Story by Sandra Davidson
Shirlette Ammons may currently live and create in Durham, but the musician, poet, and producer says her childhood in Beautancus, a tiny town in eastern North Carolina, deeply shaped her artistry.
"We didn't have a lot of money but we had a lot of space, and we were really imaginative," says Shirlette, who grew up singing in church and performing to fields of corn with her twin Shorlette. "I was always inclined to be creative and was always encouraged to be outside. So I grew up with a wonderful backdrop for being a creative person."
Because of her experiences in rural North Carolina, Shirlette is a passionate advocate for rural arts education. She explains why here:
Shirlette is no stranger to public funding for the arts. The N.C. Arts Council awarded Shirlette an Artist Fellowship in 2014, and she's received grants from the Durham Arts Council and the United Arts Council. She reflected on her N.C. Arts Council Fellowship in this episode of Arts Across NC:
Learn more about Shirlette 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
M.C. Taylor and Phil Cook are anchors of Durham's indie music community. Phil is known for making music with his band Megafaun and The Guitarheels and for playing in M.C.'s American folk band Hiss Golden Messenger, an outfit widely praised for its genre-blending soul-searching music.
Both M.C. and Phil transplanted to North Carolina in the mid 2000s, and they met each other in 2012 at a Hiss Golden Messenger album release show in Chapel Hill. They started working together the following week.
Collaboration, community, and a deep appreciation for southern music bind Phil and M.C. together, and last summer they reflected on all those things in an interview recorded at Brad Cook's (Phil's brother and M.C.'s manager) studio, where they've recorded many Hiss Golden Messenger songs. Listen to the interview on the latest episode of the podcast Arts Across NC or read an edited extended transcript of the conversation below.
This episode featured original music created by Phil Cook for the 50 for 50 project, and excerpts from two Hiss Golden Messenger songs: Caledonia and Heart Like a Levee.
You're both North Carolina transplants. What brought you here...and what makes this a good place to be a working artist?
M.C. Taylor: First of all there is a deep musical history here that I’m interested in that has been important to me to my formation as a musician. The thing that drew me to this place at the very beginning was that I wanted to live in the South because I love southern cultures, and I knew that if I had any hope of understanding it on a deeper level I had to be here.
Phil Cook: Same. Same. Same.
M.C.: Yeah. But you know [even] with having this musical foundation here people are also willing to push at it and stretch it and grow it and evolve it, and that’s also important. I and Phil and everybody in the band recognizes and understands the debt that we owe to all kinds of American music that was born here in the South especially in the Piedmont region, but also we live in the 21st Century and we’re doing our own thing. I feel like I can walk out my front door and be in touch with all of that. Someone was here doing an interview with me a couple of years ago from England, and I was able to drive them down Pettigrew Street and show them where Blind Boy Fuller would have played outside of the tobacco warehouse on payday. If you’re into American music, that’s a marker of American music. You could go find where Reverend Gary Davis lived. You can listen to an Etta Baker recording and know that she was doing her thing just a couple hours from here. Having that foundation to me as an artist is really important.
Phil: My favorite thing about this place that I keep taking away from it is we all recognize the journey in each other.
I love seeing all these different artists and songwriters and producers and people that have these common goals of making great records [and] making great music.
We have a big opportunity in front of us to just coalesce all of that and realize we’re all on that same path and all on that same mission. It doesn’t matter what scene we’re talking about ...if we’re talking about the jazz and the hip-hop scene which is so vital and living in Durham [or] if we’re talking about our songwriters scene and things that are more folk-based [or] things that are more bluegrass-based like Mandolin Orange and Mipso...we all have started to recognize and see each other in the last five years. I think that's a great foundation to build community on: the artists all finding each other in the night and the evening and the dawns of our existences and just realizing we’re on that same path together. We’re all trying to do that same thing.
How has your creative collaboration impacted your individual work?
