By Laura Casteel
In Bollywood cinema, “dishoom” is the quintessential action sound, akin to the “pows,” “biffs,” and “zonks” of the 1960s “Batman” television series. But to one North Carolina DJ, it means a colorful clash of global music and artistic media that creates an explosion on the dance floor.
Ranganathan Rajaram, known professionally as DJ Rang, considers deejaying an art form. A student both of European and South Indian classical music, Rang brings his musical knowledge to the turntables through live mash-ups of vocals, rhythms, and global music samples, turning the space between songs into a creative canvas. His style draws crowds to his events throughout the Triangle: Super Secret Dance Party, at Arcana, and Flight Delayed!, at the Cortez Seafood & Cocktail. One event has become a fan favorite: “DISHOOM: A Global Dance Party."
Hosted annually at Motorco Music Hall, in Durham, DISHOOM is a live performance experience for all the senses. Rang spins an international playlist of Bollywood hits, bhangra, reggaeton, hip-hop, Arabic pop, and more, while Durham-based filmmaker Saleem Reshamwala (KidEthnic)—the director behind G Yamazawa’s viral music video “North Cack”—projects visual mashups of Bollywood movie clips and Youtube videos. Live musicians, such as percussionist Jeetu Singh and his brother, vocalist Manjit Singh, add their own flair to DJ Rang’s remixes, and attendees are treated to a Bollywood and bhangra dance lesson at the beginning of the event. These elements combine to form a diverse showcase of North Carolina talent. It’s a testament to the collaborative and international spirit of the state’s music scene, not to mention an incredible dance party.
Started in 2013, DISHOOM has evolved over the years. The January 2020 event shifted from the typical late-night party to a daytime, family-friendly event for all ages. This year’s DISHOOM was sponsored by UNC-TV, and served as a preview party for the PBS food series No Passport Required, with Marcus Samuelsson. As the event evolves, its cross-cultural, cross-generational appeal seems to reveal itself even more.
“It’s nice to see people…who were at my parties five years ago, and now they’re here with their families,” says Rang. “The ultimate reward of deejaying is seeing your crowd on the floor come alive.”
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, DJ Rang continues that evolution, bringing his Super Secret Dance Party back as a monthly livestream on Twitch. The next dance party will be on Friday, June 5. Keep an eye on DJ Rang’s Instagram, @DJRang, and Super Secret Dance Party’s Instagram, @SSDParty, for details.
Story and Video by Laura Casteel:
Laura Casteel is a video producer for the NC Department of Natural and Cultural Resources. Originally from Pittsboro, North Carolina, she is also a poet, essayist, and budding songwriter. Visit her website at casteelvideo.com or follow her on Instagram @casteel.laura.
Story & Interview by Sandra Davidson
It was big news when Tift Merritt returned to Raleigh, North Carolina last year. Born in Houston, T.X. but planted in the City of Oaks by the age of two, the Grammy-nominated songstress began making waves in the early 2000s with her dynamic voice and evocative song writing. Last year she and her daughter Jean moved back to her hometown after a nine-year stint in New York City, marking a new chapter of Tift’s career anchored in family, writing, and roots.
Tift, a 2019–20 N.C. Artist Fellowship Awardee, shared her thoughts on North Carolina arts in a 50 for 50 interview below.
Tell me about your creative process. How does the work come to be?
How does my work come to be? These days, because I’m a mom, it comes to be whenever it can, but I like to spend time with books and materials and my thoughts and start something and then I like to revise it and shine it and polish it and watch it walk away on its own.
What is your earliest memory of music?
Well my earliest memory of music and making music is spending time with my father. When he was home from work on the weekend, he would play piano and play guitar and harmonica and sing. I can remember sitting next to him on the piano bench and my feet not touching the floor. I think that music, at that point, was how I shared my love for my father with him, and that’s a very fundamental sense of expression. So, it started there.
How did you come to live in North Carolina?
My family moved here when I was two. My father was from Houston. My mother was not crazy about Houston. As families go, we ended up here. My mother’s family had been here, so my daughter Jean is fourth generation Raleigh.
When did you first started writing your own music?
I started writing and making my own music when I was a teenager. I think I felt very certain that I wanted to be a writer long before I thought that I could possibly be a musician. Music was this beautiful, strange language that was really powerful, and I felt lucky to be a part of it, but I never assumed that that would be what I was when I grew up. I still don’t take that for granted. But I think I’ve always felt very steady that I was a writer. So that was my door.
I grew up in Raleigh when it was a small town and when there was no internet and when finding a record that you loved was a huge secret revealed. My experience was of a sense of place, of a pocket of the world that was not like anywhere else.
What do you remember about the arts community in Raleigh from your childhood?
I grew up in Raleigh when it was a small town and when there was no internet and when finding a record that you loved was a huge secret revealed. My experience was of a sense of place, of a pocket of the world that was not like anywhere else, where accents were very strong and everybody knew your parents and there were all these crazy cousins in every Southern gothic family, and a lot of great stories. I remember in my teens finding books or movies that moved me. I remember my dad giving me Blonde on Blonde. [I remember] finding a Tom Waits record and an Emmylou Harris record. The doors to the world were opened in a wonderful way. I had much less access to information, and so information was more influential and more pivotal and more impactful. But I think the sense of place that I had in Raleigh was really special. It’s always been my frame of reference for home and also grounded me in the most lovely way so that I could go out in the world and do these interesting things.
