50 for 50: Rob Levin

Story by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Rob Levin is a glass artist and sculptor based in Burnsville, North Carolina. Like so many artists in the Toe River region of western North Carolina, Rob was drawn to the area by Penland School of Craft, where he first fell in love with glassmaking. He moved permanently to Burnsville nearly 40 years ago, and has since built a career of international renown that’s included two North Carolina Artist Fellowships, a National Endowment for the Arts Visual Arts Fellowship, and acceptance into a number of esteemed collections around the world (the Museum of American glass, the Contemporary Glass Museum in Madrid, the Museum of Arts and Design in New York). A longtime friend of the North Carolina Arts Council, Rob is one of many Toe River artists who contributed to the design and construction of the Burnsville SmART Community Gateway public art project. He created hundreds of colorful glass shapes that fill the very first piece installed for the SmART project. 

What drew you to working with glass in the first place?

When I was in my early twenties, I came to Penland to take a clay class, and I saw people blowing glass and I was just fascinated with it. Somebody let me try it, and I just felt this immense connection with it. I came back to Penland the following year and took a glass class and then was able to go to graduate school at Southern Illinois University on the strength of my other artwork. They were just starting a glass program there, so I got in on the ground floor of that program and was able to make glass for two years and just found ways to keep doing it until, eventually, I was invited back to Penland in 1975 to teach and then stayed on as a resident. Things just kind of evolved from there. We moved here in 1980 and I’ve been here ever since.

What makes this a great place to do what you do?

There’s a great community of fellow artists and craftsmen in the area. There’s a history in the area of appreciating handmade work. It goes back to the people who used to make berry baskets and quilts. Also, the proximity to Penland School which brings in such a range of interesting artists. I also have to say one reason that it’s a very good, supportive area for the arts is because of our arts council. They’ve really started working on making this area a great destination for people because there are so many artists. That has snowballed somewhat in terms of making it a good place to do artwork. It’s a very attractive place to live. It gets a little hairy in the winter sometimes, but otherwise it’s[a] quite pleasant place to live and work.

“There’s a great community of fellow artists and craftsmen in the area. There’s a history in the area of appreciating handmade work.”

Tell me how you got involved in this gateway project. 

I went to Jack [Mackie’s] first presentation where he was talking about public art. We just got to talking there, and I got more directly involved once he started thinking in terms of doing a project that involved glass. Originally Jack’s idea was to use solid glass chunks in the sculpture. I brought up the idea that it would weigh less and be more practical to make hollow glass. The idea developed from there because we have the resources here both in terms of people who know how to do it, and in terms of a source of available glass material. We were able to talk Penland School into providing the facility for it, and a team of us got together for several weeks over the course of a year and worked on making these pieces. As we started working on the project, we realized that they could be blown. They’re not thin. They’re not like Christmas balls, but they’re more air than glass. It was a great experience.

What did a day at Penland with the group look like?

We’d go in in the morning and, except for the first day of the week, we’d look at what we had done the day before, and we’d get a list from Jack as to what colors he would want us to do, and we’d pick up blowpipes and get to work. We were buying chips of colored glass from the Spruce Pine batch plant. The furnaces at Penland were just full of clear glass, so we would gather clear glass and roll it in these colored chips, heat them up, and start blowing our shapes. We’d do that for about three hours and take a lunch break and do it for four more hours and then limp home and start over the next day. 

It’s almost inconceivable to me that you can make a durable piece of public art using blown glass. Can you tell me how it’s possible?

We thought about it from several angles. One was in terms of the weather. We knew we had to enclose each piece. We couldn’t have pieces that would be open on one end because water could get in and could freeze in the winter and perhaps crack the glass. In terms of durability aside from the elements, I think we’re just hoping that people like the piece and don’t want to do anything to break things apart. 

You’ve made a life here and a career here…what does it mean to you to be a part of a project like this?

It’s a really great feeling because it’s become a community project. It’s not just bringing in an artist from outside who whatever committee liked the best and then that person does their thing. It’s become a true collaborative effort, and I think that’s been one of the real positives for me. Jack and the rest of the group envision these beacons that will welcome people to Burnsville and to Yancey County. It could be a wonderful thing symbolically as a kind of welcoming device but also a completely unique work of art that will put Burnsville and Yancey County on the map a little more.