Phil: Finding Mike and meeting Mike made me realize all these things that had been true about myself since the beginning of my musical journey that were just there all along. He opened up my own permission to realize how many skills I wasn’t using that have been there the whole time that are the most familiar to me. The most sacred things to me ended up actually becoming the focal point of how I was in a band and understood how to really be in a band for real. It was like working in my first kitchen. That gave me the confidence to open up my own kitchen because I see the formula and the ingredients for making something that is meaningful and something that speaks to people especially because it just has to speak from you. It has to speak from exactly where you’re at in an honest way with integrity and vulnerability, and that’s I think Mike’s biggest strength as a songwriter. He’s able to just open himself up and talk about his kids and his family and his wife and also just talk about where he’s at with his relationship with the universe.
M.C.: I mean here’s a crazy thing to think about...before Phil started playing in Hiss, he wasn’t playing piano in Megafaun. I mean come to a Hiss Golden Messenger show and watch Phil play and just remember that when he started playing in Hiss, he had put his piano playing on the shelf. Now he’s also one of the great guitar players of our time in my opinion.
Phil: That is so nice.
M.C.: [And] people see that more. But it’s really been transformative to what we do in Hiss. I guess I kind of forced you to do it but...
Phil: ...That’s great. It’s still the thing that’s my favorite go to...realizing how comfortable I am sitting in a piano bench and sitting in front of your music. I realize over and over again this is exactly where I need to be.
How does a song come together for you guys?
M.C.: I spend a lot of time alone when I’m writing a song. Phil and Brad his brother can read music. They have a pretty serious understanding of theory which I don’t have, so it takes me a long time when I’m writing a song to understand what the landscape is in terms of the harmonic content of a tune and melodically. So I usually sit with a guitar and do my thing [and] get the lyrical idea down. Then I bring it to Phil and he helps me understand what’s happening in the song. The most important thing for me at that stage is that I can show Phil what part of the song I really like and feel we need to emphasize because it pulls at the heart in a way, and then Phil can say, “Oh well that’s because there is this happening in the song...because there is this interval that is pulling right there."
Phil: It’s a burden of knowledge. I’m thankful for my burden of theory knowledge. So he’ll come to us with a pocket of songs. He’ll write in these really great cycles. I’ve written 10 songs [total as a solo artist], so it's a longer trajectory for me. The last thing that happens is I write lyrics. I’ve got probably 300 to 400 thirty second voice memo clips on my phone that are just me screwing around and playing guitar for 10 minutes. Then in the tour van if I see a long drive ahead of us I just scroll through them all, and I name them something like “Noodle Boy 1A” [or] “Sub noodlist 7B” or if it’s really good I’ll just put a thumbs up emojicon next to it. Then I have to somehow turn those thirty second things into a three minute song with the others sorts of ideas that I have. That’s our process for writing separately and together.
M.C.: Yeah I tend to just throw songs out and not everything is perfect. A lot of the stuff is junk and this would be stuff nobody’s ever heard except for me. Phil…if you hear Southland Mission (Phil's first solo record) that’s just a meticulously crafted album. It’s pretty watertight in a really beautiful way. It’s like a really beautifully cut gem. Hiss Golden Messenger...sometimes that vessel is a little leaky. But that’s okay. I’m okay with that. I think there’s a place in art to be really exacting and just follow the vision to the very, very end. Then there’s also a place to leave imperfections alone.
M.C.: For me those are the things that I learn from. If I hear something on an old record, and I’m like "I wish that I would have fixed that," that’s always going to be a thing that lives for me as a reminder like a little flag that says remember that you can do again. Remember that you can do it better or remember to leave the imperfections in because it’s going to be a thing that gives you your bearings as you make art.
Why does public funding for the arts matter?
M.C.: I think public funding for the arts matters if you value culture and art.
I think that art is an important reflection of the places that we live and the things that we think are important.