I think arts education is really about teaching people to make their own way because usually people who are making really creative and unique work are having to make really creative and unique choices in their life. I don’t know that that is the strongest muscle in our societal body at this point.
As I understand it you had a great mentor in UNC - Chapel Hill’s creative writing program. Can you talk a little bit about how arts educators and mentors have touched your life?
I’m so fortunate that I have an amazing collection of mentors that have been touchstones for me. I think, first and foremost, Doris Betts at UNC was a huge influence on my life and my character. She was someone who was truly an artist but also truly of a family. Her family looked like mine, and she had an incredible work ethic and an incredible moral compass. For me, signing up for a bohemian life was at once very exciting and very different than what I had come from. So she gave me some foundations that felt like home, and she taught me to answer my own questions. Arts education is so important, and especially now with a daughter, I think about it. I think arts education is really about teaching people to make their own way because usually people who are making really creative and unique work are having to make really creative and unique choices in their life. I don’t know that that is the strongest muscle in our societal body at this point. I think making your own way comes with a lot of common problems that can feel very personal that actually are beneficial for people who are not artists. I think about Annie Dillard or Bob Dylan or Emerson or Thoreau. A lot of these great people forged their own path. I think that artists really have that in common. You have to fill a day with your own volition. You have to make choices that feel true to you, period. Those are really tough things to do that often isolate you and make you feel like you are an outsider. It takes a lot of faith to take that path. Arts education is thinking creatively but it’s also building a lot of strength and a lot of personal compass. I hope my daughter has those things.
You mentioned place really being your defining, driving creative force in terms of growing up in Raleigh. Will you talk about how that shows up in your process as a writer and a singer now?
I think sense of place runs through my work because it may be how I define authenticity—if it feels of something, of myself, of something unique. Sense of place is a really complicated idea because it has to do with having roots and being of something, but it also has to do with the ability to extend beyond and be equated with something greater. I think all of my heroes have a real sense of place. Eudora Welty is so of Jackson, Mississippi, and I always admired the fact that she didn’t have to go and invent drama in her life, that she never ran out of things to write about looking out the same window for her whole life. I think that’s beautiful and of depth. If you can be yourself in a small town, there’s nowhere to hide. If you are bumping into your neighbors and your family and you’re not anonymous somewhere, I think there’s a real beauty in showing up for that. I moved back here from being in New York City for nine years. That was hard. I loved being an artist in New York City. That’s the dream, right? But I realized that, for my daughter, my grandmother was buried just down the block, my mother is across town, and you can see the progress of human life. To give my daughter roots, it’s done. She knows just about everybody we walk by on the block. I think that’s amazing.
I know you first as Tift Merritt the musician, but you see yourself as a writer first and foremost?
I think that’s probably how most people think of me because that’s what I’ve made my career doing. But I’ve always been skeptical of that mechanism inside that wants to be in the spotlight. I’ve always been skeptical of the vanity of performance and the energy that is being in front of the camera. I’m always conscious of turning my eye back to the world. I wouldn’t pursue getting on stage if it weren’t for the feeling of having written something that I wanted to get up and say. I also just will probably always have more confidence as a writer than I will as a musician. I’ve played with virtuosos, and I know I’m not a virtuoso. I feel I’ve become fairly fluent as a musician, but there are a lot of people who speak with a lot more nuance than I do. I use the tools of music to be a storyteller. Words are my first language.
I know you collaborate with a lot of musicians around here. How would you describe the creative community in North Carolina now that you’re a part of?
I have to say that I think that my creative community here in North Carolina is everything. It’s saved me time and time again. I have such amazing lifelong friends here that I went to college with or played gigs with in my twenties. Sarah and Victor from Raleigh Denim lived in the same building with me in New York. We touch base with each other about having our own businesses and the struggles of independence. What is so striking about North Carolina now is the incredible caliber of people here that, actually, when I moved to New York City I felt odd that I was maybe one of the only people doing what I was doing. Now, I’m one of an amazing family of writers and filmmakers and poets and collaborators and designers. It’s a really fertile place.
Why do you think people are drawn to it?
Having the universities that we have and having a conglomeration of amazing, livable, beautiful cities is amazing. If you are going to be in the creative class at this point you need to have a place that is livable and friendly and somewhere that you want to raise your child and have a real life. London, San Francisco, New York, and Paris are very, very difficult places to do that. So, I think people are attracted to the space, the breathability, the possibility that can exist here. Plus, the fact that spring here is like nowhere else.
So, you have a lot of creative things in the works here. Are you able to talk about you have in the hopper?
