50 for 50: Dick Knight

Story by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Dick Knight says there's something about Kinston.

"It’s hard to leave Kinston. They say if you drink some of the Kinston water you won’t go nowhere," says Knight. "It seems like a quiet town but there’s so much happening. At one time Kinston was like a little New York. Five or six different bands on the weekend [that] you’d go out there to see and play. It was great."

Knight is a professional musician, retired school teacher, and 2018 North Carolina Heritage Award recipient. He's is one of several excellent soul, R&B and funk musicians with deep ties to eastern North Carolina, but his Kinston story is an unlikely one. In this episode of Arts Across NC, we get the scoop on how Kinston led this music-loving Georgia native to James Brown, and a fulfilling career as an arts educator.

The episode features original music from The Monitors and a clip from James Brown's Grits & Soul album.

Dick Knight was born and raised in Camilla, Georgia.  Music was a part of his life from the very beginning. His mother played organ at church and his father played the blues. He was 6-years-old when he got his first trumpet and not too much older when a band teacher at school changed his life.

"He had gone to A&M and he was playing so well, and I said I just want to be like this man. I want to do this. I wanted to be like everybody that was good," says Knight, who saw Florida A&M's legendary marching band when he was in middle school.  "When I saw that band I think I was in 8th grade at that time. I knew then that was it. I wanted to be a professional trumpet player and a band teacher. There wasn’t a question about it."

Florida A&M was home to the crown jewel of college marching bands, and Knight set his mind to being a part of it. He was only 16 when he graduated from high school and traveled to Tallahassee to audition for the legendary program.





"When I went there they had 30 members in the trumpet section. About 100 freshman trying to get into that school…about 100 trumpet players. We had to go two weeks before the school was open and they had 5 slots available. They selected five out of the 100. I was in the five," says Knight.

Knight sped through college and graduated in three years. His department’s job placement program identified two positions for new graduates in North Carolina: one in Kinston and one in Farmville. Knight and a friend flipped a coin to see where they each would go and as luck would have it he ended up in Kinston. 

"Never in my life had I ever heard of it," says Knight. "Never head of Kinston."













He took a job as a band teacher at Savannah High School in Grifton. He was only 19-years-old when he showed up for work, and he had no idea what he was walking into.

"When I came to Kinston I wanted the band at Savannah where I taught to be just like Florida A&M. At the time I came up here the band room was upstairs in the gym in the shower room. My principal was a man by the name of Mr. Rufus Flanagan. He said: I’m going to send for the band members. The band members came over – there were about 17 or 18 - and they played for me. When I heard that sound I said, 'Oh is this really it? Do I have to live with this now?' I didn’t have a bicycle, a car, or nothing. If I had a car I think I would’ve gone back to Florida at that time," remembers Knight.

"But I sat down with him and explained and he said ‘You’re in the real world now. You wanted a job, you got it. And we expect you to build a band program.’ So that’s what I did."

As luck would have it, Knight quickly fell into a community of ambitious, active musicians like himself. He became friends with Melvin and Maceo Parker - the brothers who later became influential members of the James Brown band - and Nat Jones, a fellow band teacher at a neighboring school, who left Kinston a few months after Knight arrived.

"Next time I hear of Nat, he was in New York. He was the band leader for James Brown," says Knight. 

"So he called me on a Wednesday. He said, 'Dick Knight, do you want to be the first trumpet player for James Brown?' I said, 'Yeah, but I don't have any money [and] I don't know if my principal and my superintendent will release me.' And he said, 'Well find out, and I'll call you back tomorrow. I want you to be at the Apollo Theater 4:00 on Friday evening. The job is yours if you want it.' So, I talked to the principal and I told him what I wanted to do and the next morning he carried me to the superintendent and they released me. That Friday evening I was knocking on the back door of the Apollo."

Knight joined the James Brown band and performed on several of his records.  He even toured with Otis Redding. But life on the road wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and he never stopped dreaming of being a band teacher. 





"You know you think it’s so great, but when those lights up there go out, that bus is outside getting ready to go. And you better be on it or you going to get left. All the admiration and all the stuff people thought was going on…the lights go out then you’re back to reality. It’s all dead," says Knight.