Has being a part of this project taught you anything about Burnsville?

I’d say the answer is yes [through] hearing how Jack distilled the essence of the county and [by] taking different ideas from his observations of things that we hadn’t really focused on…like the statue in the middle of the square in Burnsville with the spyglass and transferring that into the idea of a telescope and seeing into the future and combining that with the dark skies initiative that’s going on with the observatory…and the use of materials here in the area. You could say glass [generally], but even on a more fundamental level there is silica mining [here] that [extracts] the main ingredient in glass. Then the human resources of the glass artists, and people in the town that are willing and interested to have a vision for what might happen in the town. Those are all things that I’ve learned or been able to refocus on a bit. 

If you were making the case for why public funding for the arts matters, as you’ve seen it manifested in your own community, what would you tell people it does and makes possible?

One thing I hope people understand when they know that state arts council funding has gone to a community for a project like this is that I’ve seen a spin-off effect. It’s not only helping the artists. If a place is a destination like our area is becoming, people come, and they eat in the restaurants. They buy gas at the gas stations. They shop in the local stores. They stay in the motels, bed and breakfasts, and stuff like that. There’s a great spin-off effect. I see that most directly when we have our studio tours here because people do come from long distances to travel around to the studios on the studio tour. They’re all staying somewhere and eating somewhere. I think it’s good for the whole community, so I hope people realize that supporting the arts is not just supporting a few artists. It’s really a way for communities to have a more sustainable economy. Hopefully, there’s the aesthetic spin-off too. The more art you have around, the nicer your area becomes.



If you'd like to learn more about Rob Levin, visit his website 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: Tift Merritt

Story & Interview by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

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.


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: Billy Edd Wheeler

Interview by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

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.



The Kingston Trio's recording of "The Reverend Mr. Black," was Billy Edd Wheeler's first hit song.



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.



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: Mac McCaughan and Laura Ballance

Story by Sandra Davidson

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

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. 

Mac: Yeah.

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.




Laura Ballance & Mac McCaughan reflect on why North Carolina has been a great home for Merge Records.



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. 


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: Eddie Ray

Interview by Sandra Davidson & Wayne Martin | Photos Courtesy N.C. Music Hall of Fame

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

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:


  •  In 1954 he wrote “Hearts of Stone,” a song that went number one on the R&B, pop and country charts. 
  •  In 1964 he became Vice President of A&R for Capitol Records, making him the first African American a executive at a major American record label.
  •  In the 1970s he established a music vocational school in Memphis, Tenn. that was later incorporated into the University of Memphis
  • In 1981 President Ronald Reagan appointed him to serve as Commissioner on the U.S. Copyright Royalty Tribunal, where he served for eight years.  
  • Following his service as Commissioner, Eddie returned to North Carolina to revitalize the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame, a joint effort between himself and music mogul Mike Curb.

Now 92-years-old, Eddie reflects on his career in this interview.


"Hearts of Stone", written by Eddie Ray, as performed by The Jewels


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.


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.

M.C. Taylor and Phil Cook 50 for 50

July 15, 2019

M.C. Taylor and Phil Cook are two 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. In honor of the North Carolina Arts Council's anniversary, 50 renowned artists with North Carolina roots wished us a Happy 50th Anniversary by sharing their North Carolina arts story and reflecting on why public funding for the arts matters. In this episode of the Arts Across NC podcast, Phil and M.C. reflect on how collaboration, community, and a deep appreciation for North Carolina's music history define their artistry.

Listen to our interview with Hiss Golden Messenger's M.C Taylor and Phil Cook and see the whole post at the link 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.

Check out the entire post by clicking this link!

50 for 50: Mary Carter Taub

Interview by Sandra Davidson | Truth +Tamale Photos by Alex Morelli

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Mary Carter Taub believes in making art for all people. Based in Chapel Hill, her work has appeared on buses, university campuses, airports, train stations, and public locations that allow folks from all walks of life to experience art. She is one of two recipients of the 2018 Mary B. Regan Artist Residency Award, a North Carolina Arts Council grant designed to support innovative art projects that impact communities. Mary is using the grant for Truth + Tamales, a project that takes a new approach to building a more inclusive and culturally connected Chapel Hill. The next session is slated for Wed., March 13.  