I don’t know yet. No, I can’t…My projects right now have to do mostly with two decisions. One is the decision to not be on the road anymore for myself and my daughter. The second is the decision to really stay here, and so a lot of my projects are about North Carolina right now. I’m trying to rehab an old motel just down the street, the Gables on Old Wake Forest Road. I’m very interested in the Dorothea Dix Park reconstitution and exploring the hundred and seventy-five years of psychiatry that are embedded in that earth. I think there are some stories to be told, and I think music and art can be a way to metabolize and heal and proceed with a sense of peace into the future at that height. So, I’m really interested in that. Then of course I’m always sitting at this desk writing.
How do you think the state could better support artists?
I’d have to think about that for a long time because I think being an artist is a complicated thing right now. Immediately in terms of practical life, I think of how hard it is to get health insurance as a freelancer. I’m always a little concerned that we take our independent thinkers - which is this really foundational American principle - and isolate them in that way. I think that arts education is just important and valuable for everyone. Again, I think it’s about thinking for yourself and having the strength and clarity to think for yourself. Building those muscles takes time and practice. Any kind of general cheering we can do for our pioneers and the people who are willing to make their own way is really important, whether it’s health care support, financial support, calling attention to their work, or just helping the independent thinkers of tomorrow, but I think it’s really a fundamental thing to cheer pioneers and making your own road because it’s a tough way to go, but it’s really worth it. It’s worth it to have those people in your community.
If you'd like to learn more about Tift Merritt, visit her website 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.
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.
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
Thirty years ago somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the great American west, two twenty-somethings decided it would be fun to start a record label. The duo, Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance, noted a desert road sign on their cross-country trip back to North Carolina and decided to name the label after it: Merge. It was 1989, and the mission of Merge was simple: to release music made by them and their friends.
“We’ve always operated Merge as a label that we put out music that we love,” says Mac, while we’re sitting in the light-filled lobby of Merge Record’s offices in downtown Durham. In the early days, it was often music they made by their band Superchunk. Today, the label’s talent includes a blend of internationally known acts from North Carolina and beyond like The Arcade Fire, The Mountain Goats, Hiss Golden Messenger, and The Magnetic Fields.
“We choose bands that we like to work with. We manufacture their records. We promote their records. We distribute their records. We help develop the artist from whatever point they’re at when we start working with them until they win a Grammy…and then we’re done with them,” jokes Laura – who is responsible for the massive aloe plants sitting in the front windows of the office. Her comment is only a half-truth – The Arcade Fire did, in fact, receive a Grammy Award in 2011 for The Suburbs.
One wonders if Mac and Laura imagined what Merge would become in the early days: one of the most esteemed independent record labels in the nation. A linchpin in the Triangle’s storied indie music scene. One of our state’s crown jewels.
In celebration of the 30th Anniversary, which will be marked by MRG30, a multi-day festival from July 24 to July 27, we sat down with Mac and Laura for a special Come Hear North Carolina 50 for 50 interview.*
Will you describe what was going on in 1989 and how Merge came to be?
Mac McCaughan: It’s funny because I don’t remember when we started talking about doing it. We took a road trip across the country in 1989 to drive a couple of friends of ours back to the West Coast. We were going to drive across and then drive back by ourselves, and we were already trying to come up with a name at that point.
Laura Ballance: See, I think we didn’t even start talking about it until that trip. Or maybe you had an ulterior motive.
Mac: Maybe. But on that trip, we visited the Sub Pop [Records] offices in Seattle. We were obviously visiting because we were fans and we thought it’d be cool to see the office...but I also felt like we were already thinking about doing our own thing. And we were looking for a name, which is how we came up with Merge Records because we saw it on a road sign in the desert somewhere out there.
Laura: Whenever we’d talk about the road sign and naming the label, I also think about pronghorn antelope because [they live] in the part of the country that we were talking about it. We could have been called Pronghorn Antelope Records (laughs).
Mac: The first couple of releases we did were tapes, but we also had started what would become Superchunk. We were just called Chunk at the time. And the first three things that we put out – a 7-inch and a couple of tapes – were of bands that weren’t even active anymore, or in the case of Bricks, barely active. Chunk was kind of like our “real” band. That fall we put out the first Chunk 7-inch before we changed our name to Superchunk. All that happened in pretty rapid succession.
Why did you want to start a record label?
Laura: It seemed like there was a lot going on in the area musically. Maybe a summer or two before, Mac had taken a year off from college and was hanging out with a lot of people from Raleigh.
Mac: Wayne Taylor. Bill and Barbara who had Tannis Root productions. I was in a couple of bands including Wwax which was from Raleigh and Slush Puppies which was more based in Chapel Hill.
Laura: But all these people had decided to put out this box set of 7-inches, and it was very homespun.
Mac: The box set was “Evil I Did Not, To Nod I Live,” which is a palindrome. Wayne Taylor was very into palindromes, and this was kind of his idea. It was Black Girls, Angels of Epistemology, Wwax, Slush Puppies, and Finger. There was one single by each band in this box, and they came in a tape box that would hold a reel to reel tape, and the covers were silk-screened, and we did a couple of release shows where we sold the box set. It felt like a big deal to us, but it essentially gave us the experience of making records, so we knew how to do it. We knew that was not a mysterious thing and that it could be done.
