Early in my time as Piedmont Laureate, one of the first things I did was to get together with a few of my predecessors to compare notes over dinner, and it was immensely useful. They had some terrific suggestions, and I’m going to try and do events with as many of them as possible over the course of this year. I’ve done programs with two so far — 2009’s Jaki Shelton Green at the North Carolina Book Festival, plus 2011’s Scott Huler at Quail Ridge Books — with a third, 2014’s Carrie Knowles, on the schedule for May 20 at Southeast Regional Library. More to come, I hope.

Toward the end of our gathering that night, 2017 laureate Mimi Herman (an amazing poet) told me something that really stuck with me: “Be thinking about what you want to give up, because you’ll have to give up something if you’re going to do this.”

That made a lot of sense and I promised I’d figure something out. But it sure didn’t play out the way I thought it would. Right around the time of that get-together was when the McClatchy Company made every News & Observer employee of a certain age a buyout offer, including me. I’d been turning down all such entreaties over the past decade with hardly a second thought, and my kneejerk was to do the same again this time. But McClatchy has been spiraling downward for years, which made me consider it. And after agonizing over it for a couple of weeks, I decided it was indeed time for me to take my leave from the paper, a process that involved much agony and ecstasy.

So yeah, the N&O turned out to be what I’ve given up during my Piedmont Laureate year. And while I don’t yet know what I’m going to do long-term, it still feels like the right call. Adding laureate doings on top of family responsibilities, freelance side-hustles including a book to finish and a radio show and an already-overwhelming N&O dayjob that was about to become even moreso meant that I had bitten off waaaaaaay more than I could chew.


Photo by Scott Sharpe.

It’s been just over a month since I left the N&O newsroom, and I’m still kind of catching my breath. I actually just applied for a job, a part-time gig that seems like it would fit my life and schedule so perfectly, I almost don’t want to get my hopes up. I’ve written a few freelance pieces for former local rival publications I never imagined would carry my byline, Indyweek and WRAL.com, including a review of this past weekend’s big Dreamville Festival.

Dreamville was the first big concert at Raleigh’s Dorothea Dix Park and it drew a massive crowd of 40,000, which was amazing to witness. It did feel odd to see some of my former N&O co-workers out there covering it, and for somebody else to be writing that story for the paper. But some things never change; just like they’ve been doing for years, N&O photographers Scott Sharpe and Robert Willett snapped a few candid pictures of me on the job that they were kind enough to share (see above, and below). I’d be thrilled with either of these serving as book-jacket author photo.


Photo by Robert Willett.

I’ve done some freelance writing for out-of-town publications, too, as well as a couple of bio-writing jobs. The latter involved a very different editing process from what I’m accustomed to, since the subject has to approve of what is written — which is nothing like the outlook I’ve had for the past three decades of journalism.

I’ve had Piedmont Laureate programs to do, too, including one that went great last week at Cameron Village Regional Library in Raleigh. “Revisiting the Underground: Stories From the Cameron Village Music Scene” was about the old Cameron Village Underground nightclub scene, centered around long-ago in-concert photos shot by my former N&O colleague Chris Seward. I led the discussion and it was quite nice, including anecdotes provided by a few rock stars who were in attendance. The photos will be on display in the library lobby through the end of May, and I’d highly recommend checking them out (here’s a story I did on this exhibit last year when it was at the City of Raleigh Museum).



Live at Cameron Village, to talk about The Pier and other subterranean nightspots from long ago.

I hope the next one goes as well, a “Piedmont Laureate Presents” program scheduled for Wednesday, April 10, at Durham’s Regulator Bookshop. I’ll be serving as emcee and interviewer for an event centered around the beautiful new photo book “Blue Muse: Timothy Duffy’s Southern Photographs.” Also on the program will be recent Grammy-winner William Ferris, and singing from the superlative Glorifying Vines Sisters. Y’all come.

Apart from all that, possibly the biggest gift that giving up the N&O job has given me is that I’ve been able to spend this past month focused on my own book. I am in the final (I hope!) rewrites for “The Big Book of North Carolina Music” — although that was never more than a working title, and the rewrite stage has confirmed that I’ll need to come up with a different name.

Whatever it is to be called, I’ve been working on this beast for either two years or the 28 years I was at the N&O, depending on how you reckon it. The book covers close to a century of music and history starting with bluegrass forefather Charlie Poole in the 1920s up to the present day, with 16 chapters and a Preface.

It’s been quite a slog, and I’ve had to beg, borrow and steal time from elsewhere to work on “Big Book” the past two years. I was humming along on the first draft at a pretty good clip through the first half of 2017, getting through about one chapter per month. But then the N&O started up a big “digital reinvention,” giving me and everyone else in the newsroom annual digital page-view quotas that were somewhere between ambitious and insane. That made the job immensely more difficult and energy-consuming, and from then on every chapter took at least two months to finish. There were a lot of days when I’d stall out and collapse into a recliner before getting to the book, because you can only push the time/space/lack-of-sleep continuum so far.

But I’m finally closing in on the end of it, and this is actually the fun part of the process. I once likened first-draft writing to digging ditches, and I’ve always found that part hellishly difficult. This phase, however, is the payoff, where you give the book another spin through the keyboard to tighten, brighten, fix inconsistencies, ponder word choices and trim redundancies, When I profiled the very fine novelist Ron Rash a few years back, he summed it up like this:

What I enjoy most about writing is revising, and what I hate is getting down the first draft. Once I get into something and it becomes about the language, that’s the good part. How vowels and consonants rub up against each other, the rhythms of the sentences and the paragraphs and the pages, that’s what gives me the most pleasure as a writer.

Amen. And I’d like to add that having this book occupy the center of my work life for a little while, with everything else having to find a place around it rather than the other way around, has felt positively luxurious.

Thanks, Mimi, for the good advice.