’s going to translate for the next thing. It makes me nervous. The other thing we’re working on is a future doc with HBO. We’ve been working on it for about two years, and I really can’t talk about that too much because it’s kind of secret. It’s exciting.
Tell me about your role in establishing the Southern Documentary Fund (SDF).
I founded that with a group of people. I don’t think that when we started the organization that I knew how important it was going to be. I was struggling, personally, and the filmmakers and the artists in this community were also struggling because we didn’t have a support system. We were operating in our silos. We needed to have some connections, some connective tissue. We also just needed basic functions of being able to raise money, and we didn’t have anything set up here in this state or even in the region that served that purpose. It was so hard. We weren’t respected outside of the region, and we weren’t respected in the region either because there was this thought that if you were talented you wouldn’t be here. You would be in New York or LA. Because we stayed here, because we wanted to stay here, because the stories we wanted to tell were here, we were looked down upon. We were making — and I was told this on many occasions — local stories with a little “l.” I started saying, “We’re making local stories with a big L.”
Every film is local. Every story is local. It just depends on what your local is. If you’re making a story about Brooklyn, that’s local. But for some reason that has more of an appeal than making something about Pink Hill, NC. Why? If it’s a good story, it’s a good story no matter where it is.
I agree. Amen. So, when was Southern Documentary Fund established?
2002. I think there’s maybe 60 projects that SDF is sponsoring. I’m very proud of that legacy. I’ve stepped back, and I’m an informal advisor. It’s way bigger than I ever thought it could be.
The Southern Documentary Fund has received fiscal and leadership support from the North Carolina Arts Council and I believe you received a program grant for your film "Tobacco Money Feeds My Family." What that mean to you?
It validated the work for me. It showed that other people thought it was also important, not just me. Knowing that other people saw the value in what I was trying to do and the stories I was trying to tell was important to me, especially early on. That’s why these grants that we’re trying to give out with SDF are so important for people who are getting started on projects. It’s showing that other people see value in what you’re doing.
What are the biggest strengths of the arts community that you are a part of in North Carolina?
I would say that we’re all really supportive of one another. It doesn’t feel competitive, which I think is really unique in this community. I hope that this area becomes an area for makers. It’s not just an area for education. I think we are getting to a place now where other filmmakers think, “You know, I could end up in Durham, North Carolina, and there are folks like me there.” People who graduate from schools here and want to be a filmmaker—they don’t automatically just leave. That wouldn’t have been a reality for folks ten years ago.
How can North Carolina better support artists?
Valuing it more. The resources are limited, and that’s always been [a] big frustration for me. Understanding how intricate art and artists are to the success of a community and a state is really important. You are out there talking about economic development and trying to woo companies to come and be a part of North Carolina. Having that art community is a big draw, and artists need support so that we do have assets to offer to our own communities.
*This interview was edited and condensed.
Interview by Sandra Davidson | Editing support by Scott Stegall | Archival images courtesy Ira David Wood III
A native North Carolinian, Ira David Wood III was raised rural in Halifax County. Realizing his passion for theater in high school, Wood was invited to join the inaugural class of the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1965. After graduating, Wood deliberately chose to stay in North Carolina to build a career in theater.
As an arts advocate and founder and Executive Director of Raleigh’s Theatre in the Park, he’s inspired countless North Carolinians, including author David Sedaris and his Golden Globe nominated daughter actress Evan Rachel Wood, to pursue careers in the arts. He’s currently the Director of The Lost Colony, the longest-running outdoor drama in America, and his comedic adaptation of Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol – performed annually since 1974 - is a Raleigh institution. Wood is a recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine, North Carolina’s highest civilian honor.
Tell me where you’re from and describe what role the arts played in your childhood.
I was born and bred in the briar patch in Halifax County, North Carolina, in a small southern town called Enfield. I was a Future Farmer of America in high school, not by choice. That was just what you did with your life, and that was what you were raised to expect your life was going to be. You were going to spend it on a farm in this community. There was no drama department in our school. I started writing my own plays and putting them on for high school assemblies. One day, the guidance counselor walked up to me, and he said, “You belong with a bunch of other crazy people like yourself.” And I said, “Well, where would that be?” and he said, “You know, there’s a place called the Governor’s School of North Carolina. You have to audition to get in.” My guidance counselor drove me to Greenville where I auditioned for the Governor’s School. To my absolute shock and amazement, I was accepted, and I spent my summer on the campus of Salem College in Winston-Salem in Governor’s School.