So you were already embedded in the music community here and you saw a lot of people who were making music and were looking for ways to put their music out…and that was why you thought you could do a record label yourselves?
Mac: Yeah and I think at the time, certainly, bands around here put records out, but they mainly put them out on labels that existed somewhere else. It was a fairly novel thing to be a local label that was putting out local music.
Laura: But a lot of the smaller bands never put out records. They would be around for a little while then disappear…and it seemed like you could put out a 7-inch by some local band that may not be around that long and it’s not a big deal. It felt really much more casual and just fun than a serious pursuit…like it feels like now.
Laura: Now when we put out records it’s a commitment. If we’re going to put out your album you’ve got to tour. We want you to be around awhile. We’re going to put you through your paces. You’re going to do interviews. But back then it was like we’re going to put out a 7-inch. we’ll make 500 of them.
Mac: That’s fun.
Laura: And that’s fun! It doesn’t matter. It was great.
Are you both from North Carolina?
Mac: Well I was born in Florida, and we moved to Durham when I was 13, so I went to Junior High and High School here.
Laura: I was born in Charlotte, but I didn’t live there for very long.
Will you paint a picture of that era of music in the Triangle? It’s legendary. I’d love for you to talk about what the scene was like as it pertained to live music, indie music.
Laura: I’m thinking of two different eras. There’s pre-Merge when I was in high school, and then there’s the 90s. They feel really different to me. When I was in high school, I was living in Raleigh with my mom and it felt like this funny combination of punks and hippies all together. There were tons of shows at The Brewery in Raleigh, and the Cat’s Cradle was going at the time too, but I didn’t go to many shows at the Cat’s Cradle at that point. It was a stopping point in between D.C. and Atlanta, so a lot of bands would stop here even though it was a podunk town in terms of punk rock draw.
Mac: And I think that the 90s were different because there was some national attention to the area, whereas what you’re saying – in the 80s there was a ton happening, but it was more like around [just] here.
Laura: It was internal. It was family. It felt like family-style to me.
Mac: I think so much came out of the punk and hardcore scene which was really big when I was in high school because they were all ages shows. Whether it was at The Brewery or at a non-traditional place like Sadlacks in Raleigh, [which] had hardcore shows. There were shows in the basement of St. Joseph’s church over here in Durham. There was a place called the Turning Point in Carborro…it was kind of a hippie space, but they had punk shows there. There were lots of shows happening. A lot of bands played at parties. The first time I saw Polvo was in the basement of someone’s house in Raleigh. It really felt like in the late 80s there were a ton of bands, and even if they didn’t have records out you could hear them on WXYC and WKNC because those stations would play tapes, so, there was a lot of support for local bands even though very few of them had records out or had played outside of the area.
How did that scene impact the type of music you were making with Superchunk?
Mac: I mean I think that Superchunk – just like the label – reflected stuff that we were into. [It] sounded like bands we liked. I feel like Superchunk has never been the most original band musically because we sounded like a lot of the records that we listened to. The Buzzcocks cover was one of the first songs we learned when we first started playing in bands together. Dinosaur Jr. Sonic Youth. I feel like our first record sounds like that.
Laura: I know you were really into Soul Asylum.
Mac:Yeah, Soul Asylum. I remember Drivin’ N’ Cryin’ was an amazing live band I used to go see a lot. There was just a lot happening, and in the 90s it became a little bit different because the area became known as a place where there were a lot of bands, and it was going to be the next Austin, Seattle, etc. It became more nationally known at that time, but there were a million bands in the 80s.
Laura: I feel like the sound of the bands changed in the area around that time too. In the 80s it was much more eclectic, and there was no attempt at making something that would be successful commercially. It was just artistic expression, and with a lot of bands, it was just super weird. If you think about Angels of Epistemology or Erectus Monotone…they were just weird and awkward and difficult to get your head around sometimes, but then in the 90s, there were more bands like Archers of Loaf and Superchunk that are more like…normal sounding. Traditional rock song structure.
How did that national attention on this area impact Merge?
Laura: I’m sure the national attention to Chapel Hill helped Merge grow a lot at the time. People were more interested in what was coming out of this area, but also Superchunk helped Merge grow because at first Superchunk got more attention than Merge. We were touring a lot, so we were taking the message around the world. If Superchunk hadn’t done as well as it did, I don’t think Merge would be in existence today.
Mac: That carried the label for a while and was our full-time job more than the label was for a few years. Because people knew about Superchunk and knew that we had a label, I think it legitimized Merge. When we talked to someone like The Magnetic Fields, we were coming from a legitimate place. It provided a foundation for us to show other artists that we could do a good job with their records because they’d seen Superchunk records in stores, and they knew that they were doing well. The first Polvo record and the first Lambchop record those were kind of the first full-lengths that we did. Magnetic Fields was soon after that.
So, there’s the creative side where you’re making music, but then you also have the business side. How does that work for you? What has that been like for you both to manage being artists yourselves while also managing a business and being a steward of so many other artists’ work?
