From Anthony Hamilton's Background Singers to Viral Superstars: Meet the Hamiltones

Come Hear North Carolina
December 6, 2019


The Hamiltones are a Grammy-nominated trio of North Carolina natives. The soul and R&B group first started as background vocalists for Grammy-winning soul singer Anthony Hamilton, who is from Charlotte, N.C. Known for their masterful harmonies and viral social media videos, The Hamiltones released their debut EP "Watch The Tone3s" this year. We spoke with the band about their special chemistry and North Carolina musical influences in an interview captured after their 2019 Art of Cool Festival performance. Watch below!


William Brittelle Has Built a Career on Breaking and Merging Musical Boundaries

November 16, 2019

Raised in Newton, N.C., composer William Brittelle has built a career on breaking and merging musical boundaries. Described by the New Yorker as “a mercurial artist whose oeuvre embraces post-punk flamboyance, chamber music elegance, and much more,” Brittelle’s compositions combine elements of classical, pop, and other genres, and emphasize the beauty of collaboration between diverse artists. These collaborators have included the vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, Son Lux, Bryce Dessner, and recently, the North Carolina Symphony. In 2018, the Symphony premiered the commissioned piece “Si Otsedoha (We’re Still Here)” alongside the Cherokee Chamber Singers. While Brittelle composed the music, the lyrics and spoken word passages were written entirely by middle and high school students of Cherokee heritage.

At the same time, Brittelle was working on Spiritual America, a project featuring Durham-based indie rock duo Wye Oak. The album was released this past summer, and described by Brian Howe of INDY Week as, “One of the most astonishing releases of 2019.” Brittelle describes Spiritual America as an attempt to bridge the divide between his Christian, rural upbringing in North Carolina and his current identity as an “agnostic Buddhist” living in New York City. 

“I think the divides that classical music often makes between composed music and different kinds of music, they’re really artificial,” says Brittelle. “What matters to me is what resonates emotionally.”



The Cherokee Chamber Singers will perform “Si Otsedoha: We’re Still Here,” at the N.C. State Capitol on Friday, November 22 from 6-7 p.m. Learn more here

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.

Orquesta Mayor Channels Charlotte's Bustling Latin Music Scene

September 25, 2019

The salsa music of Orquesta Mayor works like a magnet. Slowly but surely, the rhythms of their music pulled more and more people to the sidewalk by the River’s Edge Stage at Charlotte’s Confluence festival.

“People ask me for salsa, salsa, salsa,” band leader and trumpet player Helder Serralde said last August during the festival. He founded Orquesta Mayor in 2006 after immigrating from Mexico. Since then, the band has become one of the busiest and best-established groups in Charlotte’s Latin music community, constantly performing at both public and private events throughout the region. From Peru to Colombia to Puerto Rico, its members hail from all corners of Latin America and the USA, each adding their own musical “flavor” to the group’s collective sound. This sound is as diverse as the band itself, pulling from cumbia, merengue, bachata, and more.

“Salsa,” someone once told me, “couldn’t have been born anywhere else but here.” A beat in one direction, a tune in the other, fading, fusing, and flowing through the cracks in the rubble. “Where else could all those immigrants have met to make it?” 

- Excerpt from "Sing Queen City Pain" by Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas for Oxford American's North Carolina Music Issue

As Orquesta Mayor continues to draw bigger crowds and more attention, so does the Latin music scene in Charlotte as a whole. Serralde was even interviewed alongside fellow Latin group Chócala in the Oxford American’s North Carolina music issue. It makes sense that salsa, a style born from an amalgamation of immigrant music in 1960s New York, would thrive with Charlotte’s increasingly global population. The music also seems to have a healing effect.

“I think that Latin music helps to get the people to unite,” Serralde says, “and not only [Hispanic] people…the American people. We feel them unify.” 


Oxente Brings the Beats of Brazil to the Bull City

September 23, 2019

Story by Laura Casteel

If you’ve walked through downtown Durham on a Monday evening this summer, you might have heard the beating of drums.