I think on a cosmic level, the world is a lot less interesting of a place without place-specific artwork. There is less of that now than there once as. The way that we communicate with each other around the world now has sort of flattened culture. There was a time when you could hear a gospel quartet in North Carolina and you could tell what county they were from by what song they were singing [and] the way that their harmonies were working together. There’s less of that now. I personally think that's a beautiful thing, and I think that art doesn’t come free. It just doesn’t. If you want vibrant, progressive, rich art it’s gotta be paid for in someway. I think every little bit helps, but you have to figure a way to communicate that culture is important even when you can’t quantify it in the same way that you can a car. Culture is important because it tells other people who we are in the most beautiful way. That to me is something of value.
Phil: I think Mike speaks really beautifully about it. Since moving to North Carolina, I’ve had a pretty fair amount of experience teaching kids about art. I’ve taught rock band camps in both Raleigh and in Durham for about 10 years now, and making kids work together through music...I’ve just seen over and over again how many other things are at play there and how many other little pieces and little seeds are planted. Ten years later I'm able to run into those same kids and see [that] some of those camps really unlocked something for them because we weren’t just learning a rigid form of something that they needed to only recreate off of a staff paper. We were learning about how to play with something...how to actually manipulate sound, and how to work together with other people towards a common goal in a way that’s not a science project...in a way that they can add something to. I love seeing music be with somebody through their whole life. You’re just planting seeds when you’re helping kids [through the arts] and you don’t know what they’re going to sprout like, but they’re rarely not beautiful things when they blossom.
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.
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* 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.
Interview by Sandra Davidson
On Saturday, September 29th Reggie and Ryan Harris will perform at 9:45 p.m. as The Harris Brothers on the North Carolina Stage at the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Wide Open Bluegrass Festival in Raleigh, N.C. The Harris Brothers are fabulous musicians who are steeped in the cultural traditions of their home region in the western Piedmont and foothills of Caldwell County. They started playing music through the influence of family members and neighbors, who tutored them in country, bluegrass, swing and blues music that you find in and around Lenoir, which was once a furniture making center in North Carolina. They have also immersed themselves in pop music genres and integrate versions of soul, folk and rock songs into their repertory. Devoted to their family and community, they arrange their performance schedule so that they don’t have to spend many overnights away from home. Otherwise, they would be touring across the country. Music is a way of life for their family, and we asked them to speak about their musical upbringing in this 50 for 50 interview.
Why don’t we start with you describing your family’s culture around music?
Reggie Harris: We grew up in northern North Carolina, and our daddy worked in the furniture industry down there. He started working in furniture factories when he was 16-years-old, and he worked in them pretty much his whole life. Music was an escape for him. He started playing guitar when he was a little boy and traded his first bicycle for a guitar. I’ve got a picture of it. It was a tiny little guitar. It was a tiny little picture. I blew it up, and you can see the guitar has Uncle Sam faces all over the front of it. It’s an old Kay guitar. He’s playing a good G chord. He was very good in my opinion. He was a great singer with a lot of feeling and emotion. [He] just played a clean, country, mountain style guitar [and] bluegrass…some of that too. I don’t know how he got so good. I think my granny liked to sing. I used to hear her sing old songs like the “Wayfaring Stranger.” She’d get your attention if she did it. She was really old when I heard her do it. Anyhow, he just played. His sister married another fellow, Cecil Palmer, who was a great guitar player. They were a great country duo. They would get together and play around the house. My dad didn’t play music for a living or anything, but Cecil did play on the weekends. We just grew up around it, and all our cousins play. My older brother Mark played guitar when I was a little kid. [I] learned a lot of stuff from him in the beginning. Ryan…he’s always been singing. He picked up singing from my dad. All we’ve ever done is play music. Every weekend of our life we’ve been playing music somewhere—involved with it in some fashion or another.
Ryan, what’s your earliest memory of singing?
Ryan Harris: I was always real nervous because it was a lot of pressure. I put a lot of pressure on myself I guess. I remember people would come over, and I’d hear my mom and dad start hollering “Ryan,” and I’d have to go and sing. They wanted to show me off to everybody. I always wanted to play basketball. [I] grew up loving the Wolfpack. Singing was just something I could do. It was something I knew I could do, but it’s a little bit of pressure. But Reggie…he was a natural. I think he had more fun at music than I did.