Laura: I think it helps that Mac and I have really different personalities and roles that we play. I tend to be more bottom-line oriented, or business oriented. He’s always been more creative focused. Of course, we both go back and forth on those things.
Mac: As Merge grew and Superchunk was also still active and busy, I think a lot of it just became [about] time management and structuring…not just your week but your year. Like…Superchunk’s going to be on tour for these six weeks then we’ll be here. Especially once we had a couple of other people working at Merge, we could do that more easily. But at the same time, it’s happened gradually over 30 years. There was never one tipping point where it was like all of a sudden, we have to figure out how to do all this stuff. You’re just kind of learning as you go. Little by little.
Laura: I have to say it was never my fantasy when we started the record label that I would have to deal with personnel management and things like that, and there are times where I wish it was just the creative part because the rest of it wears on you sometimes.
I feel like for most people there’s that reality or duality if you’re working in a creative field.
Mac: Yeah because you start it out like it was a fun art project. And then 30 years later a lot of your time is contracts, talking to other artists’ managers, finding the right distributor for your records in another country. All this stuff that you never had to think about for a while.
Was there a moment in the existing arc of Merge where you were like, “Wow…we’ve really arrived with the record label?”
Laura: A lot of them, I think. I think the first time we put out a full-length record and Touch and Go shipped it to us and we held it in our hands…we were like, “Damn we’ve done it now!” But then we had the 69 Love Songs box set, and it was so much more in demand than we anticipated. That was another moment when we were like, “Wow we’re doing something right except that we’re not making enough of these.” That happened again with Funeral– the Arcade Fire record. We thought, “This is a good band, this is a great record. We can sell at least 4,000 of these.”
Mac: Which would’ve been great for us.
Laura: That would’ve been great. But instead people immediately wanted way more than that, and we had committed to a very elaborate packaging that involved this silver foil that took a long time to dry, so when we printed them they had to sit there for a while or they would get messed up in the folder.
Mac: It wasn’t a normal job.
Laura: Had we known we would’ve made more in the first place.
When you are speaking with bands about coming to join Merge, what is your pitch? What makes Merge a good place to be an artist?
Laura: What I try to get across to bands is that we’re people you can trust. We’re also artists. We have been through everything we’re going to ask you to do, and we wouldn’t ask you if we wouldn’t do it ourselves…and if you say no, we understand. We’re not the biggest label, and we don’t have the most money. We’re never going to be the one to offer any band the biggest advance, but we want people to come here that want to be on Merge and want to be part of the family.
Mac: Just the fact that Merge is artist-run can give people an immediate confidence in the place that we’re coming from. Also, we have a staff of people that work here who are dedicated to what they’re doing which is trying to present your music in a way that you envision it being presented to the world and to make sure your music gets heard by the most people as possible without having to do things that are distasteful. Everyone who works at Merge including us always works with that in mind. [We’re] thinking about how the artist would want their record out there. How they would want it talked about to fans, to record stores, to distributors, to people at radio stations, to people who write about music. I think that we do a really good job at doing that.
We’ve been around long enough that I think it’s clear that we can adapt to all the different changes in the music industry. We’re always trying to come up with new ways to do what we do to make sure that we’re still doing the best job that we can in getting music out there. There are so many ways you can consume music, and there’s so much music out there which is great, but it also means that if you’re a label or if you’re an artist, you’re trying to cut through a lot of noise to make sure that people hear what you’re doing. Hopefully, the name Merge being on a record helps do that because we have 30 years of putting out records we love. I think people really trust the name to the point where yes, of course, they’ll listen to a new Lambchop record or a new Superchunk record, but also, they’ll listen to the new Ibibio Sound Machine record even though they’ve not heard of them before. Because it’s on Merge they want to check it out.
The tagline for Come Hear North Carolina is “The roots of American music run deep in North Carolina. This year we tell that story.” I would love for you to reflect on that idea as it relates to the universe of music that y’all have been working in: North Carolina’s indie music scene. What is unique about it? What is special about it from your perspective?
Mac: When I was in high school listening to college radio around here, I was hearing bands that were from North Carolina that had been making independent music and putting out records since the 70s. These were bands that were still around at the time like The dB’s, Let’s Active, Corrosions of Conformity. You could even go back to the bands that those people had been in before like Sneakers in Winston-Salem. It was really cool because you’re like, “Wow these are bands that people have heard of all over the world, but they’re from North Carolina and they’ve been doing this for a long time already.” It was cool to know that there already was this foundation or history of people making the kind of music that you were into right in North Carolina.
There were a couple of compilations that came out on Dolphin Records – like Mondo Montage – and they were more like pop records. Maybe you would call it college rock or indie music, but there was something southern about it, and there was something North Carolina about it. It wasn’t twangy necessarily. Even if you couldn’t put your finger on what it was, there was something unique about it which gave you a feeling of, “this is something to be proud of.”
What has made North Carolina a good place for Merge to be?
