Way back in 2011, in the early years of the Piedmont Laureate program, my best friend Scott Huler served as its first non-fiction fellow. I remember going to a few of his events that year, including a wonderful mini-festival with area writers and musicians, and thinking that I really wanted to be Piedmont Laureate myself someday when I grew up. I believe I told Scott something to that effect, too.
I’ve kept up with the program since then, doing a few stories on newly appointed laureates like poet Mimi Herman two years ago while waiting for the nonfiction category to come back around, which it did for 2019. I threw my hat in the ring, and here we are. It is an honor and a thrill to be the 11th Piedmont Laureate, following in the footsteps of so many people I admire so much — especially Jaki Shelton Green, now Poet Laureate for the state of North Carolina, and my dear friend Scott. It’s humbling and also daunting.
So let me tell you a little bit about myself beyond what you see under my byline in the News & Observer. Long before I ever became a journalist or even started writing anything down, I already had the mindset of a writer. When I was a kid, the voice in my head sounded like an observer recounting what was going on in a given situation. Thinking about how I was going to describe something afterward and tell a story about it was an early instinct, one that has persisted into adulthood. Music was always important, too, somewhere between passion and obsession going back to the days when I’d tune in Casey Kasem’s “American Top 40” every week to hear what was top of the pops.
Early writing efforts began with comic books, quickly abandoned because I cannot draw to save my life. So I moved on to straight prose, fiction at first but eventually mostly non-fiction. I did have a regrettable, mostly disastrous stretch of college where I took a stab at pre-law and pre-med (you know, the actual well-paying professions) before finally deciding to cast my lot with writing.
That was the summer before my senior year, at which point my transcript and grades lay in smoking ruins across multiple institutions of higher learning. It took summer classes and an extra semester to cobble together an English degree, and then graduate school at the University of Texas to figure out the beginnings of a career path. I came away from UT with a Master’s degree in journalism, not the most useful degree in the world. But grad school did allow me to learn the craft a bit at the college newspaper.
That led to my professional career at daily newspapers starting with the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colo., where I spent five years reviewing concerts and writing features on everything from local bands to gun-toting mercenaries. It was highly educational and almost never dangerous, even the stories about mercenaries.
Boulder was lovely but expensive and I was pushing 30, so it was time to move on. I came to Raleigh as newly hired music critic for the N&O in January 1991, thinking it would be a good place to spend the next few years. It never occurred to me that North Carolina was going to be my permanent destination. But there’s just never been a good-enough reason to leave, especially because I quickly grew to love it here.
I covered music almost exclusively for a lot of years, which was a blast because it put me in the room with a notebook to watch the rise of everybody from Superchunk to Rhiannon Giddens. But as the paper’s staff has contracted over the past decade, my beat has expanded to the arts in general under the rubric “Things To Do.”
It’s not just my beat that has gone through a metamorphosis. Life at the N&O has changed tremendously since the early 1990s, especially in recent years with the move to more of an online focus. Writing for a real-time news organization is a vastly different beast from writing stories that appear on paper days or even weeks later. It’s not enough to just write the story anymore, you also have to package it with the right headline and keywords to achieve search-engine-optimization nirvana. It’s…a process.
We’ll talk more about that over the course of this year, and I’ll try to give you a sense of what it’s like to try and feed the online beast and reach page-view goals while retaining a sliver of sanity. I’m not gonna lie, it’s a tough racket. The media in general is under siege on multiple fronts right now, with newspapers struggling to survive even as those in power brand us as “fake news.” Anyone who claims to know how it will turn out is either deluded or lying or both. All we can do is try to change with the changing times.
While the N&O remains my mothership and primary means of support, I’ve also developed various side-hustles because diversification is pretty much a survival strategy in the content-generating business nowadays. I do a little magazine freelancing and I started a radio show last year, “That Old North State Radio Hour,” playing the music of North Carolina (and I hope you’ll tune in, Wednesday nights at 7 p.m. on WCLY, 95.7-FM). I also do some book-editing for University of Texas Press, where I’m co-editor of the American Music Series. We’ve put out 13 books, with title number 14 due out any day now.
I’ve written a few books myself, too, starting with a genuinely terrible, never-published novel I wrote in my early 20s (locating and burning every copy on earth while I’m still alive remains on my must-do list). Several years later I wrote my University of Texas journalism Master’s thesis, “Music, Media and the Metropolis: The Case of Austin’s Armadillo World Headquarters.” It was about the concert hall that served as spiritual center of progressive country music in Austin, Texas, a scene so bucolic that it created a media image that fueled the growth that doomed a lot of the very things that made the city special. And yes, the sequel is happening right now in the Triangle, which is hard for me to watch.
In 2000, I took another crack at fiction by self-publishing a novel, and it went better this time. “Off The Record” was a roman a clef set in the music industry, tracing the misadventures of a fictional one-hit wonder, and it got some decent reviews. In the thrill of a lifetime, the legendary grand old man of rock criticism Greil Marcus put “Off The Record” in his “Real Life Top-10” one week. It remains the high point of my career.
Then came “Losering” in 2012, a critical biography of Ryan Adams — who as it happens had been one of my real-life models for the unhinged rock-star main character in “Off The Record.” Ryan used to live in Raleigh, and I started writing about him when he was still couch-surfing down the street from where I lived at the time. He fled town and became famous long ago, and for reasons unknown (but much speculated upon) has not played a show anywhere in North Carolina since 2005.
My most recent book was 2015’s “Comin’ Right At Ya: How a Jewish Yankee Hippie Went Country, or, the Often Outrageous History of Asleep at the Wheel,” although it’s not really my book. It’s the memoir of Wheel founder/frontman Ray Benson and I was his co-writer, which mostly involved trying to keep up with all his jokes and doing my best to put them in the right order. “Comin’ Right at Ya” was a great time, the most fun I’ve ever had writing a book; I think of it as the sequel to my old Armadillo thesis, since Asleep at the Wheel played there so much.
I have another book in progress and this one feels like my magnum opus. It has the working title “The Big Book of North Carolina Music,” covering about a century of Old North State musicians from bluegrass forefather Charlie Poole in the 1920s to the present-day rapper Rapsody. University of North Carolina Press is scheduled to publish it in 2020, assuming I get it turned in on time. So yeah, in 2019 I’ll be finishing a book while writing for the paper and also conducting the workshops, readings and other events and responsibilities of a Piedmont Laureate. It’s going to be a busy, fun and challenging year.
I hope to set up some cool, entertaining events involving live performance as well as writing, maybe tied into 2019’s “Come Hear North Carolina” year of music. And I plan to draft a wide range of other writers to put on programs where we discuss nuts and bolts and logistics, whether it’s about various aspects of the writing process or how to submit a book proposal.
Watch this space for details, and news about what I’m up to. My induction as Piedmont Laureate will be on Tuesday, Jan. 29, 4 to 6 p.m. at the North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh. And then my first official event will by at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, Jan. 30, at Raleigh’s Quail Ridge Books, where I’ll talk a bit more about plans for the year and also offer a preview of “The Big Book of North Carolina Music.”
I hope to see you around and about.