Why don’t you begin by talking about your connection to North Carolina? 

I was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina. When I was in kindergarten, my family moved to Puerto Rico, [where we lived] until I was 10 years old. I went to undergraduate in Raleigh at Meredith College, and then I went straight to graduate school in New York City and lived there and on the West Coast for almost 20 years. I moved back here 10 years ago, and I’ve been in Chapel Hill since.

Will you talk about your journey to becoming an artist?

Since I was a young age, I used to always shape space. I was never interested in Barbie dolls, but I was interested in Barbie’s car, Barbie’s house, and Barbie’s accessories. I would take them in our hallway upstairs, [and] I would create these little worlds. Looking back, I was creating site-based work on a very small scale. For a while, I thought I would be a fashion designer. My father was an apparel executive, so that was actually what I knew as a career. My mom would always paint and draw. Visual arts were always very present in our house. And the day I went to college — on the very first day — I actually declared my major Fine Arts. I just knew.

You do site-based work, can you explain what that means? 

One of the things that is really important to me is this idea of inclusiveness; not just in terms of community, but also inclusiveness of space. Nothing excites me more than walking into a really dull space, a space that you probably wouldn’t notice ordinarily. I can come in and help re-contextualize that [space] and give it meaning to people who may think they’re not even interested in art, who are passing through the space routinely. A lot of my work ends up in airports, buses, and transits – not typical art spaces where you would intentionally set out to view art. Being able to connect with a wide audience of people really excites me. Not that I’m opposed to galleries or art museums, but when you visit an art museum or gallery you’re being very intentional or purposeful about going to look at art versus living your everyday life in a parking lot, walking down a hallway, going into a public bathroom. Those are the things that kind of excite me. 

Will you describe your work? 

One thing that runs through my work is this love of color – really bright colors. People would probably say garish colors, “off the shelf” colors. I actually attribute that to living in Puerto Rico at a very impressionable age [where] there was a lot of highly concentrated brilliant, bright colors. I think that really struck a chord. 

I tend to work with very accessible materials. I mine materials from everyday life – it could be stickers that are on fruit or vegetables that you buy at the grocery store…mesh bags…cereal boxes. I’m always on the lookout and trying to be efficient in the way I’m navigating my life and pulling these materials to shape space. 



Mary Carter Taub believes in making art for all people. She describes her Truth + Tamales Project here.



That’s a great segue to Truth + Tamales, the project you received the Mary B. Regan Community Artist Residency Grant for; what is it and why did you feel like there was a need for it here?

Truth + Tamales is a community-based art project and social practice whereby I am collaborating directly with two other co-leaders: Barbie Garayúa Tudryn, who is a bilingual counselor, and José Nambo who is a bilingual school teacher. The mission of the project is that we bring together native Spanish speakers [and] native English speakers in our community– so Chapel Hill, Carrboro, Orange County. We practice what I like to call a “stranger to neighbor” model. You come in for the evening and you may not know each other. You’re probably not going to leave as BFFs, but you will have gone through this wonderful evening together making art, doing social-emotional work, fellowship, and making and eating tamales. 

This is a really stressed out time for a lot of people around our nation, and it really came about [after] talking with my project partners about [how] here in Chapel Hill a lot of our families feel tenseness. It was like, “What can we do that makes people feel good, that really drives home that no matter what seems divisive at the time…we’re actually all bound by similarities even if it doesn’t seem that way?” One of those things is focusing on common values.

We have about 30 participants, and we meet once a month [at The ArtCenter]  You come in, we introduce ourselves, we have an icebreaker, we talk about common values that bind us, and we actually then go and write down one or two values that really resonate. Then we hold onto those and we segue into the art making part of the evening. Then we segue into the tamale part of the evening which involves local tamaleras. We first get a very quick history on the ancient food traditions of tamales. They share their history and what tamales meant to them growing up, and we all make tamales together. We give those to people to take home to steam themselves, and then cooking-show style out comes a big pot full of tamales, and we eat them. The rest of the evening is the socializing piece – connecting with each other. 