"It was a great experience to do that, but it means a lot to come home and get in your bed every night and work with children. My reward wasn’t money. It’s just like now – a lot of kids say, 'Oh that’s Mr. Knight! You taught me in high school. You did this you did that!' And I feel so good about it. That’s my reward."

Knight taught music for 47 years, many of them in Miami. He moved back to Kinston in 1998 and taught music in elementary and middle schools until 2007. Today he performers with The Monitors, and as a solo act called The Captain. He’s thrilled about winning the North Carolina Heritage Award.

"I made pretty good money out on the road, but this award means more to me than money," says Knight. "To win it…I almost fainted! I said what! Ain’t nowhere else left to go."

You can see Dick Knight performing at the 2018 NC Heritage Award Ceremony and Concert on May 23 in downtown Raleigh. You can get your tickets here.



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


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.

50 for 50: Tony Williamson

Story by Sandra Davidson | Archival photos courtesy Tony Williamson

Friday, March 16, 2018

Tony Williamson's musical journey has taken him all over. It’s carried him to stages around the world where he’s played with bluegrass greats like Bill Monroe, Sam Bush, and Ricky Skaggs. It’s transported him into a hospital room where he was told he’d never play music again, and it’s led him to an Ashram in Taiwan, where he sought reinvention through Eastern philosophy. But before the big successes, crippling accidents, and spiritual awakenings, there was his family’s home in rural Randolph county and that’s where it all began.  It was there where he first picked a guitar, plucked a banjo, and strummed the strings of a mandolin - an instrument he was destined to meet 

In this special 50 for 50 podcast, meet Tony Williamson a 2018 North Carolina Heritage Recipient and mandolin virtuoso. 


“I know my family never saw music as a vocation...as a way to make money. For them music was fun, was joyous, was relaxation, was like playing ball.”  

Tony Williamson grew up immersed in the sounds and culture of North Carolina’s Piedmont. His grandfather - who built his own instruments - and his father were both mill-workers. He and his brother Gary learned to play by listening to the music their father made with friends from the mill every Friday night.  Like so many mandolin-players, Tony’s life changed forever when he saw Bill Monroe Play.  

“My cousin took me to hear Bill Monroe when I was nine years old," says Tony. "I was already playing the mandolin with my family, you know just kind of fooling around. But when I heard Bill Monroe....he had such a commanding presence in his singing and in the way he ran his show and in the energy...and then he would take a mandolin break and we’d all just lose our minds.” 

After that Tony doubled down on the mandolin. He learned to play every Bill Monroe song he could get his hands on. By 1969, he was racking up mandolin prizes from fiddle conventions across the Piedmont and he and his brother’s band The Bluegrass Gentleman were a regional sensation.  Then in 1970, he was selected to go to Governor's School, a residential summer program for academically gifted high school students.

“It was like a whole new world opened up for me," says Tony. "There [was] this incredible library of all this stuff, and there are other kinds of music, and art and literature. And so I start[ed] writing some pretty cool things. I expanded the harmonic range so that I can include more than just a song, more than just a story...but an actual multi-dimensional feeling.” 













After getting a degree at UNC-Chapel Hill, Tony moved to Kentucky and play music professionally. Over the next few years his reputation as a mandolinist grew, and he played with the likes of Earl Scruggs, Bill Monroe and Bobby Hicks. Despite the singular experiences he had on the road and living in Kentucky, Tony couldn’t escape the harsh realities of the music business.  

“I kind of hit a brick wall. I really wasn’t all that successful financially. We just couldn’t get anywhere in the business. In retrospect it’s because we really didn’t understand the business of music which is a completely different aspect than being a musician.  

So in the early 1980s Tony moved back to North Carolina where he bought a farm and built a log cabin with his father. At some point he thought he’d never play music again. 

“I remember one of my students came up here to see me because I wasn’t out there playing," says Tony. "He said, 'You told me one time you’ve never swing a hammer because you care about your hands.' And I said 'Well I finally figured out that nobody gave a damn about my music.' I said that to him. I think that’s when the cosmic forces decided we need to slap this boy down. So I had a series of accidents, and I was told by an orthopedic guy in Chapel Hill that I would never play music again…and I entered into a dismal, dismal part of my life.” 













