One of my ongoing part-time side hustles is book editor, although that sounds somewhat more high-falutin’ than the reality of the situation. Nevertheless, since 2011 I have been one of several co-editors of the American Music Series at University of Texas Press. My job is to beat the bushes in search of potential authors and subjects, trying to get book projects going in the area of creative nonfiction (yes, it fits right in with this year’s Piedmont Laureate area of emphasis). Early on, the series was pretty heavily Americana-focused, in part because it was an outgrowth of the old No Depression magazine. But it has broadened considerably in recent years with books on Mary J. Blige, Chrissie Hynde and even Madonna.
I would liken the gig to being a freelance talent scout for a record company, the initial point of contact. When I bring in a proposal to consider, UT Press gets the final say because it’s their money. And since it’s a university press, alas, it’s generally not a ton of money. University presses operate on a much smaller scale than the big boys, and we have to find writers who are willing and able to work with us on labor-of-love projects for modest advances. It’s miles away from the J.K. Rowlings of the world, although we’ve done okay in publishing 14 books. It’s not like anybody expects university press books to hit the bestseller list.
And yet lightning does strike, once in a great while. I’m pleased to note that the American Music Series has an actual honest-to-God hit on the New York Times bestseller list, the gold standard of sales charts in the book world. It’s the poet Hanif Abdurraqib’s phenomenal new book “Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to A Tribe Called Quest,” a highly idiosyncratic critical biography of the legendary hip-hop troupe from Queens. After its Feb. 1 publication date, “Rain” blew onto the Times list at a healthy No. 13 in paperback nonfiction books last week. I’m told it’s the first UT Press title of any kind to make the list since T.H. White’s fantasy work “The Book of Merlyn” way back in 1977 — six years before Abdurrquib was born — which kind of blows my mind.
“Rain” has also picked up across-the-board critical raves, including glowing reviews in the Washington Post (written by my former N&O colleague Geoff Edgers, who long ago graduated to the big time) as well as the Times. I can take no credit whatsoever for any of this, because “Rain” is my UT Press editorial cohorts Casey Kittrell and Jessica Hopper’s baby. My only role was to add my thumbs-up to the proposal and then say, “Wow, this is awesome” to the finished product. And it really is an incredible book, expertly threading the needle between memoir and biography, deeply personal as well as universal enough to be relateable. I can honestly say that you don’t need to have heard a note of Tribe’s music for this book to resonate for you, because it really is that good.
As it happens, Abdurraqib’s book tour is going to bring him to Raleigh later this month as star attraction at the North Carolina Book Festival. He’ll be at Kings nightclub on the afternoon of Sunday, Feb. 24. Unfortunately, tickets for that are all gone, although there is a waiting list you can get on in case space opens up.
I’ll be busy doing my Piedmont Laureate duties throughout the festival, starting with opening night on Thursday, Feb. 21. That evening, I’ll join Chris Stamey at Crank Arm Brewery, where he’ll do a reading/performance based on his 2018 memoir “A Spy in the House of Loud” (Another fine American Music Series title from UT Press). It’s a show I saw last year at Quail Ridge Books, and it was fantastic. Stamey tells me it’s only gotten better with practice and I can’t wait to hear it again.
The morning of Saturday, Feb. 23, I’ll be at CAM Raleigh to conduct an onstage conversation with the great Jaki Shelton Green, who was the very first Piedmont Laureate 10 years ago. I am honored to follow in Green’s footsteps, especially since she is North Carolina’s Poet Laureate nowadays. She is even more spellbinding live and in-person than she is on the page. I’ll try to keep up.
That Saturday afternoon, Feb. 23, I’ll be at Kings to do a presentation of my own called “A Life in Music Books.” I’ll talk a little about my past books, and also get into the in-progress history of North Carolina music I’m working on.
Sunday afternoon, Feb. 23, I’ll be back at Kings again to take part in a panel discussion about A Tribe Called Quest’s landmark 1990 debut album People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm. I’ll be speaking alongside St. Augustine’s University professor Natalie Bullock Brown, an Emmy-nominated producer/consultant, and Duke professor Mark Anthony Neal, who has published seven books. I’ll try to keep up with them, too.
Abdurraquib will follow our panel, so I guess you could say we’re his opening act. Which is as it should be. Everything’s free, so come on out and bring your book idea. I’m always on the lookout for the next lightning strike.