We’re back with the final installment of our Classic North Carolina album list. We kick off this final installment with a classic from J. Cole who turns 34 today. Enjoy!
J. Cole – 2014 Forest Hills Drive (2014)
“J. Cole went platinum with no features!” echoed throughout the social media-verse after the rapper’s third studio album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, sold its millionth copy. With the world of hip-hop dominated by collaborations, name drops, and flavors of the week, J. Cole managed to dominate the charts on his own, an impressive feat and testament to his talent. The album, named after his childhood home address in Fayetteville, N.C., tackles J. Cole’s meteoric rise from a kid in North Carolina to an international superstar.
Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers – Rare Bird Alert (2011)
Formed in 2000 while students at UNC Chapel Hill, the Steep Canyon Rangers cut their teeth playing music festivals across the country. In 2007 they won “Emerging Artist of the Year” at the International Bluegrass Music Association Award ceremony. This caught the attention of famed comedian/banjoist Steve Martin, and he invited them to perform a benefit show in 2009. The collaboration was a success, and they took the show to Carnegie Hall, Royal Albert Hall, and Prairie Home Companion. This 2011 album features 13 Steve Martin originals with the Rangers on instrumentation, and a little help from the Dixie Chicks and Sir Paul McCartney. A big project for one of the biggest bluegrass bands in our state today.
The Carolina Chocolate Drops – Genuine Negro Jig (2010)
Dom Flemons, Rhiannon Giddens, and Justin Robinson formed the Carolina Chocolate Drops after attending the Black Banjo Gathering at Appalachian State University in 2005. Their mission was big: to rewrite popular narratives of string band and old-time music by celebrating African and African-American’s contribution to the genre. Five years later Genuine Negro Jig, their third full length album, won a Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Album. The original members of the band have since parted ways, embarking on their own solo careers.
Thelonious Monk – Underground (1968)
This album’s striking cover art, depicting Monk as a French Resistance fighter in World War II, along with the its title Underground, is thought to be Monk’s nod to the growing youth subculture of the day and perhaps his acceptance of his place in it – a rebel now showing his age but also his experience. Underground premiered four new original compositions and was the Rocky Mount native’s second to last studio release. It marked the final recording done by the famous Thelonious Monk Quartet, whose comfort and growth as players is evident, with solos and riffs effortlessly weaving in and out of each other as if played by one musician on four different instruments.
Anthony Hamilton – Comin’ From Where I’m From (2003)
Neo-soul star Anthony Hamilton’s breakthrough album Comin’ From Where I’m From stayed on the Billboard charts for 76 consecutive weeks and went platinum in 2004. Born and raised in Charlotte, N.C., Hamilton introduced a new set of music fans to our state through this album, which is packed with stories about his life in North Carolina. Highlights include “Cornbread, Fish & Collard Greens,” and “Mama Knew Love.”
North Carolina was one of the first states in the nation to celebrate its music heritage by researching and developing music trails. After establishing the Blue Ridge Music Trails of Western North Carolina in the early 2000s, the North Carolina Arts Council developed the African American Music Trails of Eastern North Carolina, which celebrate some of the most transformative figures in the history of jazz, gospel, and popular music.
From top left to bottom right: Nancy Paris, Maceo Parker, The Vines Sisters
Throughout the Come Hear North Carolina campaign, we will share stories from the trails, but on this Sunday morning we wanted to share a few quick fun facts with you!
From the annual Funk Festival in Kinston and ongoing free concert series at the Kinston Music Park to Greenville’s Billy Taylor Jazz Festival and African American Music Trails series, there are a variety of events and festivals that celebrate music and African American heritage in the counties of Edgecombe, Greene, Jones, Lenoir, Nash, Pitt, Wayne and Wilson. We invite you to explore the trails here.
American blues and folk musician Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten was born on January 5, 1893 in Carrboro, N.C. Perhaps best known for teaching the world “Freight Train,” Cotten grew up near the railroad track which inspired her to write “Freight Train” at age 11, two years before she went to work as a domestic worker.