While I was there, this wonderful Italian man came and spoke to us. His name was Vittorio Giannini. He was the first Chancellor of the School of the Arts which was set to open the next year, 1965. The School of the Arts was, at the time, the only school in the Western hemisphere that taught dance, drama, music, and academics under the same roof. I auditioned and went back home to Enfield. I was sitting in vocational agriculture class one day. We were learning about how much liquid drains off of a manure pile over a period of time. I kid you not. The principal’s voice came on the speaker: “David Wood. Come to the office.” I was very nervous, and I started walking down the long hallway in our school towards the principal’s office, and I look way down at the end of hall, and my mother was standing there. So, I was ready for the last cigarette and a blindfold. When I got to mom I looked up, and I said, “What is it? What’s wrong?” She said, “Nothing. You’ve been accepted at the North Carolina School of the Arts. This is the last time I will see you walk down this hallway.” That was pretty powerful and changed my life.
I say that, but I add this to that statement: I have quoted my vocational agriculture teacher more than I’ve quoted Shakespeare because my vocational agriculture teacher taught us that you can take so much out of the soil, but if you keep taking and taking from the soil without putting something back, the soil becomes depleted, and it won’t grow new life. That has been my life’s quest—to put something back. That’s why rather than going to New York or to California, I’ve remained in North Carolina because it’s my home.
I know there are still young people who are like me out there somewhere, who think that they are odd and strange and different in a negative sort of way because they had rather practice the piano than football. They are put through hell, often. As Helen Hayes said, “We lose some of our greatest talent early on because they can’t survive that.” That’s why I think it’s so important to locate, as I have, in Raleigh where I hope to make a difference culturally.
What drew you to theater specifically?
My father died when I was 12 years old. When death passes across your life like that, you lose your childhood. And mine was taken away from me when I was 12. So I retreated into a world of make believe. It was a world I could control. It was a world that death had no place in. I think that was initially drew me into theater. It was a safety net.
When I finally was accepted at the North Carolina School of the Arts in 1965, I walked onto a square foot of the universe that I knew belonged to me. I was around other young people who shared my love and my passion for theater, for the arts. I couldn’t get enough of it. I was like a sponge. I got the lead in the first play put on at School of the Arts which was a great honor for me. I met incredible people—Agnes De Mille, José Ferrer, Helen Hayes, and Paul Green. While I was at the school, I was invited to spend my summers as a leading actor in Paul Green’s The Lost Colony, and that too changed my life. Skip forward years after that, I was asked to go back as director of The Lost Colony, and that was a great honor. This will be my sixth year as director of the oldest and, we think, the best outdoor drama in America.
I’ve been able to stay in North Carolina and have an incredible career. I have done movies without leaving the state. I’ve had three books published. I write plays. I have my own theater. We’ve made a difference. We’ve changed lives, and we’ve touched hearts. I’ve seen young people come in who have gone on now to greater things in bigger arenas. That warms my heart. I turn 70 this year. I can’t believe that, and I know I’m closer to the end than the beginning. But someone asked me once, “What is the greatest line you ever got to say on the stage?” And for me it was playing Don Quixote in Man of La Mancha. It was one line when Aldonza turns to him and says, “Why do you do the things you do?” And he looks at her, and he says, “I hope to add a measure of grace to this world.” That’s been my quest. There’s a theater in Raleigh that wasn’t there before. There are young people who are out pursuing wonderful careers who, maybe, wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for some Future Farmer of America who decided to put something back into the soil and to stay in his home state and to make a career. I’ve raised a family here, and I love it. It’s home for me and always will be.
Will you talk about when your path intersected with the North Carolina Arts Council?
Well, years ago I met the North Carolina Arts Council, and we became good friends. I did a lot of television commercials for the Arts Council. It was a wonderful learning experience for me telling the world about this incredible state. We’re the first arts council, the symphony, the School of the Arts, the oldest outdoor drama. We are a state of so many firsts. The list is unbelievable when you really sit down and get to know it. Through grants from the Arts Council, I was able to go into schools and, again, to talk to young people, and to tell them, “Yes, you are different. But you’re different in a positive way, not a negative way, and you need to be around other people who share your same passion and joy.”
Young people are the future. The arts should be a part of their lives, and the Arts Council, and the state of North Carolina has helped to make that a reality.
What would you say to someone about the value of public dollars to fund the arts?