When did that change for you?
Ryan: I guess when I got out of high school. [I] got my first band with Reggie and we got influenced [by] the Allman Brothers. The blues really influenced me a whole lot. I love all kinds of music.
Would you describe what it was like when you played with your dad? Can you set the scene for me? Would that be a weekend thing? Would it be when he got off work?
Reggie: It could be anytime. You never can tell when we might get into playing music. My dad had an old Gibson—a Southern Jumbo—that he got in 1959. I think my mom got it for him. He said, “Boy, don’t mess with my guitar when I’m not home.” I knew enough not to be getting it out and dragging it around. I was a little kid. I’d open the lid on that thing, and I’d take my thumb and go across the strings. I memorized the sound before I ever even played. My older brother, he might be strumming around. He liked to write the words of the lyrics down in a notebook and then put the chord over the word. He’d switch like that. He was always messing around with a Bob Dylan song or something like that. I finally got my own little guitar.
How old were you?
I don’t know, maybe 5 or 6. I’m not sure.
But you were always drawn to it?
Reggie: Well, it was just fun. Seems like when music was going on it was really fun. I just liked it. My dad, I would listen to him. I remember laying on the floor right between him and my uncle, and they played serious. They’d sing and play. [It] really sounded good to me. Then my cousin, Brent—he was five years older than me—started playing. We’d just all like to play. We’d break out sometimes in the middle of the week. Even up until my dad passed away in 2002, we’d break it out and play all night through the week if we wanted to. We were just into it.
What kind of stuff were you playing?
Reggie: My dad sang old mountain songs like “East Virginia Blues.” Hank Williams was one of his heroes. Country music, some bluegrass tunes —all that kind of thing. He’d sing “Step It Up and Go,” [an] old Blind Boy Fuller song, in a country style. He always had the blues in his music, the blues feel, the blues tones. Soulful. I didn’t know it was called the blues when I was first hearing it, but that’s what I was drawn to.
What other influences shaped the music you play today?
Reggie: When I was a kid, our sister would babysit us like maybe on Saturday afternoon. My mother was a beautician, so she’d be at work, and my dad might be off hunting or fishing. She’d babysit us, and she played records all day. Back in those days, like in the early 70s, mid 70’s there were a lot of hippies around. People I like, you know? They would trade records a lot. So, she would trade records with her friends next door. So, there’s always different vinyl 33s coming in and out all the time. She had her collection, and she’d always write her name on the back, “Debbie.” She would have ZZ Top, lots of Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.
Reggie: Van Morrison. Doc Watson. All sorts of different music. What we play is music. We don’t really categorize our stuff.
When did you start performing together?
Ryan: I was 3 or 4 years old. We had songs that he could play, and I could sing. I guess as a duo, probably about the last 20 years maybe or a little more.
Reggie: We still throw our band together from time to time.
Ryan: My dad was always real important about keeping timing. My dad would pat his foot. I remember when I was a kid, I would be downstairs playing. I remember hearing his foot up there playing. Now, Reggie, he plays an old suitcase. He takes a kickdrum panel and hits. I think that come from our dad.
Reggie: I can’t afford a real drummer.
Ryan: Yeah, less mouths to feed.
Was your dad creating original music?
Reggie: Mostly old songs. When we first heard his music we didn’t know who sang them. I didn’t know who the original artist was. My dad would sing “Tennessee Stud.” He’d play his own style. It’s way different than the way Doc Watson played it. It took me a while to get used to Doc Watson’s version because I heard my dad play it since I was a kid. He played it more bluesy. Both great versions. I’d say, “Where’d you learn that song?” He’d say, “I heared that all my life.” He wouldn’t say “I heard it.” He’d say, “I’ve heared that all my life.”
How did your dad feel about y’all playing music together?
Reggie: He loved it.