When push comes to shove, and we need to support one another in our community, it’s a lot easier to do if you’ve already established connections. So that’s the idea behind this – this idea of trying to bridge any gaps that are here in our community and really strengthen these relationships [with] people maybe you’d ordinarily pass in a parking lot, or in the grocery store, or on the sidewalk, or on the street…now you can put an experience to the face. The mission is to be a tiny change agent towards a more inclusive culture and community right here in our quadrant of the universe. We’re all connected, and if one person is suffering, we’re all suffering. I do believe that. You have a good experience, you share that with the next person, and it grows exponentially. That’s the way the world works.









Do you feel like you have successfully engaged people who wouldn’t normally come to The ArtCenter?

Absolutely. Part of The ArtCenter’s interest is that we were able to tap into our Latino community, and they’ve been a great partner and supporter. The ArtCenter is deeply rooted in the local community and is a natural fit for Truth + Tamales whose mission is focused cross-pollinating and building a more inclusive culture. 

Will you talk a bit about your collaborators on Truth + Tamales?

This project could not happen without them. I met Barbie and José at Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe School six years ago when my kids attended. Both are very well respected and much loved in our community, and their involvement adds a layer of validation with our local community. Barbie leads our social-emotional work, José leads our tamale work, and I lead the art making. Together we lead a social practice that is so much bigger than any one of us. It takes a lot of hands and hearts to run Truth + Tamales! Community collaborators include local tamaleras, bilingual facilitators and administrators, community residents, and local organizations like The ArtsCenter, Frank Porter Graham Bilingüe School, and El Centro Hispano. 

Will you talk about what receiving the Mary B. Regan Award meant to you?

Receiving the Mary B. Regan Residency Grant meant the project happened. I actually applied the previous year, and we didn’t get it, and this project was on hold. We ended up doing a very scaled down version — no tamales — and it was a very shoestring project. This project is happening because of the grant, and it’s employing eight people. It takes a lot of people to make this happen, and everyone needs to be compensated.

I understand the tamales component of the event title, but where does truth fit in?

The truth piece is [based on] this idea that at the end of the day we all want to be seen and be heard, and that means speaking your truth. Sometimes sharing your truth is too risky.  A lot of people would argue right now it’s a little bit risky to be yourself. We are creating a safe, warm space, and whoever you are, you’re welcomed. Sharing your values – that’s your truth. 

What makes this community and North Carolina a good place to do your work?

The support I would say is the biggest thing. I lived in New York for 10 years and on the West Coast for about the same amount of time, and the thing that struck me the most moving here is how supportive people were. When I first moved here, I was looking for a studio and I got directed from person to person until I found a space. People just want to see you succeed. I think that’s part of being in a smaller community – everyone is connected, and it takes a village to make things happen and everyone knows his or her time is going to come at some point, and someone will have your back. Being here has been really great, and I’m always really impressed [by] how much support for the arts there is [in] our state and specifically here in Chapel Hill. It’s pretty spectacular.

Why does public funding for the arts matter?

The job creation piece is huge. I think from a practical standpoint you have a space that is going to exist for utilitarian, functional, practical reasons – why not aestheticize it? Why not make it something beautiful and attractive? With just a little more effort it goes from 0 to 100 in terms of registering on someone’s awareness.



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: Monét Noelle Marshall

Interview and Video by Sandra Davidson*

Friday, December 7, 2018

Monét Noelle Marshall is performance artist, director and choreographer known for her thought-provoking, community-driven projects that explore race, identity, and gender. She is one of two recipients of the 2018 Mary B. Regan Artist Residency Award, a North Carolina Arts Council grant designed to support innovative art projects that impact communities. Monét is using the grant to present “Buy My Art and Call It Holy” a 10-day project that premieres in Durham on Friday December 7th, which she describes below.

Let’s start with your North Carolina roots. How did you end up in the Triangle?

I am originally from Long Island — the Strong Island — New York, but my roots have always been in North Carolina. My mama grew up on a tobacco farm in Greenville, NC, so I spent lots of time here. I went to North Carolina A&T and got a BFA in Theater and ended [up] in the Triangle. I’ve been here for six-and-a-half years. 