Why should people invest in the arts? Investing in the arts is investing in the heart and soul of our nation, and particularly the young people who will be the future of our nation. The arts are all about communication, and if we need to learn anything in this day and age it is how to communicate better with each other. It’s to forget our differences to overcome them, to have civil discourse, and the arts enable us to do that. Theater, for instance, is a wonderful pulpit where the medicine doesn’t have to taste bad to do good.
Good theater, good art transcends all the barriers—race, color, creed, politics, religion, nationality. Once we’re able to do that, transcend the barriers, and sit down with each other, country to country, person to person, political party to political party, we change the universe. We create a light that goes forever. I believe it is that powerful.
So, how do you measure that? How do you say, “My dollar makes a difference?” That’s up to you to look and to measure because you have to find what matters to you: if it is a concert, if it is a ballet performance, if it is a theater performance, if it’s a work of art hanging on the wall. I know a person who wanted to commit suicide and walked into an art museum, saw a painting on the wall, and it changed his life. What is that worth? That painting has a value, but it also has a worth, and we have to get clear on that. There’s a dollar value to everything around us, but there’s also a worth. What theater, what the arts are worth is incalculable.
Going off of that, I think about your daughter testifying in Congress. She’s using her platform as an artist to raise awareness. Your son is also in the arts. Do you think them growing up in this community theater context has a particular kind of effect on how they see the power of the arts?
Oh, yes. When my children were young, we used to bring them to the theater when we would perform. I remember one night we were doing Othello. I was doing Iago, and my wife had to die onstage every night. Othello choked her to death—strangled her. My kids were sleeping in sleeping bags right offstage in the prop room, and the door was open. Every night, when Othello finally strangled Desdemona, they’d wake up, they’d look out, and they’d look to each other and go, “Mom died really well tonight,” and they would go back to sleep. So, this theater was their playhouse. I would pass by some days and look in, and my daughter would be sitting alone on the stage doing a monologue that she was making up. I just quietly watched. I’ve heard her speak now, so eloquently and beautifully, not long ago, to a Congressional committee. I sit back, and I marvel. Kahlil Gibran said, “Our children are arrows that we shoot.” We don’t know where they’re going to land, but we’re the bow that sends them forward, and we hope we’re aiming it in the right direction. I look at my grown children now, and I’m so proud of them. I’m so humbled by who and what they have become.
How has the theater community in North Carolina evolved?
When I first came to Raleigh [many] years ago, there were six to eight theaters in this town. Most of them were university theaters. Now there are over seventy companies. Seventy. So, in a way, we’re going through something of a renaissance. When, for instance, the politicians took away the incentive for major motion pictures to come to North Carolina, independent movies began to flourish. I did three independent movies this year. So, it’s like that line in Jurassic Park, “Life will find a way.” The other thing that’s been incredible has been the Research Triangle Park because it has brought people in from all over the world. Those people, in some cases, have come from larger metropolitan areas who have incredible arts programs, incredible theater, symphony orchestras, dance companies, and they have demanded better quality from us as performers. It’s been a wonderful, reciprocal thing where the audience has come up in what they expect and demand, and we’ve come up to meet that demand.
I think if we’ve done anything, perhaps we’ve taught a few people that the arts can be a main course in your life, not just a dessert. It can be a wonderful main course. You come into a place like this. You sit in the dark with strangers, and you go through incredible emotions. You’re moved to laughter and tears. If you’re lucky, the process of communication, which is what all art really is, goes a dimension deeper and becomes what I call communion. That’s when souls meet on one wavelength. It changes your life as good art should always do. And once you’ve been there and had that moment, you want it again and again and again.
Interview* by Sandra Davidson
Lately, Rhiannon Giddens has been telling her kids to enjoy being bored. The quiet, idle moments of her own childhood on Grand Oaks Drive in McLeansville, N.C. sharpened the very imagination and creativity so many have come to know her for. “We were really bored, and we spent a lot of time outside just trying to make something out of nothing,” says Rhiannon of she and her sister’s upbringing in the small community outside of Greensboro. “That’s usually where good stuff comes.”
These days moments of stillness aren’t easy to come by for the award-winning musician. Classically trained in opera at the renowned Oberlin Conservatory, Rhiannon’s career took off in 2010 when she, Dom Flemmons, and Justin Robinson’s Carolina Chocolate Drops won a Grammy for their album Genuine Negro Jig. In years since, Rhiannon’s released two solo albums, landed a recurring role on the hit television show Nashville, and, most recently, received a MacArthur Foundation Fellowship, which recognizes her work “reclaiming African American contributions to folk and country music and bringing to light new connections between music from the past and the present.”