Ryan: He was proud of us.
Tell me about your creative process. Do both of you write? Do you take turns? How does it all come together?
Reggie: We write a lot of songs. We don’t play all our songs that we write. We just play. People ask us, “Do y’all practice? When do y’all practice? I want to come hear y’all practice.” I’m like, “We don’t practice. We just play.”
Ryan: We’re practicing when we play, basically.
Reggie: Sometimes we get together and work something out, but mostly we’ve played so many gigs, we know.
Ryan: We don’t write a set list out or anything we just—
Reggie: —We go and start playing, and I understand what to do. Because we’re brothers [it’s] like telepathy.
Ryan: I know what he’s thinking. I know what song he wants to play when he puts his hand on the guitar. I can just pick up on it. It’s crazy.
Why do you think music is such a part of western North Carolina?
Reggie: It’s really hard to say. We [just] went to a surprise birthday party for this guy, and there was all sorts of musicians playing. My cousin was over there singing, and she was just killing it. Another friend, was over there just killing it too. [Our friend] was like, “I’ve been all over the world. There’s no place like right here in Caldwell County for music when you stack it all up.” I can’t explain it. Within five miles of where I grew up and was raised, I could name you so many guitar players that are very professional and competent that can play any style. If a Nashville artist called and said, “Hey, I need you to play my show with me this weekend. You got two days to learn.” I could tell you several that could ace it. You know what I mean? I can’t explain it. Back in the ‘20s and ‘30s, there was a harmonica player named Gwen Foster. He came out of Caldwell County. Probably one of the greatest harmonica players that ever lived on the face of the earth.
I guess people didn’t have anything else to do. Part of our county is in the mountains. That’s how people entertain their selves. That’s how we entertained ourselves coming up. We weren’t rich or anything. We just got together and played music and went to parties and played music. From there [we] started playing bars and wherever we could get a gig once we started doing it for a living. It’s a way of life for us.
I don’t see a whole lot of new people coming along playing. I taught lessons for a long time, and I did get some people past the hump that [are] still really into it, which makes me feel good. We just hope people will carry it on some way because it is a rich area.
What do you think Ryan?
Ryan: I concur.
The North Carolina Arts Council’s mission is to ensure the arts are supported in every county in North Carolina. We have asked every artist that we’ve interviewed for this project to reflect on why they think that matters. So, why would you say public funding for the arts is important?
Reggie: Well I think because kids need something. You need to be influenced by music when you’re small. I 100-percent believe that. There’s a thought or a study that says that every baby is born with perfect pitch, but there’s only a small window you have to develop it. You can speak any language you want to learn when you’re just a baby. It depends on which one you hear. It’s the same.
I loved when the music teacher came to class and sang songs. That was my favorite part of school. I think they should give every kid some sort of little toy trumpet or violin. The world’s changing. It’s all about phones. Kids in school need art. They need to see real people sit down and sing and play an instrument. The arts are the key to our humanity. I think our feelings for each other have to do with that and how you treat people. Usually, music people are nice people or good people. Not all of them, but for the most part, people that are in the music get along, don’t matter what race [or] what language you speak. If you like music, it’s something that ties you together.
Do you have anything else to add?
Ryan: He says enough for both of us. When I die, I don’t want to hear speed metal. I want to hear a Carter Family song. Then I’ll be going to the right place.
What do you each respect the most about each other’s musicianship?
Ryan: Reggie…he’s probably one of the best guitar players, seriously, [that’s] ever been. I’m not just saying it because he’s my brother. We were over in France…in Paris. It was the last day there, and he was teaching a guitar class. One of the guys that was sitting over beside me, he could barely speak English, he says, “He never misses a note.” His playing is like a river. It’s just flowing. There are no stops. He never misses a chord. He never misses nothing. He can play every style from bluegrass to jazz to blues with feeling. He’s a great singer too. My older brother, I guess he’s probably one of the main reasons I’m in music really. He’s just a good person too.
Reggie: I didn’t know you felt that way about me. Thanks.