During that dark period, Tony opened Mandolin Central where he started trading and selling antique mandolins. In the years that followed the accidents, he sought relief through acupuncture and a retreat at an Ashram in Tawain. Today Mandolin Central has grown into an internationally known business and mandolin archive that’s drawn mandolin enthusiasts from around the world, and Tony is back on the mandolin playing pain free. 

When he’s not on the road, you’re more than likely to find Tony spending time with his wife and dogs at his farm in Pittsboro, N.C. Over the years musicians he’s mentored - like Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange and Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and the Punch Brothers - have visited him there to play and to learn. A true renaissance man, Tony’s approach to mentoring and to creating mirrors his philosophy of being. 

“I definitely model the behavior I want. I think that’s completely silly not to. You can’t do that.  It’s absolutely important to create a kind of vibration in yourself and attract people who want to be a part of that vibration, and part of my role as a mentor is to show them how to stay on course.” 



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


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.

50 for 50: Glenn and Lula Bolick

Story by Sandra Davidson

Monday, March 5, 2018

2018 North Carolina Heritage Award recipients Glenn and Lula Bolick have carried many traditions of North Carolina's mountains and piedmont into the 21st century through the pottery and music they've made together for over 50 years. In this special podcast profile, Lula, a fifth-generation potter from Seagrove, NC, and Glenn, a fifth-generation sawmiller from Caldwell County, reflect on their lifetime commitment to preserving and sharing their family traditions.

This episode features music by Phil Cook and the Bolick Family.









If there were such a thing as North Carolina pottery royalty, then Lula Bolick comes from it. The rich piedmont clay that lies just beneath the topsoil drew her family to Seagrove over a hundred years before it was the pottery destination it is today, and Seagrove is North Carolina's most famous pottery community in part because of her family's work. Her great-grandfather founded Seagrove's Owen's Pottery in the late 1800s. But Lula didn't start throwing her own pots until after she married her husband Glenn Bolick. Glenn was born and raised in Bailey's Camp, a mountain community just outside of Blowing Rock. 

Glenn grew up surrounded by music, storytelling, and sawmilling. He comes from a long line of craftsmen who've worked timber of the Appalachians as sawmillers since the 1880s. 













Glenn and Lula met in the parking lot of a drive-thru grill in 1962. At the time, Lula was working third-shift at a local hosiery factory and Glenn was working at a nearby quarry as a rock crusher. They married several months later.

Glenn learned pottery under the tutelage of Lula's father, who had a booming pottery business in Seagrove.  In 1973, Glenn and Lula bought back his family farm in Caldwell County where they moved to start their own pottery business. 

"It wasn't easy when we moved here," says Lula. "He worked at a paper mill, sawmills, [and as a] rock crusher down at Lenoir before we actually made it with pottery. We didn't have an already established business. We had to do it ourselves."

Today Glenn and Lula's family farm includes an antique sawmill, a pottery studio and shop, and a stage where they hosted bluegrass jams for years. They have taken their pottery and music to folk festivals and fairs across the state, and today their daughter Janet Calhoun and her husband Michael continue the pottery tradition through their pottery business Traditions. 

Glenn, Lula and Janet will perform in their family band at the North Carolina Heritage Awards Ceremony on May 23. Tickets to the North Carolina Heritage Awards are available at here.



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


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.

50 for 50: Scotty McCreery

Story by Sandra Davidson | Archival footage courtesy Scotty McCreery

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Scotty McCreery was only 17 when he won American Idol in 2011. Viewers of the hit singing competition TV series fell in love with his authentic charm and powerful deep voice, which also impressed the show’s judges. During his audition tape, judge Randy Jackson remarked, “Dude. Love you. Love that you’re a throwback country guy singing low like that.”

It was and remains a fair characterization of Scotty’s music.

Eight years after Idol, Scotty is on the brink of releasing Seasons Change, his fourth studio album which drops on March 16. A life-long fan of old-school country—think George Jones, Conway Twitty and Ronnie Milsap—fans can expect the new album to be even more country than his previous three, which included the platinum-certified Clear as Day (2011) and gold-certified Christmas with Scotty McCreery.