Rhiannon will manifest that mission at the upcoming North Carolina Folk Festival, which features programming she developed as a guest curator. Several months before the festival, we met at the Greensboro Cultural Center to discuss her career, the influence of North Carolina Heritage Award recipient Joe Thompson on her work, and the importance of public funding for the arts.
We are here in the Greensboro Cultural Center. Tell me why you chose this location for our interview.
My dad used to work for the Opus Series, and his office was here. I would come here for Greensboro Youth Chorus rehearsal, for auditions for Livestock, and to see the art galleries. I also brought my kids here to do art programs, so I have a lot of good memories of this place and the place that it holds in the arts community here in Greensboro.
Will you describe the music environment of your childhood?
What I remember out [at] my grandparents was listening to the radio—usually R&B. They had a lot of blues and jazz records, and I’ve said this before, but we used to watch Hee Haw on Saturday night, so that kind of bluegrass also had a place in my mom’s parents’ side [of the family]. The other side was old, old country on the radio. My uncle was in a bluegrass band, and I was of course exposed to bluegrass through my uncle’s band and just being around this area. And then, of course, my sister and I were exposed to the modern music of the day. When MTV came on, we watched MTV. It was a real half-rural, half-urban southern upbringing.
And when did you first start creating and making music?
They tell me I started writing songs when I was itty bitty—that I was singing in the crib and that I would sit in the rocking chair and make up songs. I sang with my dad a lot. He’s a great singer, and I think my pitch is so good because we used to sing all the time. I sang with my sister. My mom was always playing great music, and we’d sing folk revival stuff [like] Peter, Paul, and Mary, but I didn’t really start creating music until I was an adult. For the most part, I was into visual arts when I was a kid, so music was just a part of the fabric of my life. It wasn’t what I was going to do until I was a teenager.
Tell me about how you arrived at that—pursuing music.
Three really important North Carolina institutions had to do with why I’m in music now.
The first is the Greensboro Youth Chorus which set the foundation for singing. I did that for quite a few years, and I learned a lot of really great things about singing and making music in a community. It was run by Ann Doyle, who just retired. She was a huge figure in my early years.
Then I went to Governor's School for choir as a rising senior in high school, and that’s when the bug sort of bit me. I had entered some competitions in singing, but ironically never really got anywhere. I didn’t get into honors choir. When I did a competition in Greensboro, I got to the finals with my poem, but not with my singing because I had a natural voice. I wasn’t a kid trying to sound like an adult. When I went to Governor’s School, I found my tribe. I was surrounded by music people.
The third institution was the North Carolina School of Science and Mathematics. I was there when I discovered that I wanted to do music. I started an acapella group there, and for a math and science high school—it’s so embracing of the arts.
Without those three things, it’s hard to know where I would be music-wise, to be honest. North Carolina is just kind of inextricable from my music journey, even in the latter years where I found my calling.
In your Fresh Air interview, you mentioned you were first drawn to classical music because you didn’t have to speak on stage. You really done a one-eighty in that regard.
I know. That is absolutely true. When I was looking for schools, I didn’t know anything about musical theater or opera. I just knew they talked in musical theater, and I hated talking in public, and I hated talking on stage, so I went into opera which was great because I learned a lot technically through Oberlin Conservatory, and I’m grateful for that.
But as I got into folk music – being a black woman playing a banjo and advocating for this not well known but immensely important music with my fellow Chocolate Drops Dom Flemmons and Justin Robinson—we discovered that it was actually easier to preface [the songs] rather than to answer at the end. We would just get people going, “Well why are y’all playing this kind of music?” As if we have to explain ourselves. That got annoying, so we just started jumping in front of that and going, “Let us tell you about this music, so you don’t wonder why we are playing it.”
When you’re talking about difficult things like race and music, you have to be really specific with your terminology because otherwise you’ll get misquoted, and then it’s a mess. We got really good over the years at condensing and making things immediately make sense so that people without much background could understand what we were saying; I find that it’s just kind of second nature now. So, when I got asked to make a speech I was kind of like this is the natural next step, even though ten years ago I would have totally jumped off a cliff at the thought of it.
Are you referencing the IBMA speech?