Married at 17, Cotten spent years moving around the country with her husband Frank Cotten only to divorce and settle in Washington, D.C. once her daughter was married. While doing domestic work for the family of composer and folklorist Ruth Crawford Seeger and Charles Seeger, Cotten idly picked up a guitar and revealed herself to be precisely the kind of folk musician the Seegers held up as an ideal. By then she was more than 60-years-old. Seeger’s son Mike recorded her songs, releasing them just in time for the Folk Revival of the early 1960s. Cotten toured the world and won a Grammy in 1984 a year before her death. Her music has been covered by Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Doc Watson, and her signature fingerpicking style - crafted in part because she played her guitar upside down and backwards, is known as “Cotten picking.”
Get into a weekend groove with the first installment of our Spotify playlist series. Curated by N.C. Arts Council Executive Director Wayne Martin and Music Director Carly Jones, and Come Hear North Carolina Music curator Brendan Greaves, this playlist takes you on a brief chronological journey through North Carolina’s rich musical history.
Classical music roots run deep in North Carolina. In 1943, the North Carolina Symphony became the first continuously funded state symphony in the nation thanks to the passage of the Horn Tootin’ Bill. The bill mandated that the orchestra (e. 1932) tour throughout the state of North Carolina, a practice it continues to this day by performing 175 concerts in over 90 North Carolina counties each year.
Hello again and welcome back to Come Hear North Carolina, your home for all things North Carolina music in 2019. Every week in January, we are publishing a list of iconic albums made by North Carolinians. Our hope is that you spend time listening – really listening – to these records. Some of the artists featured on this list have national and international influence, while others are regional heroes with voices that illuminate local traditions and culture. The humanity, honesty and sheer genius captured in the sprawling sonic and lyrical landscapes of these works embody the diversity of North Carolina’s people and geography.
Nina Simone – Silk & Soul (1967)
How does one choose only one album to represent the “High Priestess of Soul”? A daunting task indeed, and one not taken lightly. Silk & Soul kicks off with a rip-roaring “It Be’s That Way Sometime,” highlighting all of Simone’s skills as bandleader, pianist, and vocal improviser; the record also features Grammy-nominated “Go to Hell” (bested by Aretha Franklin’s “Chain of Fools”), and, most notably, a cover of “I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel to Be Free,” composed by North Carolina Award recipient and Greenville native Billy Taylor, which became a Civil Rights anthem.
James Taylor – James Taylor (1968)
James Taylor is one of North Carolina’s most famous musicians. This 1968 debut album was recorded in London and released by the Beatles’ label Apple Records It features vocal and instrumental appearances by George Harrison and Paul McCartney, and the first recordings of “Something in the Way She Moves,” and “Carolina On My Mind,” arguably our unofficial state anthem.
Plant and See (Willie French Lowery) – Plant and See (1969, 2012)
Pioneering interracial swamp-psych band Plant and See was the short-lived project of influential songwriter, singer, and guitarist Willie French Lowery—an icon of North Carolina’s Lumbee community, the largest tribe East of the Mississippi—and his bandmates, African American drummer Forris Fulford, Latino bassist Ron Seiger, and Scotch-Irish backup vocalist Carol Fitzgerald. Lowery, who grew up in tri-racial Robeson County, soon renamed the band after his tribe, Lumbee, and went on to tour with the Allman Brothers and to write the unofficial tribal national anthem “Proud to Be a Lumbee.” Plant and See’s humid, storm-cloud guitars, ductile vocal harmonies, and intuitive, loose-limbed drumming are redolent of a specifically Southern syncretic musical identity and sense of place, testifying to the outstanding, colorblind musicianship of its members. The album was reissued by North Carolina label Paradise of Bachelors in 2012.