Laura: North Carolina has always been a good place for Merge to be. If you think about trying to be in a band, or trying to run a record label from inception when you have no resources....it’s best to live somewhere where the rent is cheap and supplies are cheap and people have free time because they don’t have to work all the time so that they can be in a band. They have time to be in a band and rehearse and do all of the hanging out that you have to do if you’re going to be in a band. Early on when we started Superchunk, people were like, “Why didn’t you move to New York City?” I was like, “Why would we do that?” We’d have to rent rehearsal space, haul our amps and our guitars to the rehearsal space and work our butts off to be able to afford to pay rent. This was a great place to incubate that kind of lifestyle with a whole bunch of other people who could do the same thing.
Mac: I also think that North Carolina’s a super interesting place to make music and be in a community of artists because the politics here are…I’ll just say interesting for lack of a better word. There were a lot of punk bands protesting Ronald Reagan in the 80s. In North Carolina, in particular, we had Jesse Helms as our Senator, so punk bands around here had a lot to talk about.
Laura: It’s true.
Mac: So, I think it was a great place to be to see how progressive people can live and express themselves and try to change things when maybe the overarching politics are regressive. You look around and there are people in all fields really working to try to make things better in North Carolina. I think it’s very inspiring for us as artists running a business to partake in that…to partake in the thing that we’ve seen other people do in the past.
Laura: On top of that, there are a lot of good universities in North Carolina. Usually, those are surrounded by or attended by people who are open-minded. Usually, there are college radio stations and music venues near the universities, and those were essential to growing a punk rock or indie music scene.
Mac: And of course, record stores.
How can North Carolina better support the music business?
Laura: Healthcare would be a great support to artists and would enable a lot of people to worry less and make more art.
Mac: And I think that this kind of initiative is important in terms of talking about the arts in North Carolina to the rest of the country…but also I think raising awareness so that people who live here see what they have and see how valuable it is. As artists and as people who’ve been artists in North Carolina for a long time, it’s a great place to make music and be in a band and make art. But I think that at a certain point it’s easy to do when you’re in your 20s when you can have another job…but if you want people to keep growing and keep doing what they’re doing it is important to provide things that would allow people to have a life…like health care. I think that would be huge.
Interview by Sandra Davidson & Wayne Martin | Photos Courtesy N.C. Music Hall of Fame
Edward Riley Ray, commonly known as Eddie Ray, is a North Carolina treasure and commercial music industry icon. Born in 1926 in Western North Carolina, Eddie worked his way up from stock-boy at a Milwaukee record distribution warehouse to the gilded executive rooms of America’s biggest record labels. A true innovator, Eddie relied on his gut instinct, appetite for work, and disregard for social and industry norms to build a career that contributed to the success of musicians like Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino, and Pink Floyd. Eddie dabbled in distribution, promotion, songwriting, production, A&R, and music education. Though his accomplishments are many, some of the key moments of his career are as follows:
Now 92-years-old, Eddie reflects on his career in this interview.
Let’s start at the beginning. Where in North Carolina are you are from and what was your musical upbringing like?
I’m from the State of North Carolina. I was born up in the Great Smoky Mountains about 75 miles on the other side of Asheville, North Carolina in a little town called Franklin. We listened to all kinds of music, but I grew up mainly listening to country and bluegrass. I didn’t hear much blues until I left North Carolina because I was up in the mountains listening to WBT, WSB, and WSM out of Nashville – the Grand Ole Opry and all that. I always loved music.
I left Franklin when I was 16 years of age to finish high school at Laurinburg Institute, which at the time was one of the best and one of the very few boarding high schools in the country for African American kids. A lot of very important people graduated from that school. Dizzy Gillespie graduated a few years before I did!
When I graduated from Laurinburg, the war was just about over. I had three brothers. One was in the tank destroyer battalion that went up into Germany, the other was in the Air Force that [flew] out of Italy and went into North Africa, and the other one was in the Navy, so I wanted to go into service. There were often special senior high school students [who went into] Army Specialized Training Programs and I took the test [for that] after I graduated in June of 1944. I was working in a ball bearing factory in Connecticut when I got a notice that I had passed. I was one of 133 other African American high school students [who passed]. They sent me to Howard University in Washington, D.C. until I became 18, and then I had to come back to North Carolina to do my basic training. It was there they discovered the formation of cataracts on both eyes. I was honorably discharged, and then I didn’t know what to do!
I decided to go to college. I contacted a lot of universities, but I liked the pictures of the campus of University of Delaware. I made the decision based on what I saw on the campus, but for some reason [before I left] I saw an ad saying “Beer that Made Milwaukee Famous” and I cancelled my plans and went to Milwaukee.
I went to get a job and was sent to a factory. I weighed about 125 or 130 pounds, and they said, “Get out of here you can’t do this work.” I didn’t argue with them, but I went back and they said, “There’s a distributing company for a record company named Decca Records here. They are looking for somebody to work in the shipping department.” The job was the lowest job there is – stock boy, and I took it. That was the start of a career I’ve been doing ever since. I learned everything there was to learn about the music business.
You’ve credited your success to two things: you have good timing and you know how to recognize talent. Will you talk about what it takes to recognize talent?