Ryan: I do. I love you, buddy.
Reggie: Ryan…from the time he was just a kid coming home you could hear him get off the school bus. You could hear him singing. There was a couple hills you’ve got to cross to get down to where the school bus stop was, but his voice carried. He was born with a gift. There’s lots of people who sing, but you have to be born with what he has. I always knew I wanted him to be the singer in whatever music I was involved in. It was just how I was going to get him to do it was the problem. I tricked him into it.
Ryan: Once I realized I couldn’t play for N.C. State. That was not [in] the cards.]
Interview* by Sandra Davidson
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.
Let’s start with the big question. How has North Carolina influenced your music?
Libby Rodenbough: It’s very likely that we wouldn’t be a band if we hadn’t started in the Triangle and in North Carolina. We were mentored by a lot of people who were working musicians, which is something that was kind of a foreign concept to me [when] I was growing up. I thought you were either someone who played at open mics or you were a pop star, but in the Triangle, there are a lot of people who consider it a craft that they’ll work at for their whole lives. We are also surrounded by great venues and people who go to see live music which isn’t true everywhere else in the country. I think we didn’t even realize how special the scene was here until we started touring. We’ve been in places where people ask us, “How do we get started?” They feel like they have no tools.
Wood Robinson: 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. It’s the people that have done it before us and created such an awesome path for young musicians to know and come to walk themselves.
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
Joe Terrell: I love the fact that in the Triangle and North Carolina as a whole, there are so many layers to what the music scene means. So many bands that were really important to different music scenes in the 70s, 80s, and 90s are still around. My very first college class was an 8 a.m. on a Tuesday morning with Bland Simpson, who is an amazing songwriter and member of the Red Clay Ramblers. When he learned I played music he started to encourage me to show him some of my songs and became a musical mentor. That’s just part of the fabric around here.
I think conventional wisdom these days is it’s easy to learn anything you want anytime with the internet. We do watch YouTube videos and have learned a lot from watching other people online, but all the most important things that I’ve learned especially musically have been from older musicians that I’ve met in North Carolina who are part of the community around here and who actually sit down with you and play a song. I just don’t think there’s a substitute for that. It’s felt like part of their mission is not just to play the music but to welcome other people to that. It’s not a competitive thing. It’s a party. It’s a community, and we felt that way from the beginning.
Jacob Sharp: Music is what we can comment on best, but it seems in North Carolina that people integrate anything that’s a craft and made passionately fully into their lives.
Why do you think North Carolina’s musical community is so unique and strong?
Joe: I think a combination of two things. One which a lot of places have: a long history of great musicians coming out of the woodwork. That’s true of a lot of Southern states, but unlike a lot of southern states, North Carolina has also had the sense to invest in itself. They’ve had a lot of governors with vision who decided that public education was important. So not only do we have a rich history, but we have a great infrastructure to kind of remind ourselves of that, and those things play off each other.
Will you talk about how traditional music in North Carolina has influenced your sound?
Libby: I played classical music growing up and was pretty much unaware of the history of folk music and fiddle music in North Carolina. I realized I could have this other level of connection to this state that I had never known about in my 18-years of living here [when I started] playing music with these guys and taking folklore classes at UNC. That makes it a lot harder for me to think about leaving this area. It makes me feel like I belong here. I think a lot of times if you grow up in the suburbs of someplace like I did in Greensboro, you feel like that suburb could’ve been anywhere. I think the way we’ve learned music and tried to situate our own songwriting and our own personal expression within that tradition has made me feel like I’m actually from a place and belong here and have some kind of responsibility to the place too. I’d like to convey that tradition to other younger musicians who like me might make it through their whole early lives without ever knowing that was a part of the place they’re from.
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
Jacob: Totally. It’s easy to think of old-time and bluegrass as stodgy genres that were only relevant in the past, but it’s important to remember that they were radical in their time and happened for a reason. They were well placed within important historical lessons of immigration and how it is that we as Americans pull from many different places to create a unique thing. I think that is really evident still in those forms and why we listen to them and in some ways emulate those genres still.