Such a powerful speech.
Was there an “a-ha moment” where you realized you were done with opera?
While I was at UNC-G, I attended this professional music seminar. They brought in Marc Janicello who was a graduate of UNC-G and from North Carolina. He sang in the subway and got discovered and made his own career being a classical singer. They brought him back to talk about being a professional musician, and he gave a really informative seminar. If I had an “a-ha moment: it was when he said, “Nobody’s going to make your career for you. You have to do it. YOU have to make it happen. People will help you, but you create the group of people who are going to support you while you do it. You have to generate the energy.”
I remember at that point I was doing graphic design for this executive benefits company [and] had a 401K. [I was] kind of dying inside a little bit going, “I want to do my music. When is someone going to discover me? Everybody tells me I’m a good singer. Why am I not doing this full time?” That was the moment where I was like, “OH! Okay, let me get off my butt and stop complaining and actually do something.” I do credit that moment to really lighting the fire. I went halftime on my job, and then I went full time not having a job and just started making it happen.
Well, tell me about how you met Joe Thompson.
Meeting Joe Thompson was probably one of the most important moments of my life. I had already come to folk music from opera, and I started discovering these old recordings. I discovered Marshall Wyatt’s Old Hat Records label, and he’s got a lot of great compilations of black string band music. I found images of blacks playing fiddle and banjo and [I remember] going “What it is this?” That led to me discovering the black banjo group and helping to organize the Black Banjo Gathering [and to] meeting the other Chocolate Drops, Sue Wilson, and all these people that went into that first iteration of the mission.
One of the people I met was Cece Conway because she wrote African Banjo Echoes in Appalachia which was the first book I discovered dealing with this topic of black banjo songsters. She told me about Joe Thompson. I couldn’t believe that he was from Mebane, which I had been going to for family reunions every year for decades. So, I met some of the people who played with him, and they set up a meeting and were very supportive of me playing with him. That was this great moment, and then he had a stroke. I kind of gave it up, but then he came back from the stroke with the help of his community in Mebane—the white musical community that had been playing with him ever since Odell died. Then I got to start going down with Justin and Dom, and that was the special key. It was that we all went together—the original Chocolate Drops went down to Joe’s together. That’s what formed a unique bond and the unique musical language that nobody else really speaks like we do. I think that’s one of the reasons why the original Chocolate Drops was such a thing. It comes from playing with Joe for hours and hours and hours.
As a student of history in many ways, I wonder what stands out to you as unique about North Carolina’s music community?
When you look into the history of where we are in the South, there are a lot of interesting cultural things that I think lead to interesting musical things. Virginia and South Carolina were the rich states and North Carolina was sort of the “country cousin.” We obviously had some plantations in the east, but nothing like Virginia, nothing like South Carolina. They had all the money. It was one of the last states to secede. There’s always been an interesting push-pull in this state. A lot of working-class people [were] living together, even if the races were segregated. So, I feel like a lot of the music in North Carolina is kind of a mix. You don’t have so much isolation like the deep South, like the Mississippi Delta. There were more opportunities where normal, ordinary people could influence each other musically and culturally—which is not to say there was any kumbaya happening. The closest we got was Wilmington.
I come from both of these sides. I come from black and white working-class people. My obsession is the beauty that’s found where those people influence each other and where that music comes from.
I come from black and white working-class people. My obsession is the beauty that’s found where those people influence each other and where that music comes from
Will you talk about your Wilmington project?
Wilmington 1898. It’s a pivotal, pivotal piece of American history that nobody talks about–even in North Carolina where it happened. That was a shocking thing to me. I grew up in North Carolina. There’s so much of our own history I didn’t learn in school, unfortunately. It’s amazing. Wilmington is such a big deal because of the fact that there was a coup on American soil that we don’t talk about. There was this huge effort to destroy the black middle class, to destroy black prosperity. This has happened all over the country for hundreds of years, but the vividness and all of the aspects of what happened in Wilmington—it’s just the perfect picture of what was going on at the time and what’s still going on. People get so surprised at these things like Klan rallies in Charlottesville. The more you dig into the history, the more you realize that these groups and these attitudes have always been here. When you look at what happened in Wilmington in 1898, it is absolutely clear. You can’t spin it. The folks led what they called a revolution—and they called it a revolution, and they called it getting back their culture and their country—these white supremacists. I think it’s been suppressed for that reason because it is so ugly, and it is so obvious, and it opened the door to many other instances in other places.