The bright lights and big achievements haven’t blinded Scotty to his roots. Scotty spends most of his downtime in North Carolina. Success has only made him more grateful for where he’s from.  





We are here today in the Garner Performing Arts Center, so it seems fitting to begin by talking about growing up in Garner. What was it like?

I sang here quite a few times in my early days! It’s cool to be back here. Garner was a great place to grow up. They really embraced the arts. Garner had that small-town feel. High school football was king. Everybody would come out to the performances we had for chorus. I was in music education in schools from a very young age. They nurtured my love for singing and music and [they taught me] how to create music. It was huge for me to go to school and to have a whole hour to sing. That was my favorite time of day, every day.

What music did you grow up listening to?

My goodness. I was a young guy in the early nineties and 2000s, and all my friends were listening to the Backstreet Boys and NSYNC—and they’ve got some jams—but I listened to a lot of the older country music….Elvis Presley, Conway Twitty, Ronnie Milsap, Dolly, and Loretta. The older traditional music influenced me, and you can see that in my music today.





Why were you drawn to that kind of music?

I’m not sure what it exactly was. I do remember when I was like five-years-old my grandma gave me a book all about Elvis Presley, and I read it cover to cover and wanted all his CDs. I had a cassette with Elvis on one side and Little Richard on the other, and I wore that thing out. That’s just what I gravitated towards. That’s just who I am.

Do you see a connection between the values you were raised around and the type of music you like to make?

Absolutely. Elvis was from a very small town [and so were] a lot of the other folks. They’re just typical hard-working folks who grew up and had a chance to sing music. That was me! I was a local grocery store bagger here in Garner, and all of a sudden, I got this big chance and now I get to sing country music for a living. I never forget my roots or where I came from. The values I learned here — hard work, perseverance, dedication to what you’re doing — it’s stuff that I still carry over today, and I try to sing about.

How has North Carolina influenced the way you think about music and make music?

There were a lot of big acts from North Carolina that I listened to growing up. Randy Travis and Ronny Millsap are two guys I listened to constantly. Every artist is different, but I try to think about their sounds, their music, their words, how they told a story when I’m writing songs.

You're six years out from American Idol. How has your relationship to this state changed?

I think over the years I’ve gotten a better appreciation for Garner [and] for North Carolina. Especially with all the traveling I’m doing. They say there’s no place like home, and that’s the truth. Nothing beats getting back home, seeing my old friends, going back to the high school and seeing old teachers. I think my appreciation for North Carolina’s just gone up. I love this place. I really do.



Scotty's original audition for American Idol.









"Five More Minutes" is the first single off Scotty McCreery's upcoming album "Seasons Change."



What’s it like to play music for North Carolinians after being on the road?

 Nothing beats North Carolina to me. I’ve traveled all the way around the world. I’ve hit every state in this country except Alaska, but I’ve never found any place like North Carolina. It’s like a homecoming for me every time. It’s cool to see the [people] that gave me the support through the show. I really appreciate them.

Are there places in Garner or in North Carolina that you visit when you’re seeking creative inspiration?

There are a lot of little places I like to go to recharge the batteries and get creative in North Carolina. Recently my favorite spot has been the mountains. I only went there to ski when I was younger, but in the last three or four years I’ve really rediscovered the place in the summer and found swimming holes and hiked, and it’s just cool to get away from the hustle and bustle of everything and be out there in nature. It’s refreshing.

A number of North Carolinians have done well on American Idol. What do you think that’s about?

I don’t know! I do think North Carolina tries very hard to nurture the arts, to embrace the arts, and to teach the arts. I’m sure that has a lot to do with it. Also, I just think there’s a lot of crazy talented folks. I’m just amazed [by] the incredible local talent around Garner.

How can we better support and engage artists?

When I was growing up the schools were really all about the arts, and they’re still pretty good…but nowadays they’re cutting funding in certain parts of the school and the first place they always want to look is the arts, and I’m like no! That’s where folks learn to think outside of the box, think creatively, think differently than the person sitting right next to them at their desk. Everybody knows the exact formulas for math and science, but there’s no one way to do music or arts, so for that’s my biggest thing…really supporting the arts in the schools.