Wood: Outside the history of string music, there’s a great history of jazz music born and bred in North Carolina, and a lot of it is continued on by university education. Part of keeping that music alive is well funded public education that can boost all kinds of music and boost all kinds of art.
Joe: Wood grew up a jazz guy. His dad loves jazz, and he started learning jazz bass. I was in a bluegrass family, but I happened to be from High Point which is the home of John Coltrane, so early in my life I was invited to the John Coltrane jazz summer camp, and I kind of went just for kicks. I got into John Coltrane and learned a ton of jazz, so one of the first things we connected on before we were in a band together was John Coltrane.
Wood: It’s a similar thing that Libby is talking about. Recognizing that someone as immortal as John Coltrane was born and bred less than 30 miles from where you were born is as much as a touchstone on how you relate to the place that you’re from as anything I can think of.
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
Interview by Sandra Davidson
Billy Edd Wheeler says a good song just grabs you from the start. He would know.
The 86-year-old Swannanoa resident is one of North Carolina’s most successful songwriters. Most famous for writing “Jackson,” the iconic duet popularized by Johnny Cash and June Carter, Billy Edd’s songs have been recorded by Judy Collins, Neil Young, The Kingston Trio, Elvis Presley, Kenny Rogers and more. Over 150 artists have recorded his lyrics including the famous “The Reverend Mr. Black” and “Coward of the County.” He is a member of the Nashville Association of Songwriters International’s Hall of Fame and the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame. A true renaissance man, Billy Edd Wheeler is also playwright, novelist, poet, painter, singer, and sculptor.
His story is an American story. Born in West Virginia, Billy Edd grew up in a coal-mining community named Highcoal. His childhood, poetically documented in his new memoir Hotter Than a Pepper Sprout, was difficult, and he left town and an abusive step-father at 16 to attend college at Warren Wilson. He says his life began there.
Billy Edd reflected on his journey from Highcoal to his first break which includes a special North Carolina connection in an interview for Come Hear NC.
What about living in North Carolina influenced you musically?
My whole life started here after I got out of the coal camps of West Virgina. Thankfully a Presbyterian missionary came to Highcoal to teach vacation Bible school, but she told us about this school – Warren Wilson – in Swannanoa. She said, “You can go there early, like a month or two before school starts, and if you work on their dairy or farm or the wood working it cuts your tuition in half.” I had a step-father, and I knew he didn’t want to pay for my college tuition, but he could pay half. Tuition back then was $325 a year. So I thought, “I want to go there.” I was in a bad [situation]. My mother didn’t get married until I was 5, and I had a step-father and he and I didn’t get along, and I ran off from home twice, so when that chance to come down here to Swannanoa, I wrote a letter in longhand, and the dean of the college, Dr. Jensen wrote me back and said come on down. So I went.
It changed my life. One of the most important things I learned at Warren Wilson is that work is noble. It’s a necessary part of living. In West Virginia I was working with some of the boys on a job and they’d say, “Hey Billy! When the boss is not looking, lean on your shovel. Let the dummies do the work.” Warren Wilson flip-flopped that for me. They said don’t try to get out of work, get into work. When you do, it will make you a better person because labor is a necessary part of living. That was a mindbender. But it was good. It was good information.
Warren Wilson is responsible for my painting and my songwriting development, and it’s just really where I was reborn creatively and partly spiritually because of labor concepts. I owe everything to Warren Wilson.
Were you a musician when you got to college at Warren Wilson?
I wouldn’t call myself a musician. When I was 13 I got a guitar. It was $14 from Sears & Roebuck. It was not a good guitar. Boy it was hard on your fingers. The frets were high. But it was a start, and there was a couple of coal miners that I got to know pretty well. One of them could sing like Eddy Arnold, and he showed me a couple of chords, so basically every song I wrote for a long time was three chords. Later on, when I met some pickers in Kentucky and North Carolina, I learned a couple more chords.