I’m obviously a musician. I’m not a historian...I mean I’m kind of a historical musician. That’s my art form. As Hamilton has shown, you can create an artistic, musical piece that is completely historically-based and it can change the story. It can move the needle. It can get a lot of people inspired to look into history. This is an opportunity to explore the history through the music. We just started on it. I’m working on it where my schedule allows. That’s the idea of the MacArthur. Everything takes a while because music is scheduled so far in advance, but it’s happening slowly.
Will you speak about why public funding for the arts matters?
I think that public funding for the arts matters an awful lot because not everybody gets the same opportunities in their personal lives, in their families. We all know that there’s quite a lot of inequality in this country, and public funding for the arts means that a kid like me who yeah, I got support from my family…it’s not that they tried to talk me out of music…it’s not that I didn’t have music growing up, but that I got formal education. I got opportunities to be exposed to the larger musical world through Governor’s School, through coming to the concerts that my dad used to work—Sunday Evening in the Park. [I was] exposed to music that takes a lot of economic support. An orchestra takes a lot of financial support. To bring that to everybody takes state and federal funding because of the way that we have set up our lives here. That’s just the way we’ve done it. We’ve set it up so that not everybody has access to those things. So, to do that everybody has to commit. It’s like people want the benefit of these things but they don’t want to put into it. And I actually think they do. I think if they get the opportunity people have historically said, “Yeah we value these things. This is what we want to do.” Some of the most powerful pieces of art have come from historically marginalized people. People who you wouldn’t think had access to these things, but through public schools, through public organizations, they have gotten the wherewithal to create this incredible thing that generates millions of dollars in revenue.
To that end, how can North Carolina better support artists?
There are two very different ways of making art. I think the true future is somewhere in the middle. We have the commercial way, and then we have the arts funding way. The commercial way is you make art that sells, and you then support yourself through selling your art. As a musician, I sell tickets to my show, and that’s how I make a living. The MacArthur was the very first grant I’ve ever received. I just didn’t go that route. I didn’t know enough about it.
I wouldn’t be able to tell the stories I tell now without all that foundational support I received in North Carolina”
So, there are two very different ways of operation, and they’re both precarious right now because of advents in technology that means that artists are making less and less money from their product, especially musicians because people think it should be free. Now the pools of funding—especially the small to middle grants—are under threat constantly. A lot of them have been lost already, and they’re very dependent on the current administration which means that there’s no sort of solid we don’t have to worry about things right now. The big grants that are privately funded—that’s a different ballgame, but these small to middle grants are the most important ones because those are the ones that help artists get to that next step.
We historically don’t have health insurance. We don’t have savings. People in other countries get these things as artists which means that they’re valued by their countries. We don’t get valued like that because people don’t look at art as a real career even though they consume it every day. The average person consumes music all day, every day, but they don’t look at it as a real career. They think you’re lucky if you get to work 250 days a year on the road, not having insurance and getting paid very little. They think you’re lucky. I lobbied on Capitol Hill for a bill trying to get Pandora among other things to pay royalties [to] artists pre—I think—1973. They’re just not paying royalties. I remember talking to a black Democratic senator who said, “Well you know…you’re doing what you love, and if you get a little money on the side, that’s great.” I didn’t say this, but I have a million dollar business that pays people. I am a small business owner, and I have to pay my mortgage. I have to take care of my family. I, for four years, have paid five people’s living wages, not to mention contributing to scores of other people’s income from my art, and you’re telling me that I should feel lucky that I get to do it for a living? It’s really important that we put our money where our mouth is. Right now, the people benefiting off of the arts are the people who aren’t making it. It’s Apple. It’s movie execs. It’s all this administration in the middle. It’s people who invented the MP3 player. It’s not the artists other than the very top echelon. I’m a successful musician, and I stress about money every day. I just got an amazing grant, and I am so grateful for it, but I still have to think about what’s going on, and who am I paying, and who am I supporting. All that takes away from the time I can be making music. It’s a really complicated answer. We have so many things that we need to change to really change the paradigms for arts in this country. We just gotta keep pushing. Every little bit counts. Every grant that doesn’t get cut. Every organization that can survive. That’s why I do things like this… to talk about the organizations that helped me out because I’m quite aware that they’re a big part of my career, and I wouldn’t be able to tell the stories I tell now without all that foundational support I received in North Carolina.
*This interview was edited and condensed.