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


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.

50 for 50: Sylvan Esso

Story by Sandra Davidson

Thursday, January 25, 2018

There’s something special about Durham’s arts scene. If you’ve followed our 50 for 50 project, you know that by now. Sylvan Esso, the Durham-based electronic pop duo, knows that too.

Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn, who make music as Sylvan Esso, moved to North Carolina five years ago. Back then, Sylvan Esso was just beginning. Today they are arguably the Bull City’s most widely known band. Their songs and music videos have been streamed millions of times online, and last November their sophomore album “What Now” received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album. Two days before they debuted a new single on Jimmy Kimmel Live, Amelia and Nick met me at their studio for a conversation about why they choose to make North Carolina their home.

Where did you each grow up?

Amelia Meath: I grew up in Cambridge, MA.

Nick Sanborn: I grew up in Madison, WI.

What brought you both down here?

Nick: I have been touring for most of my adult life, and this was the only place I’d ever been where I immediately felt like it was a place that I could live. I’ve never thought that about any other place I’ve been on tour. I immediately liked it. I think it’s because it’s so much like Wisconsin. The people are very similar.

I started playing with the band Megafaun because we knew each other from Wisconsin, so I started coming down here four or five times a year for work, and then eventually just decided I wanted to stop flying here all the time and moved.

Amelia: I had just gotten done playing backup for Feist and was living in Brooklyn. We had just started the band, and I came to visit and liked it and moved here for six months. That was five years ago.





Why is this a good place to do your work?

Nick: A lot of things make North Carolina a perfect place for a musician. The cost of living being low and service jobs being a-plenty is the crucial bedrock. I try to imagine if I had grown up somewhere else where it wasn’t possible to have a job that you left all the time and a place that you lived and a practice space. Being able to get a practice space is so crucial and so impossible in other places on a bartender’s or a delivery driver’s earnings. In that way this place is kind of perfect. That’s all really doable. But it’s more than that.

Amelia: The scene in the Triangle and in North Carolina is really, really supportive. I think everyone’s just deeply excited about what everyone else is doing and whenever anyone has a show usually at least half of us show up.

Nick: [All of] that has drawn this insane group of musicians here, all of whom are working together all of the time, so there’s this bed of inspiration that keeps bouncing back and forth and careening off the walls. Then the other part [is] the average person here goes to a lot of events a year and wants to! That’s super rare [and] I don’t think people who have grown up here get how rare [it] is, but that’s just a part of what everybody does. If something sounds like a good idea people will pay and go to it, which sounds like a low bar but—

Amelia: —It’s rare.

Nick: So rare and so wonderful and it means all of these things can happen that otherwise wouldn’t be able to happen. It means that the birth of a thing is so much easier, that it doesn’t have to go through these stages of pulling teeth…of dragging people out to things. There’s this great element to the culture here where everybody wants to help something good happen and does so non-competitively.

Amelia: And there’s a lot of other stuff going on as well as music. We’ve got ADF. We’ve got Full Frame. We’ve got a number of theatre companies. There’s a plethora of different artistic pursuits happening which is so refreshing, and I know all the people that do those things. It’s very different when the scene is so small that you can see everyone at the farmers market and say, “Hey! Hi!”













Talk more about the spirit of collaboration here. You collectively have worked on soundtracks and with other Triangle musicians. How does that fit into your life here?

Amelia: Here’s the thing...if we’re home and someone asks us to do something, we’re going to do it. It’s so fun to be involved. I wrote a song on Phil [Cook]’s record with him that’s coming out soon. I got to sing with Hiss Golden Messenger a bunch. It’s just a different way of hanging out with friends.

Nick: I think there’s this magical thing where that stuff’s just all happening all the time, which is a thing people associate with much larger cities, but it’s constant here. We started this weird little studio house like a year ago, and it’s been full pretty much since we first set up a microphone in it.

Amelia: And people have started coming here to make records from out of town and working with musicians that are here, which is also really exciting.