I auditioned for shows [when] I came here mainly because I don’t know how other adults make friends. That introduction to the Triangle’s art scene was invaluable. At that time there wasn’t an active black theater company, [and] black folks [have] such a rich history here. Because my mother is also a playwright and a director we were like, “Well why don’t we start one?” And we started Mojoaa Performing Arts Company which will be five years old in May.

Will you talk about your journey to becoming an artist?

I really got it honest. I really do get it from my mama. She is a consummate artist. Recently someone called me a healer, and I think healer and artist often go together. When I look back at the line of the women in my mom’s line…my great-grandmother was a woman you went to in the neighborhood when you were sick because she would tell you what herbs to take. My grandmother traveled in Greenville and eastern North Carolina teaching folks how to make healthy meals. My mama is a dancer, writer, and choreographer, and her most popular piece that she choreographed was called healing and it’s still done by folks and dance ministries. Then there is me. I think part of my healing is to show where I’m hurting, and where I’m trying to move, and how I’m trying to heal and I’m hoping that my story and my truth will help other folks too.





How do you plan to use the Mary B. Regan award?

With the Mary B. Regan Community Artist Award, I am creating “Buy My Art And Call It Holy.” It is a 10-day performance project in Durham, North Carolina across five locations. This performance is about exploring, believing, declaring that we are all inherently art and inherently holy. This piece is the third installment in the “Buy It Call It” trilogy, a performance art experience that I’ve been working on this year. I really feel like this trilogy is this beautiful assembly and mix of all my worlds coming together. There are folks from Mojoaa, Man Bites Dog, Raleigh and Durham [involved]. I’m just really grateful. 

Each installment of your trilogy has involved a large cast. Will you describe your process for involving community in your projects?

I think in another life I could have been a talent scout because I’m just really good at seeing people’s gifts. Some of the members of the cast have traveled throughout these three pieces. For instance, CJ Suitt—he was a tour guide for the first one, he performed in the second one, and he’s associate director for this one. His background is poetry. My dear friend Derrick Beasley who is a photographer, graphic designer, curator, and visual artist created the marketing images for the last two shows. He’s now he’s our director of archival footage. A.Yonni Jeffries, who is a singer and performer, has been in all the shows, and I’m really grateful. Then there are folks who are not artists that anyone knows, but they are so deeply artistic. It’s really important for folks to know that a lot of these people are not specialized artists. They are folks who were willing to say yes to my wild ideas. I don’t know if people understand how impactful it’s been for folks in my community to be like, “What do you need? How can we make this happen?” Because it makes me feel like they see the vision.





That desire to empower all kinds of people to explore their own creativity is a driving theme in this final installment of your trilogy. Why is it that?

One of the things I deeply believe is that when people have a moment to be intentionally creative and try a new thing and risk and it isn’t a dangerous risk…when we have that we don’t leave it in rehearsal. We don’t leave it in the room. We take that energy out into our lives and into our civic spaces. If I believe that I’m an artist and I believe that I’m holy and I believe that about you, I’m going to take an extra moment to remember your humanity. I’m going to be more graceful with the way that I deal with you with, with the way that I speak to you, with the policies that I create when I consider you when I think about your housing and when I think about your children. If I believe that I’m an artist, I know that I can create a new world in which my desires exist.  If we remember that then we don’t lose hope.

As an artist I think my biggest gift is to not be selfish. How can we share it, and share it, and share it? Because it’s not just ours. It belongs to all of us. I’m grateful to be an artist in community and to be able to do that and to be trusted. Because I do recognize that is both a responsibility and a privilege. 

What are your hopes for the project?

One of my hopes for this third piece is that I will get to spend time [and] build a relationships with folks I don’t know yet. [I hope] there are folks that are going to see the poster or see a video or see a social media post and something in their spirit is going to call them to come, even if we don’t know each other. I’m also super hopeful for the relationships that will be built outside of me. [I hope that] a person who comes to the meditation is like, “Oh that felt good I think I’m going to start meditating.” Or [that] the folks who’ve never been in The Durham Hotel before because maybe they didn’t feel comfortable going, get to come and have a really delicious meal with other people and don’t have to reach into their pockets for anything. 