I think it came from those days when I was invited to go to sessions at Aladdin records. I would pay close attention to what was happening between the arranger, the producer, the engineer, and the artist, and I noticed one thing that I thought was a mistake [from] most A&R people.
And an artist is funny when they first start out in a session. They want to satisfy me. They want to satisfy the record company because we’re putting the money up. We’re doing everything, and A&R people had the tendency to want them to do what they were unable to do.
[When] you sign up an artist, you sign them because you detect the talent that they have. The uniqueness. The diversity.
[I remember] they [would] say, “Eddie how should I do this? How do you want me to do this?”
I’d say, “You’re kidding me. If I knew how to do it, I’d do it myself. I wouldn’t need you or to hire somebody else to do it. I want you to do what you feel. I don’t give a damn what the arranger wants.”
And they can understand that. They’d never had that kind of relationship with the A&R people before.
A lot of people ask me how would you want to be remembered. I’m never concerned about those kinds of things. I’m not the one that needs to be credited with anything that’s happened. For me it’s those talented artists I’ve worked with who should get the claim, not me.
Will you tell us about your relationship with Mike Curb who helped revitalize the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame with you?
It’s a very strange thing. I was with Imperial Records, but I had made a commitment to Capitol Records. Capitol was owned by EMI, an English company. They had started losing a lot of their English acts because the A&R staff and the marketing staff at Capitol Records had no experience with those kinds of artists. [We were in the middle of] the English Invasion as we referred to it in the industry, and those kind of artists were more closely attuned to what independent companies had been doing, which I had been doing. So, I made a deal as A&R head for the new company at Capitol, and I was getting ready to leave Imperial, and the secretary came and said there’s a young man here to see you. I said, “Who?” She said, “His name is Mike Curb.” I had a rule that I never would see anybody unless I had a previous appointment. I had a lot of rules but thank God I was the type of guy who would break rules. For whatever reason I said send him in. This kid walks in. He’s about 17 and he told me about a group and he said, “I’d like to do an audition for them.”
I said, “Okay.”
I thought he had a demo. I reached my hand out, and he said, “No, I want to do a live audition.” I said, “Live? I don’t do live auditions,” but for some reason I said, “Okay.” He goes out to the car and brings in these three girls. He sets up at the little piano and they perform songs he produced.
I told him that I would be leaving the company in a month, and I forgot all about it. I really did.
First day at Capitol – first DAY - they called me and say, “There’s a young man here to see you.” I said, ‘Send him up.” We started talking and I was more impressed with him than I was with any of the [artists he presented]]. I talked to the President and I told him I wanted to hire him as a fulltime producer. He said, “Eddie if you feel that way about him [do it].” [At that time] they had A&R old guys who were producing Nat King Cole, Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand – no young producer like Mike. He was all excited about it and started the contract to the legal department. He would’ve been by far the first young person Capitol ever hired.
Mike came by one day and said, “Mr. Ray I want to talk to you. I want to thank you for all you’re trying to do for me, but I think I’m going to try it on my own at least for another 10 years.” I had more respect for him then than ever.
Then he brought me another guy who took an old song called “Apache” and redid it and called it “Apache 65” and I said, “Mike why don’t you put this out locally on your own and if it starts making some noise I’ll let you use my promotion man on the west coast. And I want an option on it for Capitol.”
He said, “How do I do that?” I told him how to do it. Press about 500 records – he didn’t know how to do that, so I called the pressing plant for him. It’s the first record on Curb Records. We broke it in Bakersfield, California of all places. Then I picked it up for Capitol and [it became] his first Billboard record on Curb Records. Then he came to me with another thing. He goes to AIP – American International Pictures – and he tells them he’s got a deal with Capitol Records for soundtracks, and he wants to produce soundtracks. They were doing motorcycle movies and surfing movies and Nancy Sinatra Peter Fonda movies. He tells them he’ll do the soundtrack for all the movies, and he had guaranteed distribution through Capitol. He comes to me and tells me he’s got the deal with AIP. He ain’t got the deal with either one of us!
Then I say how much is it going to cost me. He gave me a figure that was unbelievable. It was nothing. This deal went on for three years and we had about six or seven albums, but that’s why I got my vice presidency with Capitol Records. Of course, I picked up Pink Floyd – that helped.
But that’s the story of Mike and I. Later on, I get this call from Mike, he must’ve been 24 or 25. He’d just been hired as President of MGM Records and wanted me to come work as Senior Vice President, and I did. It’s a hell of a story. We’ve been friends ever since.
Will you tell that Pink Floyd story?
See I came a little too early. This was in ’66 I believe. I picked up Freddie and the Dreamers and they went number one. I started hearing all about Pink Floyd doing so well in England, so I went over. And then I checked to see what Capitol was going to do [with them]. They had first refusal rights on all EMI products for Americans [and] for Mexico and South America. They only had two months left on the option to pick it up, so I decided to pick them up. I brought them over and we did the master of the tape there at Capitol. We had the Beatles [who] were hot as a pistol then. They are all excited about – did the Beatles use this studio?