Nick: It just feels like this constantly stirring thing. It’s always feeding us. Right when we moved here I put on this show at Duke Performances. It was a show [with] all my friends who tended to be musicians in other people’s bands. We did this entirely collaborative show where we each backed up each other [and] rotated the front man. I can’t imagine having done that in any other place that I’ve lived and having it be that easy. Aaron Greenwald from Duke Performances it the only reason that show happened!

Amelia: We love you Aaron Greenwald!

Nick:  Yeah thanks Aaron! I wouldn’t have even thought to do that had he not sought me out and demanded that I put a show together. I think that set a tone for my relationship with the entire creative community here. It felt like I was stepping into a place where not only did everybody want cool things to happen, but they wanted to be a part of them, and if they weren’t happening they came and knocked on your door and made sure you came out and did something. That’s just not the case everywhere.  

How can North Carolina better support artists?

Nick: I know this isn’t you guys but those film subsidies going away were a huge deal. Like most musicians, I’ve worked in a lot of film myself and have a ton of friends who work in film. It’s just one of those no-brainers. It pays for itself so many times over. I never understand why states take them away because they bring in so much business for a creative class and all that does is generate income for everybody. That would be a gigantic win for North Carolina’s creative force. Look at other states where that’s happening right now! New Mexico is having a film renaissance because their film subsidy [went] up. They gave film companies tax breaks and [had] the arrival of Meow Wolf. All it took was these two pieces to get in motion to enable an entire group of creative people to bring back entire sections of a town.

Amelia: And [it involved] people who wouldn’t have necessarily been creative in the first place, and I think that’s the thing that makes me really excited when I think of a utopian North Carolina.

Art is created by people who have time, and time is only available to those who can afford to have it. The more people we can give time to, the more art we’ll create.

Nick: Which trickles into everything. It’s all-intersectional. The affordability of real estate and the cost of living affects the creative class anywhere. [In] Durham right now the rents are going up like crazy. If I moved here now, it’s not a place that I would be able to do the thing that I’m talking about.

Why do you believe public funding for the arts is important?

Nick: Why do you think Google is here? I think a thriving arts scene makes a city a desirable place to go and live and start a business. Where do you want to live? What do you want to be happening in the place that you live? Do you want everybody just to wake up and go to work and go home? What would be the purpose of living in a city? Why do I want to tell people that this is a great place?

Amelia: It’s the food. It’s the music. It’s the people.

Nick: It’s the things that are happening. It’s the energy of the city.

Amelia: Art is enriching [and] Durham has always been full of amazing art makers.



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


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.

50 for 50: M.C. Taylor and Phil Cook

Story by Sandra Davidson

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

M.C. Taylor and Phil Cook are anchors of Durham's indie music community. Phil is known for making music with his band Megafaun and The Guitarheels and for playing in M.C.'s American folk band Hiss Golden Messenger, an outfit widely praised for its genre-blending soul-searching music. 

Both M.C. and Phil transplanted to North Carolina in the mid 2000s, and they met each other in 2012 at a Hiss Golden Messenger album release show in Chapel Hill. They started working together the following week.

Collaboration, community, and a deep appreciation for southern music bind Phil and M.C. together, and last summer they reflected on all those things in an interview recorded at Brad Cook's (Phil's brother and M.C.'s manager) studio, where they've recorded many Hiss Golden Messenger songs. Listen to the interview on the latest episode of the podcast Arts Across NC or read an edited extended transcript of the conversation below.


This episode featured original music created by Phil Cook for the 50 for 50 project, and excerpts from two Hiss Golden Messenger songs: Caledonia and Heart Like a Levee.

You're both North Carolina transplants. What brought you here...and what makes this a good place to be a working artist?

M.C. Taylor: First of all there is a deep musical history here that I’m interested in that has been important to me to my formation as a musician. The thing that drew me to this place at the very beginning was that I wanted to live in the South because I love southern cultures, and I knew that if I had any hope of understanding it on a deeper level I had to be here. 

Phil Cook: Same. Same. Same. 