I guess my biggest hope is for someone to walk away feeling shifted…really feeling like, “Oh I’m valuable. I am art. I am holy. I deserve to live a good life… the life I want, and I have the tools to make it, and I live in a community where this is possible.”

*This interview was edited and condensed. For a full schedule of the “Buy My Art And Call It Holy” project, visit www.buyitcallit.com.



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: Ron Rash

Interview* by Sandra Davidson | Editing Support by Scott Stegall

Monday, November 19, 2018

Ron Rash is a leading voice of Appalachia and the mountains of our state loom large in his biography and body of work. The best-selling novelist and poet grew up summering on his grandmother’s farm outside of Blowing Rock, in a region where his ancestors settled in the 1700s. He’s known for vividly capturing the people, places and atmosphere of the mountains in his writing and is a beloved mentor to many young authors. Ron has received the O. Henry Prize twice and is the John Parris Distinguished Professor of Appalachian Studies at Western Carolina University. Three of his books have been featured on the New York Times Bestseller list, including Serena, which was made into a movie starring Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence.  

A long-time friend of the North Carolina Arts Council, Ron Rash is a consummate believer in public funding for the arts, and he recently contributed an essay about Earl Scruggs to the Oxford American magazine’s 20th Annual Southern Music Issue on North Carolina.

Tell me about your family’s connection to western North Carolina. 

My mother’s family [lived] in Watauga County and my father’s family [lived] in Buncombe County. The roots are very deep in those areas, and that’s one reason I’ve chosen to write so much about it. 

I tell people that North Carolinians have done three things really well: cook barbecue, make music, and make literature.

I was really intrigued by what you had to say about your interest in how landscape affects psychology and how landscape becomes destiny in an interview you did for the New York City Public Library. I’d love for you to reflect on how that manifests itself in your work. 

I’m fascinated with the idea of how the landscape we’re born into, or we live in affects us psychologically. I’ve seen it in my own family in the mountains in two ways. One way [is] very positive, and one [is] not so positive. One positive way I think is the sense of the mountains being protective, almost womblike in their ability to shelter us from the world in a very peaceful, very calming way.  

The other one is not quite as positive. It’s the sense of limitation in the mountains. The mountains [are] always reminding us of how small we are, how insignificant and fleeting our lives are. With that, sometimes, is a sense of fatalism. I’ve seen the complexity of that vision of mountain culture not just in western North Carolina but in the world. My books have been translated into a number of languages now, and one thing I’ve learned from my travels overseas is how people who have grown up in other mountain cultures reflect and agree with that sense that the novels impart—both the positive and negative. 

Will you describe specifically your personal relationship to the mountains and the landscapes you write about? 

It feels like the only landscape I’m comfortable in. I can remember the first time I went to the Midwest. I felt very naked with that huge expanse and openness. I found that very disconcerting. It felt too open for me. I find the mountains, in many ways, very protective and very calming. It does feel as if they are shielding me and protecting me. I don’t know that I could ever live in a landscape that didn’t do that for me. 

Have you always written about them? Is it something that you’ve been doing since you can remember?  

I didn’t start writing until I was in college. I was a lot later than [most]. I know Lee Smith, she was 5 or 6 and already writing novels. I couldn’t have imagined that. I was training to be a writer. I was certainly an introvert. I was very comfortable in solitude. A lot of that solitude was spent outside and in the mountains. I’d grown up in Boiling Springs, which is [in the] foothills, but my grandmother’s farm was near Boone. I spent a huge amount of my time with her on that farm. That landscape was the one that intrigued me and [that] I felt most connected to [considering] my family’s history. When I began to write, it naturally went in that direction. 

You are an artist and also an arts educator. I know many young writers who deeply admire your work. I wonder if you could reflect on what it means to practice educating young people about the craft of writing and literature? 

The teaching keeps me from getting jaded. It’s great to watch my students imagine a scenario or write from a different point of view and to see them creating an imaginary world. It reminds me of the excitement of creativity. I tell people that North Carolinians have done three things really well: cook barbecue, make music, and make literature. I think one of the great aspects of our state is that literary heritage. In a sense, it’s a small way for me to encourage and pass on that legacy. 