Little Brother – The Minstrel Show (2005)
Little Brother’s Phonte, Big Pooh, and 9th Wonder met at North Carolina Central University in 1998. The underground hip-hop trio was signed by Atlantic Records after they released their first full-length studio album in 2003. This critically acclaimed release is a concept album based around a fictional television station that satirizes the stereotypical portrayal of African Americans in the media. The albums critique of modern rap and the mediums that distribute it created controversy and a music video ban by BET. It’s far and away one of the most important hip-hop records made by North Carolinians.
Doc & Merle Watson – Two Days in November (1974)
The album title references the two days it took father/son duo Doc and Merle Watson to cut this fantastic collection of songs. The tight, ten-track record shows off their skills as pickers, songwriters, arrangers, and re-interpreters and earned them the 1975 Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording. Doc and Merle first cut a record together in 1965, and they released their last album in 1985, the same year of Merle’s tragic death. Doc established MerleFest, a folk music festival in 1988 in honor of his son.
Thelonious Monk Quartet with John Coltrane – At Carnegie Hall (Recorded 1957)
In 1957, Thelonious Monk took up residency at a little club in New York CIty called the Five Spot Café, accompanied by Wilbur Ware on bass, Shadow Wilson on drums, and a fellow North Carolina ex-pat, John Coltrane, on tenor sax. Contractual problems hindered significant recorded output from this quartet, but in 2005 the Library of Congress, through Blue Note Records, discovered and released a performance with these jazz titans, recorded from Carnegie Hall on Thanksgiving in 1957. Newsweek described the recording as “the musical equivalent of the discovery of a new Mount Everest.” Take a climb.
Caroline Shaw – Partita for 8 Voices (2012)
“To the side. To the side. To the side and around.” With those simple lyrics, the world of classical music was introduced to the organized chaos of square-dancing calls, and Caroline Shaw introduced herself as one of today’s most innovative and joyous composers. Composed by the Greenville native from for her acapella group, Roomful of Teeth, this stunning work was awarded a Grammy and later won Shaw a Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2013. She is the youngest award recipient in the history of the Pulitzer Prize for Music, and the vocalist, violinist, composer, and producer has since gone on to record with Kanye West, The National and Nas.
Two months ago, on a cold November night, a crowd of several hundred musicians, record label owners, presenters, artist managers, archivists, writers, podcasters and state employees gathered in the North Carolina Executive Mansion with the Governor and First Lady, Roy and Kristin Cooper. United by a common interest in music connected to or made in our state, this convocation of music aficionados congregated to hear the Coopers officially proclaim 2019 as North Carolina Year of Music and to learn what this much-rumored-but-yet-to-be-publicly-revealed statewide music initiative was all about.
That campaign officially launches today as Come Hear North Carolina. For the past year the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources, with the North Carolina Arts Council as the lead agency, has created a plan to celebrate and document our state’s incredible music story.
Durham, N.C. hip-hop artist Gyamazawa at Shakori Hills.
Photo from Asheville’s Echo Mountain Studios
The scope of activities planned for 2019 is inspiring. We are sharing daily stories on our blog about the people and places who make our music so special. We are also sponsoring North Carolina musician stages at major festivals, supporting educational programing, and commissioning new work by our state’s musicians. It is our hope that by the end of this year, people across our state and beyond have a deeper appreciation of what makes music here so authentic, special, and compelling.
North Carolinians have made groundbreaking contributions to many of America’s most important musical genres – think Doc Watson, Thelonious Monk, Nina Simone, and James Taylor. As documented through our arts tourism trails, music is a way of life here and a medium of deep creative, spiritual, and cultural expression for our people. Today, the thousands of North Carolinians who work in the music industry collectively strengthen our economy and enrich our cultural life.
Instruments at N.C. Heritage Awardee Tony Williamson’s shop, Mandomania
Gospel Singer Mary D. Williams from Johnston County, N.C.
Given these accomplishments, you would think that North Carolina musicians, past and present, would be celebrated regularly and that our state would recognize music as one of our most valuable cultural assets. Up to now, that hasn’t been the case; perhaps North Carolinians’ tendency to refrain from braggadocio and let our accomplishments stand on their own merits has kept us from holding our music up to the world.