[Years later] I got to know Judy Collins pretty well. When she did an album, she researched. She came to my place in Brooklyn and wanted to hear every song I’d ever written. Then the next meeting was in her place up on the East Side in New York. [When] we finished our interview there, she showed me a nice chord that a lot of folk singers used. I can’t remember it because I don’t know music. I don’t know how to write it down. But anyways that chord…I put it into action and used it a lot.
It was just trial and error. I never considered myself gifted at all. I just barely knew enough to write songs with. For a long time, it was no minor chords, just three chords. There’s been a lot of songs written with just three chords and a capo.
What makes a good song?
One that just grabs you…you know? [You hear] the first verse, and you want to hear the rest of it. Some of them don’t. It partly depends on how it’s performed, but if you’re a songwriter, you’re listening to it for something you might use as a picker yourself.
I know you’ve probably answered this a million times, but what was the source of “Jackson?’
Well it’s really convoluted. When I was at Yale we were studying Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? We got a copy of it at Yale before it really was opened on Broadway. So we analyzed it, and if you saw the movie – I mean [remember] how the man and woman fightand go at each other like crazy? He’s working for the college and his wife is the daughter of the president of the college, and she gives him the dickens. I mean it’s mean. Mean spirited. It is natural for a couple to spar in good faith, good spirit, but this was not [that]. This was mean. For some reason when I was trying to write a song I remembered that, and it really inspired me. Now that’s a stretch isn’t it! Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfends up being “Jackson!”
I needed a town, and I tried Nashville and some others and that was too soft. I wanted something that really got you, so I finally got Jackson. Of course that was my most successful song and still is.
That’s a great song and it’s a great performance. Was hotter than a pepper sprout was just a phrase you’d grown up hearing?
Well that’s a convoluted idea. Lily May Pennington was in a folk group, and she got bit by a baby rattlesnake. It was only about a foot long. Her foot swelled up as big as a cantaloupe, and she said that the young snakes have not learned to regulate the venom. For some reason that helped me write “hotter than a pepper sprout” because I had heard that the sprout is hotter than the mature (pepper). I don’t know how they relate, but they do! From a snake bite to the sting of a hot pepper. That’s the way songs work! You put the pieces together. I never got the pieces put together until I heard “there’s a Bible in the sack,” and boy then all those pieces came right together.
One of your other popular songs is “Ode to the Shack in the Back.” Will you talk about that one?
The easiest thing is to write about something you know, and I was about 12 before I experienced indoor plumbing. That little brown shack out back was a part of my life, and I hated it on those cold days like today, but I thought it’s a good subject and I’ll make a funny song out of it. I’m not going to tell the truth about how I hated it.
Will you talk about how Judy Collins came to record some of your music?
Well Judy Collins was coming up. She wasn’t established totally, but she was on her way up and she did research like nobody else in the world. When she heard one of my songs – I think it was “The Coming of the Rose,” which I wrote here in North Carolina on my honeymoon with Mary – she called the publishers and found my phone number and she came over to Brooklyn Heights and made me play as many songs of my own as I could. Then we had a second session up on the East Side where she was, and I went there and spent two or three more hours [with her]. Boy she would go through hundreds of songs to get two or three.
She did “Winter Sky,” which also comes back to North Carolina. When I was on the dairy at Warren Wilson my boss would wake me up at 4:30 in the morning and take me to the dairy barn, and as I went out to get the cows it was not morning, but not night. It was that magic period [under] a winter sky. I still get shivers thinking about the inspiration, and I wrote “Out under the winter sky stars come trembling on my eye,” and then another verse, “I feel like something’s going to die,” and in another verse, “I feel like something’s being born.” It’s really a disguised Christmas song. I thought to myself, “Ain’t nobody going to record this song. It’s too esoteric. It’s too out there.” But when she heard it, she cut it right off. I don’t who else would have sung that song. I loved it. I used to sing it myself with the dulcimer.