M.C.: Yeah. But you know [even] with having this musical foundation here people are also willing to push at it and stretch it and grow it and evolve it, and that’s also important. I and Phil and everybody in the band recognizes and understands the debt that we owe to all kinds of American music that was born here in the South especially in the Piedmont region, but also we live in the 21st Century and we’re doing our own thing. I feel like I can walk out my front door and be in touch with all of that. Someone was here doing an interview with me a couple of years ago from England, and I was able to drive them down Pettigrew Street and show them where Blind Boy Fuller would have played outside of the tobacco warehouse on payday. If you’re into American music, that’s a marker of American music. You could go find where Reverend Gary Davis lived. You can listen to an Etta Baker recording and know that she was doing her thing just a couple hours from here. Having that foundation to me as an artist is really important. 

Phil: My favorite thing about this place that I keep taking away from it is we all recognize the journey in each other.

I love seeing all these different artists and songwriters and producers and people that have these common goals of making great records [and] making great music.

We have a big opportunity in front of us to just coalesce all of that and realize we’re all on that same path and all on that same mission. It doesn’t matter what scene we’re talking about ...if we’re talking about the jazz and the hip-hop scene which is so vital and living in Durham [or] if we’re talking about our songwriters scene and things that are more folk-based [or] things that are more bluegrass-based like Mandolin Orange and Mipso...we all have started to recognize and see each other in the last five years. I think that's a great foundation to build community on: the artists all finding each other in the night and the evening and the dawns of our existences and just realizing we’re on that same path together. We’re all trying to do that same thing. 

How has your creative collaboration impacted your individual work?

Phil: Finding Mike and meeting Mike made me realize all these things that had been true about myself since the beginning of my musical journey that were just there all along. He opened up my own permission to realize how many skills I wasn’t using that have been there the whole time that are the most familiar to me. The most sacred things to me ended up actually becoming the focal point of how I was in a band and understood how to really be in a band for real. It was like working in my first kitchen. That gave me the confidence to open up my own kitchen because I see the formula and the ingredients for making something that is meaningful and something that speaks to people especially because it just has to speak from you. It has to speak from exactly where you’re at in an honest way with integrity and vulnerability, and that’s I think Mike’s biggest strength as a songwriter. He’s able to just open himself up and talk about his kids and his family and his wife and also just talk about where he’s at with his relationship with the universe. 

M.C.: I mean here’s a crazy thing to think about...before Phil started playing in Hiss, he wasn’t playing piano in Megafaun. I mean come to a Hiss Golden Messenger show and watch Phil play and just remember that when he started playing in Hiss, he had put his piano playing on the shelf. Now he’s also one of the great guitar players of our time in my opinion.

Phil: That is so nice.

M.C.: [And] people see that more. But it’s really been transformative to what we do in Hiss. I guess I kind of forced you to do it but...

Phil: ...That’s great. It’s still the thing that’s my favorite go to...realizing how comfortable I am sitting in a piano bench and sitting in front of your music. I realize over and over again this is exactly where I need to be.



Durham-based musician Phil Cook, who moved to North Carolina from Wisconsin in the early 2000s, reflects on why he loves living and working here.









Musician and folklorist M.C. Taylor of Hiss Golden Messenger, a widely praised American folk band based in Durham, says the best job he had outside of playing music was working for the North Carolina Arts Council. Learn more at www.ncarts50.org.



How does a song come together for you guys? 

M.C.: I spend a lot of time alone when I’m writing a song. Phil and Brad his brother can read music. They have a pretty serious understanding of theory which I don’t have, so it takes me a long time when I’m writing a song to understand what the landscape is in terms of the harmonic content of a tune and melodically. So I usually sit with a guitar and do my thing [and] get the lyrical idea down. Then I bring it to Phil and he helps me understand what’s happening in the song. The most important thing for me at that stage is that I can show Phil what part of the song I really like and feel we need to emphasize because it pulls at the heart in a way, and then Phil can say, “Oh well that’s because there is this happening in the song...because there is this interval that is pulling right there."