Then I had Mike Curb help them master the album. He tells me years later, “Eddie I didn’t know how to master.” He’d been working with those damn high school students! But anyway, they came and it was unbelievable. We had a pre-release party with local distributors and DJs for the first album, and I think only about 90 people showed up. Two years later they came out there and they filled the stadium after Dark Side of the Moon. But what I did is save them for Capitol. They would have lost them.
What wisdom do you like to offer people interested in going into the business?
Students [often] ask me to offer advice, and I say, “Whatever success I’ve had – if I had it – has nothing to do with you. It had to do with me. I can’t transfer that. I want you to be certain about what you want to do. Is this what you want to do? Do you think you’re somebody? Do you think you’re an artist? If you think that, then you go out and get it done. I want you to please that voice inside you. That’s the only thing that counts. Learn everything there is about the industry and about what you’re doing. Everything there is.”
Why was it important to you to be a part of revitalizing and building the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame?
I think it’s especially important for the artists that came from here that had to go away and they never got any recognition! Look at the jazz artists that came from here. Look at the bluegrass. Look at the country. Look at the gospel.
People that have contributed in other ways - like in the textile industry or in basketball - people in all the other industries that brought economic success to the state [are recognized]. Music and arts bring some of that too, but it brings other things that are more personal. It has to do with the emotions. It has to do with so much of the total enjoyment of life. Why shouldn’t it be recognized and publicized and honored the same way you honor Duke Industries for all the things that they have done? Or the medical field?
One of the things that I preach to the board is I don’t think of the induction ceremony as being a money maker. This is one of our reasons for being here -- to honor these people. To recognize, to honor, and to promote them because they were never given that honor before. I think it’s so important.
If you'd like to learn more about the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, visit their website here.
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
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
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 | 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.
Story by Sandra Davidson | Photos by Linda Fox | Archival Photos courtesy Arvil Freeman
Arvil Freeman likes to say, "I can teach you to play, but how good you’ll be depends on you."
He’s talking about fiddling. Arvil Freeman is one of western North Carolina’s most respected fiddlers and fiddle instructors, and he’ll receive the North Carolina Heritage Award on May 23 for his life-long devotion to the region’s traditional music. He’s been on the traditional music scene since 1950 when he made his radio debut on WCYB in Bristol Tennessee as a 14-year-old member of the Green Valley Boys. His long career is full of moments with bluegrass heavy-lifters, but he’s proudest of his work as a fiddle instructor. For him it’s personal. In this special podcast profile, Arvil freeman explains why.
"I had a hard time learning to play the fiddle because we lived way out back on Paw Paw when I was a youngster. There was nobody within miles that even played fiddle," says Arvil. "I’m self-taught. I had to work hard. Sometimes I would sit as a youngster for four or five hours in the chair and never get up and play. That’s what I’m talking about…more time you put into it the more you’re going to get out of it."
Arvil grew up in Paw Paw, a remote community in Madison County so isolated that his family only headed into town once a year for supplies.
"If you lived on Paw Paw nothing was easy," says Arvil.
"But those were good days. We had no worries. We always had plenty to eat. I’m not sure that them wasn’t better times in life. I think they were. As long as you had good seasons to grow then you was in business because you grew everything you eat. The only thing we ever bought when I was growing up was flour, salt and sugar."
His older brother Gordon was the first of his siblings to pick up the fiddle, and Arvil quickly followed suit. The boys came of age as musicians in the 1940s and 1950s when visionaries like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs were crystallizing the definitive sound of bluegrass. They played with many of the era’s most famous innovators, but Arvil’s playing style falls somewhere between bluegrass and old-time and versatility is something he intentionally honed throughout his career.
"I can play just about any type of fiddle you want to play including western swing…a little bit of jazz. I used to play country a lot," says Arvil. "Over the years I learned enough to be able to play any type…enough to get by if I was asked to get by. You have to, to survive. I teach my students to play everything. If you’re going to play in a working band, you’re going to have to play all kinds of music."
Arvil became a decorated veteran of region's fiddling competitions, and he spent some time on the road as a touring musician. He toured briefly with the popular bluegrass duo Reno and Smiley in the 1960s and even had the opportunity to join Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers, but the lifestyle of the road didn’t suit him. Arvil ultimately chose to make a career of playing local venues around the Asheville area. He’s been the lead performer for decades at Asheville’s annual Shindig on the Green and he spent 14 years as the fiddler for the Marc Pruett band.
Arvil's widely respected for his ability to improvise around a simple melody, and he says his unique style serves an artistic and practical purpose.
"There’s hundreds and thousands [of fiddlers]. If you sit down and take CDs and play exactly like somebody that’s recorded…well then who is going to play like you? So you know, use your imagination! Good Lord give you a brain, so use it."
Arvil’s artistry and perspective have drawn students from all over, and he’s as passionate a teacher as they come. He’s driven by his own memories of teaching himself how to play fiddle, and by the joy his students bring to him.
"I’ve been very fortunate to have the wonderful students that I’ve got," says Arvil. "It’s made my life worth living because I accomplish something every week."
Arvil Freeman 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.