The community drumming group Oxente (pronounced oh-SHEN-chee) formed in early 2019. Their outdoor rehearsals in Durham Central Park are  open to the public, as is the group itself—anyone can join Oxente, regardless of musical background, and members describe it as feeling like a family. They perform samba reggae, an Afro-Brazilian genre inspired by the American civil rights movement and the music of Bob Marley. The intricate rhythm patterns are created by four types of drums:

  • Surdo: A heavy bass drum and the “heartbeat” of the rhythm. One drum is played on the first and third beats of a measure, the other on the second and fourth.
  • Dobra: A smaller version of the surdo played between the four beats.
  • Repique: A high-pitched drum that keeps the “clave,” the rhythm pattern that cues the start and end of each measure.
  • Snare: The drum that “sews” the other drums together, played on mostly eighth and sixteenth notes. 

“When they play all the rhythms together, it’s incredibly beautiful,” says Caique Vidal, a multi-instrumentalist and educator who leads Oxente in addition to his band, Batuque. 

“I see in Durham, especially in the community I’m around, a desire to learn, a desire to fight for better, for change, and a desire to include all…Oxente is part of that.”

Vidal grew up in the historic center of Salvador, a city in the Brazilian state of Bahia and the birthplace of samba reggae. Today, he strives to bring the openness and accessibility of his musical upbringing to North Carolina, by investing in local talent and encouraging the use of public spaces for the arts. In early September 2019, Oxente hosted Durham’s first-ever Brazilian Day festival in the Central Park district, which featured a variety of local artists.

Vidal believes that Oxente’s commitment to inclusivity, education, and authenticity embodies the spirit of its home city. “Durham is a perfect place for Oxente to thrive,” he says. “I see in Durham, especially in the community I’m around, a desire to learn, a desire to fight for better, for change, and a desire to include all…Oxente is part of that.”

David Childers Continues Piedmont Music Legacy

August 23, 2019

From Arthur Smith to the Avett Brothers, the greater Charlotte metro area has long been a cradle of good music, and more specifically, great songwriters. David Childers is one of them. A renaissance man, Childers is a songwriter, painter, poet and former attorney. The Mt. Holly, N.C. native grew up watching the legendary Arthur Smith show – the first nationally syndicated country music television show – which he cites as a major influence on his love of music. He started playing guitar as a teenager and began releasing music in the mid-90s. Most recently, Childers has toured and worked with Kyle Petty and his newest record, Run Skeleton Run, features Scott Avett and Avett Brother bassist Bob Crawford as an executive producer. Meet David Childers.


Diali Cissokho Brings the Music of West Africa to North Carolina

July 29, 2019

Diali Keba Cissokho describes performing with his band, Kaira Ba, like cooking delicious food: “The sound check is the smell, and the eating is when we play.”

Born in Mbour, Senegal, Cissokho hails from a long line of Manding griots, or jalis. In West Africa, griots have served as historians, praise singers, advisors, and storytellers, carrying generations of tradition and culture. It was Cissokho’s family who inspired him to take up the kora, a twenty-one-stringed African instrument made from gourd, cow skin, and fishing line. His grandfather was famed korist Lalo Keba Drame, who toured internationally in the 1960s. Some describe the instrument’s sound as a mix of harp and banjo, a delicate balance of sweetness and twang.

Love led Cissokho to immigrate to the United States in 2010 after meeting his wife Hilary, a native of Pittsboro, N.C., where the couple currently live with their son. After landing in the Piedmont, he formed Kaira Ba with several local musicians. His wife introduced him to fellow Pittsboro native and guitarist John Westmoreland, along with drummer Austin McCall of Jonathan Byrd and the Pickup Cowboys. McCall then invited percussionist Will Ridenour and bassist Jonathan Henderson, and together they created Kaira Ba's unique sound. Combining the traditions of West Africa with a Southern American seasoning, the band includes influences from rock and roll to salsa. Cissokho has also formed a musical friendship with mandolin virtuoso and North Carolina Heritage Award Recipient Tony Williamson, who recently joined Kaira Ba for a performance at the Center Botanical Garden in Kernersville.

Cissokho has fully embraced his new home state, and hopes to bring positivity, equality, and community to North Carolina through music. Judging by the spontaneous dancing and cheering that happens at Kaira Ba shows, he seems to be meeting his goal.

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.


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