How has that legacy inspired and influenced you? I’d love to hear if there are North Carolina writers or North Carolina musicians who you really admire. 

I think there’s a real argument to be made that North Carolina has more strong writers than any other state right now. I really believe that. It’s something we do well. Obviously, for me growing up in western North Carolina, Thomas Wolfe was a huge influence. Reading his books when I was a teenager made me realize this is something I might be able to do. At that time Asheville was a very small town. It was amazing to see this guy who had grown up in Asheville [become] world famous. Later I read writers such as Robert Morgan, Fred Chappell, Lee Smith. They were writing about a world I certainly knew. They influenced me. It was a sense of joining that tradition. Music was very integral as well. [I grew up] hearing Doc Watson. I grew up in the same town as Earl Scruggs, worked for his uncle, and went to school with his nephew. All those artistic influences were around me. All those things inspired me and gave me the idea of the possibility that this was something that I might be able to do. 

Do you have any theories as to why North Carolina is such a nurturing place for the arts? 

I think, for whatever reason, [it’s] the culture. Maybe the fusion of people from different cultures just happening to come together at the right place. It’s hard to understand individual genius, but, for whatever reason, I think the region has certainly nurtured it. As far as literature, it’s [because] traditionally education has been so valued in North Carolina. We’ve had these great universities and this emphasis on public education. I think that certainly had a huge effect on people getting a sense of the possibilities of what one might do intellectually [and] artistically.  

When I go overseas whether it’s France, New Zealand, Denmark, these people know about North Carolina’s artists. I just think that’s such a great thing that our state has made not just this country-wide contribution to the arts, but worldwide. There are not many things more valuable for our state than this.

Will you tell me when your career and your work first crossed paths with the North Carolina Arts Council? 

I received a grant pretty early in my career. I remember that being so important because at the time I was teaching at a community college in South Carolina. I was teaching a pretty heavy load, at least five classes a semester, and [I had] a lot of other duties with that. That grant helped me in two ways. The idea that somebody valued and believed in my work enough that they wanted to help me bolstered my confidence. The other thing was I really needed the money at that time. It freed me up in the summer to do some writing.  

Are there other ways that it has supported your writing career? 

It certainly helped introduce other people to my work. I think it drew attention to me as a writer from the region that might be worth some notice. For young writers, those grants really help a lot because there’s a lot of discouragement, a lot of rejection slips, and a lot of questioning when a writer starts out. I think it’s helpful to have affirmation that your work is seen as having some value, and not just value now but in the future…that this is a writer worth supporting in the hopes that we can encourage this writer to go on and write better and more. 

For part of this campaign, we’re asking artists to help us convey why they personally believe public funding for the arts matters. What would you say to that? 

This is something that we believe in. This is something that we’re proud of and that it’s an act of faith in our next generation. As they come up, we want to give them as many possibilities to find their talents and to nurture their talents as possible. When we look at the total budget of a state or a country, it’s not a huge amount of money. I think what we get from it is immeasurable.  

Is there anything that you’d like to add about your experience of North Carolina and its art community or your career as a writer? 

There was a program in New Zealand where they had me come out and do a reading for a public event, and they played “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” by Earl Scruggs. I was thinking, here I am [from] Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and I’m in New Zealand, and the music they’re introducing me to is by Earl Scruggs who grew up in the same community of about 1,000 people. When I go overseas whether it’s France, New Zealand, Denmark, these people know about North Carolina’s artists. They know about the musicians such as Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs. They know about writers such as Thomas Wolfe and Robert Morgan. I just think that’s such a great thing that our state has made not just this country-wide contribution to the arts, but worldwide. There are not many things more valuable for our state than this. 

*This interview was edited and condensed.



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: Mipso

Interview* by Sandra Davidson

Friday, November 2, 2018

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.



Mipso reflects on how North Carolina shaped their sound in this video filmed at Joe Van Gogh headquarters in Hillsborough, NC. The band picked the location because the company created a special coffee blend in their honor in 2017.



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



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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