Phil: It’s a burden of knowledge. I’m thankful for my burden of theory knowledge. So he’ll come to us with a pocket of songs. He’ll write in these really great cycles. I’ve written 10 songs [total as a solo artist], so it's a longer trajectory for me. The last thing that happens is I write lyrics. I’ve got probably 300 to 400 thirty second voice memo clips on my phone that are just me screwing around and playing guitar for 10 minutes. Then in the tour van if I see a long drive ahead of us I just scroll through them all, and I name them something like “Noodle Boy 1A” [or] “Sub noodlist 7B” or if it’s really good I’ll just put a thumbs up emojicon next to it. Then I have to somehow turn those thirty second things into a three minute song with the others sorts of ideas that I have. That’s our process for writing separately and together.

M.C.: Yeah I tend to just throw songs out and not everything is perfect. A lot of the stuff is junk and this would be stuff nobody’s ever heard except for me. Phil…if you hear Southland Mission (Phil's first solo record) that’s just a meticulously crafted album. It’s pretty watertight in a really beautiful way. It’s like a really beautifully cut gem. Hiss Golden Messenger...sometimes that vessel is a little leaky. But that’s okay. I’m okay with that. I think there’s a place in art to be really exacting and just follow the vision to the very, very end. Then there’s also a place to leave imperfections alone.

Phil: Absolutely.

M.C.: For me those are the things that I learn from. If I hear something on an old record, and I’m like "I wish that I would have fixed that," that’s always going to be a thing that lives for me as a reminder like a little flag that says remember that you can do again. Remember that you can do it better or remember to leave the imperfections in because it’s going to be a thing that gives you your bearings as you make art.

Why does public funding for the arts matter?

M.C.: I think public funding for the arts matters if you value culture and art.

I think that art is an important reflection of the places that we live and the things that we think are important.

I think on a cosmic level, the world is a lot less interesting of a place without place-specific artwork. There is less of that now than there once as. The way that we communicate with each other around the world now has sort of flattened culture. There was a time when you could hear a gospel quartet in North Carolina and you could tell what county they were from by what song they were singing [and] the way that their harmonies were working together. There’s less of that now. I personally think that's a beautiful thing, and I think that art doesn’t come free. It just doesn’t. If you want vibrant, progressive, rich art it’s gotta be paid for in someway. I think every little bit helps, but you have to figure a way to communicate that culture is important even when you can’t quantify it in the same way that you can a car. Culture is important because it tells other people who we are in the most beautiful way. That to me is something of value.

Phil: I think Mike speaks really beautifully about it. Since moving to North Carolina, I’ve had a pretty fair amount of experience teaching kids about art. I’ve taught rock band camps in both Raleigh and in Durham for about 10 years now, and making kids work together through music...I’ve just seen over and over again how many other things are at play there and how many other little pieces and little seeds are planted. Ten years later I'm able to run into those same kids and see [that] some of those camps really unlocked something for them because we weren’t just learning a rigid form of something that they needed to only recreate off of a staff paper. We were learning about how to play with something...how to actually manipulate sound, and how to work together with other people towards a common goal in a way that’s not a science project...in a way that they can add something to. I love seeing music be with somebody through their whole life. You’re just planting seeds when you’re helping kids [through the arts] and you don’t know what they’re going to sprout like, but they’re rarely not beautiful things when they blossom. 



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


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.

50 for 50: Shirlette Ammons

Story by Sandra Davidson

Monday, October 16, 2017

Shirlette Ammons may currently live and create in Durham, but the musician, poet, and producer says her childhood in Beautancus, a tiny town in eastern North Carolina, deeply shaped her artistry.

"We didn't have a lot of money but we had a lot of space, and we were really imaginative," says Shirlette, who grew up singing in church and performing to fields of corn with her twin Shorlette. "I was always inclined to be creative and was always encouraged to be outside. So I grew up with a wonderful backdrop for being a creative person."

Because of her experiences in rural North Carolina, Shirlette is a passionate advocate for rural arts education. She explains why here:





Shirlette is no stranger to public funding for the arts. The N.C. Arts Council awarded Shirlette an Artist Fellowship in 2014, and she's received grants from the Durham Arts Council and the United Arts Council. She reflected on her N.C. Arts Council Fellowship in this episode of Arts Across NC:


Learn more about Shirlette here.



Sandra Davidson

Sandra Davidson is the marketing and communications director of the North Carolina Arts Council, where she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. Trained as a folklorist, she is a practicing photographer and multimedia storyteller who lives in Durham.


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.


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