Our New Year’s resolution is to change our ways a bit and proclaim North Carolina as THE Music State. It is going to be an exciting year and we welcome you to join us for the ride!
The Come Hear North Carolina Team
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.
“Three really important North Carolina institutions had to do with why I’m in music now. ”
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.
“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”
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.
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.
Mipso is a band that defies classification. The iconic North Carolina sounds of bluegrass and old-time flow throughout their music, which is equally influenced by the Triangle’s storied indie music community.
Since 2010, Piedmont-natives Joe Terrell, Libby Rodenbough, Wood Robinson and Jacob Sharp have created music that marries the old and the new, bridging traditional rural music expressions with the sounds of urban North Carolina: think Doc Watson meets Ryan Adams. Now touring on their fifth studio album, Edges Run, the band has been named by Rolling Stone as an “Artist You Need to Know.” Equal parts performers and students of our state’s musical heritage, the band is deeply engaged with the transmission of music knowledge. Fiddler and vocalist Libby Rodenbough is a member of the North Carolina Arts Council Board, and collectively the group has incorporated educational visits to public schools while touring to spread the word about traditional music. You can catch them live in concert on Saturday, Nov. 10 at the Haw River Ballroom.
“People often say it must be something in the water in North Carolina that brings so many musicians together and makes so much music happen, but it isn’t the water. It’s the community.”
— Wood Robinson
“It’s very likely that we wouldn’t be a band if we hadn’t started in the Triangle and in North Carolina.”
— Libby Rodenbough
You have done some educational programming while on the road. Will you describe that and why it matters to you
Libby: Not long ago, we did an education program in Tallahassee where we went to elementary, middle, and high schools and talked about some basics of string band history. There were kids in the audience who had never seen a banjo before who found that very exotic. Folk music can be really exotic if it wasn’t a part of the landscape of your upbringing. Teaching reminds us why that type of music is special and how it relates to the story of America and the story of immigrants which is an important message for the times.
There isn’t a super stark and clean divide between commercial and vernacular music, but you could say that music that is made primarily with commercial purposes in mind is probably going to seek to be encompassing rather than specific. I think there’s more space in vernacular music for specificity. Stories about actual experiences. Stories that are specific to geography and time. It would be a shame to lose those in a flattened landscape of pop music. I think both of those realms of art are really important. The vernacular music by nature of not being commercial is more at risk, so that’s where the public funding has to go.
Why does public funding for the arts matter?
Libby: I have a little anecdote from my personal life. When I was in college, I helped put on this music festival called Convergence at UNC that was very small but took an incredible amount of work and was just run by college students. It was a festival of Southern music, and it was completely funded by grant funding. Some of that came from within the university some of it came from arts councils and the humanities council. Little projects like that just wouldn’t exist without public arts funding.
Wood: People equate public funding with huge installments like the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center. Those places in major urban areas are going to be fine. Smaller funds are so much more important for making sure that arts are not a product to be served to the elites.
Will you share a story about how the arts have impacted the way you see the world?
Jacob: I’ve learned lessons through touring and playing music that [shape] my notion of my identity as a North Carolinian and Southerner, and more broadly as an American in a time as politically and socially chaotic as this one. I’m really grateful for the way I could connect with tiny communities across the country that I don’t necessarily have much in common with on the surface. We do commune over the experiences and emotions that we’ve been encouraged to express through our music, and though it’s easier to highlight the differences we have with one another, we’re a lot more similar than we believe or that we’re told that we should believe.
Joe: All of us went to public schools. Public education was really important to us, but I think the most important things in terms of who we are, and how we relate to each other, and what our community means…I really got to the heart of it through writing and through music. It’s incredibly important for a community to produce something, and to pave the roads, and to be economically vibrant, but I hope we can keep in mind that at the end of the day once you do have food on the table... part of the point of all of us being here is to ask each other why are we here, and what does it mean to be in a community together, and what does it mean to be alive.
*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity