Raleigh’s bluegrass festival: A fan’s notes

MeIBMA.JPGIt’s coming up on seven months since I left the News & Observer, and the week just past was my most bittersweet yet. Late September is when the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual World of Bluegrass shindig returns to Raleigh, and it looked like last week’s 2019 edition went just fine other than lightning shutting down Friday night’s outdoor shows an hour early.

Near as I could tell, the usual huge throng turned out, although it will take a few weeks of number-crunching to determine if 2019 set another attendance record. But for the first time since IBMA set up shop in Raleigh six years ago, I won’t be checking on that in any sort of official capacity.

This was the first Raleigh World of Bluegrass where I was just another attendee rather than the N&O’s coverage point person. I did some previews elsewhere, but no live coverage during the week. And on the surface, sure, it was nice to just go and enjoy it rather than have to work it. But there were also intermittent pangs of strange, disorienting feelings.

I actually made a point of not doing my customary early-morning-to-late-night marathon, and there were even a few days when I put aside my FOMO and didn’t go down at all. The paper has moved on from me, farming out coverage duties to others. So it seemed like I should do the same and put a modicum of that effort into other things.

LABF.JPGAll the same, the place the festival once occupied in my professional life was very much on my mind, never moreso than Saturday morning — when I was actually all the way on the other side of the Triangle. Piedmont Laureate emeritus James Maxey (who held the post in 2015, in the area of speculative fiction) helped organize a Local Author Book Fair at Hillsborough’s Orange County Public Library, and I was first up to read.

Since the last book I published came out in 2015 and my next one won’t come out until the fall of 2020, I didn’t really have an obvious work to focus on. So I chose to look forward by reading a few selections from that next book, a history of North Carolina music. Wish I could tell you the title, but right now that is still being debated.

Along with the book’s introductory preface, I read the concluding epilogue, which I only recently finished. It’s a coda that ties the whole thing up with a scene from Raleigh’s first World of Bluegrass in 2013, bringing together different threads of the story, and reading that aloud in public for the first time was an unexpectedly emotional experience. I’m going to have to work on my composure if I read that one out loud in front of people again, because I’m afraid I got choked up enough for it to be a bit of an embarrassing scene. I am thankful the attendees were kind about it.

Why was it so emotional? Probably because it made leaving my previous life at the paper, which had been home for 28 years, resonate on more of a deep-down unconscious level. Intellectually, I don’t really miss life at the N&O because it hadn’t been the same for a long, long time. Nevertheless, parts of my lizard brain still seem to be processing my departure from newspaper journalism. And if it was kind of a shock for that to come roaring back and leave me awash in the feels, it felt like a good thing. This cycle is probably akin to grieving the death of a loved one, a process that involves peaks and valleys rather than straight lines.

Reading my book’s conclusion aloud and revisiting that first bluegrass festival, and how hard I worked to cover it over the years, really did perfectly sum up that chapter of my life. Put a period on it, and maybe even an exclamation point. I am curious if other people will find it moving, or simply overwrought. Either way, that’s okay. I wouldn’t change a thing.

There remains a mountain of detail work to do before this book is completely finished — acknowledgements, pictures, captions, permission forms, proof-reading and more. But now it feels like the journey it’s taken me on really is done, for better or worse. Lord willing and the creek don’t rise, the book will be out in the world in time for next year’s World of Bluegrass. My closing-address farewell to the daily-paper grind in all its good, bad and ugly glory.

I’m thankful to have had the opportunity.

Why I write

WhyWriteSeveral times during Piedmont Laureate events this year, I’ve been asked a variation of this question: Why do you write? I have tried to answer as best I can, kind of fumbling my way through it as I often do when put on the spot in a live-audience setting. But I don’t feel like I’ve come up with an answer that has satisfied anyone, especially one person who was particularly insistent at yesterday’s event in Pittsboro.

So I thought I’d take a crack at it here, in writing — which, come to think, is part of the answer. There’s a reason I communicate better via the written word, and it’s because writing isn’t just something I do, or even start and stop. I never stop because writing is who I am, a central part of my identity, and it’s been that way since long before I even became a writer.

From a young age, telling stories was an instinct that landed somewhere between impulse and urge. Even when I was in the middle of an activity, I’d find myself mentally arranging memories and facts in such a way that I could recount the experience afterward.

This tendency manifests as a number of characteristics, not all of them positive — crippling self-consciousness, for one thing, as well as an inclination to hang back and observe rather than plunge in and participate. I think it’s a big reason why I wound up writing about music instead of trying to play it myself. Well, that and the fact that I had no musical ability whatsoever. But I figured out early on that my place was out in the crowd bearing witness, and then recording the experience for others to read about.

Ultimately, though, it’s for myself rather than other people. Writing is how I process events and try to make sense of the world, whether or not anyone else ever reads it. I’ve been fortunate enough for that to add up to a living for basically my entire adult life (at least so far).

So yeah, that’s how I’m wired: Something happens, I write about it. Maybe it winds up in a publication of some sort, or on social media or the electronic equivalent of a dead-letter office. Going forward, it’s not clear how much of my writings will go where.

My life’s work has been as a scribe, primarily watching and recording others doing things. It made me a good newspaper journalist — and also made it wrenching to lose that identity when I left the daily-paper ranks six months ago. That’s something I still grapple with pretty much every day. Even though I’m still writing elsewhere, that newspaper mindset remains and I think it always will.

For good or for ill: That’s why I write.

2020 foresight: Apply to be next year’s Piedmont Laureate

CaseyIt’s hard for me to believe, but my year-long tenure as Piedmont Laureate is already more than half-over. This whole year has been something of a whirlwind, what with me leaving the News & Observer this past spring, and being Laureate has been immensely fun — a bunch of cool events already in the books, with more to come. I hope you’ll come out to one between now and the end of the year; here are some flyers about a couple of upcoming programs.

But now that I’m on the downhill run toward the end of my own Laureateship, the agencies that run the program (that would be City of Raleigh Arts Commission, Durham Arts Council, Orange County Arts Commission and United Arts Council of Raleigh & Wake County) are turning their attention toward next year. And they’d like you to know that the application process is now open for 2020. Every year’s Laureate has a different specialty, and mine has been the area of “creative non-fiction and biography.” Next year’s Laureate will come from the world of “writers of plays, musicals and screenplays (for film, television and video games).”

LewFlyerThere is an application and interview process, and it’s open to all qualified writers who are at least 18 years old and have resided in Wake, Durham or Orange counties for at least one year. Application deadline is Oct. 7. You can check all the relevant details on the 2020 Piedmont Laureate Application page.

Being Laureate is a lot of work, but I’ve found it to be immensely rewarding as well as a comfort as I make my way into life beyond newspapers. It’s an experience I’d highly recommend. So come out to a program or two with me before the end of the year, and consider joining me in the best fellowship I’ve ever been a part of.

Where to write: In praise of…the mall — yes, the mall.

I’m a bit more than four months into My Next Phase (Whatever That Is), after taking the leap of faith and leaving the newspaper dayjob. So I am still attempting to cobble together a career/work scenario (or at least non-starvation living) out of various side-hustle fragments. And how’s that going, you ask? Mixed! Some freelance assignments have come my way, and I am grateful for all of them. It’s still not clear, however, if I’ll ever attain a sustainable financial equilibrium doing just contract work. On the other hand, I had an actual job interview for a part-time gig this week — more on that soon, I hope. We’ll see.

Meantime, I’m still adjusting, day-to-day. One major change in my new daily routine is that…I don’t really have one. I no longer have an office workplace to go to, which I miss a lot more than I thought I would. It’s a situation with pluses and minuses, of course. The commute from bedroom to kitchen table is lots faster than driving downtown. And yet it’s also just a little too easy to turn into the sort of hermit who never leaves the house, so I do try to get out at least once a day.

To that end, over the past few months I’ve been seeking public places where I can work. And here’s where I tend to wind up:

Brew.JPG(1) Coffeehouses — Coffee joint as de facto office has become kind of a cliche for those hoofing it in The Gig Economy (TGE), and yet I must admit: There’s something about the smell of coffee brewing that makes me feel like I should be writing. It’s a Pavlovian response similar to the smell of popcorn giving you a sudden urge to go watch a movie.

Coffee joints are everywhere, of course, but you don’t want just any old Starbucks. A totally deserted coffeehouse can feel dead, while a too-crowded one can be an even bigger drag. If you find a java joint with the proper-vibe combination of good coffee, just-right critical-mass crowd and good ambient music (something along these lines, say), treasure it. Brew in Seaboard Station has become my main go-to.

CVRL.JPG(2) Libraries — The public library remains one of the few truly egalitarian communal gathering spots because, as long as you behave, you can hang around pretty much as long as you want without spending any money (a big plus for those of us on the semi-employed budget). The bad part is, that often makes for an environment that might not be terribly conducive to thinking, reading and writing. I’ve been in some libraries that felt more like daycare centers, which feels churlish to complain about. It’s great to get kids interested in books at an early age, of course, but concentration can be difficult when the young folks are bouncing off the walls.

I’ve sampled a number of libraries around Raleigh, and Cameron Village Regional Library usually has enough other patrons around to give you a feeling of things going on without so many that you can’t find an open chair. It’s also big enough that you can just about always find a quiet corner. I usually wind up there a couple of times a week.

TTC.JPG(3) Shopping malls — Malls get a bad rap for being soul-sapping theme-park monuments to mindless consumerism, temples of banality and environmental catastrophes. In a world where you can get anything delivered to your door via Amazon, they don’t even really make economic sense anymore. Raleigh’s Triangle Town Center is in foreclosure, a fate that Crabtree Valley Mall is looking to avoid by adding a skyscraper hotel where Sears used to be. It’s pretty much the same story everywhere. There’s a book about the unmalling of America in the works, “The Decline of Mall Civilization” by Chapel Hill multi-media artist Michael Galinsky, and it’s a fascinating archaeological collection of 1980s-vintage photos of malls from the era when they were the only game in town.

And yet for all that, malls still strike a chord for those of us who grew up in them, and they’re actually not bad places to hang out. They’re climate-controlled with acres of walking space, plus food and drink available in food courts (free samples!). There’s usually decent WIFI, and most of them even have comfortable furniture set up on the concourses, in the style of living rooms.

I have spent hours camped out with my laptop on various couches in Triangle Town and Crabtree the past few months, working on this or that piece of writing. If anyone walking by finds it weird to see me working with papers and folders spread out, well, they’ve been too polite to say anything.

So yeah, I’d actually recommend the mall as satellite change-of-scenery workspace. Just find an easy chair within smelling distance of a Starbucks, and you’re good to go.

Sara Romweber Day is coming

SRD.JPGOne of my duties as Piedmont Laureate this year is to be on call for occasionally composing a few words for various occasions. One such task I was honored to perform recently was writing a proclamation in honor of Sara Romweber, the late great rock ‘n’ roll drummer who passed back in March at the much-too-young age of 55.

I’ve always been a huge fan of pretty much every band Sara ever played in, and I hope I managed to do her legacy justice with this proclamation. Something I can already say with complete certainty, however, is that I’ve never typed the word “WHEREAS” this many times before, ever.

This proclamation will be read at a town of Carrboro Board of Aldermen meeting Tuesday night, in advance of Sara Romweber Day on Sunday, June 23. There will be a “Celebrating Sara” gathering that afternoon in Saxapahaw at Haw River Ballroom. Former bandmates including Michael Rank, Lynn Blakey and Sara’s brother Dex Romweber are among those who will play.

ADDENDUM: Here is the proclamation being read at the June 23 event.


WHEREAS, Sara Romweber moved with her family to Carrboro in Orange County, North Carolina, in 1977, the year she turned 13 years old; and

WHEREAS, Sara was “Little Sara,” daughter of “Big Sara” Romweber and one of seven children; and

Rank+SaraWHEREAS, the Romweber family home on Pine Street in Carrboro was a unique artistic ecosystem in which all the kids were involved in various quirky artistic pursuits; and

WHEREAS, many of those artistic pursuits involved bands including The Remainz, UV Prom, Crash Landon and the Kamikazees and Flat Duo Jets, led by Sara’s younger brother Dexter Romweber; and

WHEREAS, Flat Duo Jets would go on to international acclaim, but Sara achieved even more as a key member of historically significant and artistically important alternative-rock bands including Let’s Active, Snatches of Pink and (with her brother) Dex Romweber Duo; and

WHEREAS, Sara pioneered a unique style of drumming and a playing style that displayed amazing power and versatility across a wide range of styles; and

WHEREAS, she also became a much-beloved icon, as renowned for her thoughtful kindness and on-point rock-star style as for her drumming; and

WHEREAS, her inspiration also extended far and wide as an important and enduring influence on friends, peers, fellow musicians and younger generations; and

WHEREAS, her death at age 55 from Glioblastoma on March 4, 2019, triggered an amazing and massive outpouring of love and remembrances across media platforms all across the globe; and

SaraLogoWHEREAS, her memory will never be forgotten as one of the North Carolina musicians who made the state great.

NOW, THEREFORE BE IT RESOLVED, that I Lydia E. Lavelle, Mayor of the Town of Carrboro, North Carolina, do hereby proclaim June 23, 2019, as “SARA ROMWEBER DAY” in the Town of Carrboro, and urge all citizens to continue to celebrate the life and legacy of Sara Romweber and her important contributions to the state, nation and world’s artistic life.

Concert reviewing: Hazards of the gig

PaulOnstage.JPGBack in February, when I decided it was time to leave the News & Observer, this wasn’t the first thought I had but it was close: “Damn — I’m going to miss Paul McCartney.” Beatle Paul was coming to play Raleigh’s PNC Arena, and I’d had it on my calendar to attend as the N&O’s reviewer. Without the benefit of reviewer tickets, however, there was pretty much no chance I’d get to go.

Fortunately, thanks to a freelance assignment to review the show for WRAL.com, I did get to go after all. The show was this past Monday and it was great. So were the 10th-row-center seats on the floor — except, however, for the person next to me. Bless her heart, she was so excited that she seemed to be having trouble maintaining control (or at least respecting boundaries). And that got me to thinking about Problematic Audience Behaviors I have witnessed and experienced over nearly four decades of reviewing concerts.

PaulTix.JPGI’ve always said, never underestimate the power of a notebook or clipboard when you want to give the appearance of having the authority to be somewhere; more than once, carrying a notebook and moving confidently forward has been enough to get me someplace I was not necessarily supposed to be. At a concert, however, a notebook often seems like an open invitation for people to open up an inquisition.

It’s also no protection from the major categories of concert irritants, of which there are nine:

The Space Invader (formerly The Dancer) — This is who I was next to at Sir Paul’s show, a very very very enthusiastic super-fan. She was jumping up and down with her hands in the air the whole time, which wouldn’t have been a problem except she could not seem to keep them out of my field of vision. I was leaning to my left pretty much the whole time in an attempt to maintain personal space. And the last time I saw Randy Newman, in 2017 at Durham’s Carolina Theatre, I was right next to a rather inebriated fellow who thought it was a good idea to hold his cup of beer overhead and wave it around during pretty much every song. Somehow, I didn’t get a beer bath that night.

The Jukebox Operator — The person who goes to a show wanting to hear That One Song, and they are not gonna shut up about it until they do. Mostly this takes the form of screaming the name of That One Song over and over and over again, and it’s often something so obvious they don’t even need to yell for it. At the Carolina Theatre some years back, Steve Earle mocked somebody hollering for “Copperhead Road” five minutes into the show by asking, “Did you really think I wouldn’t play that one?”

The 2-Year-Old — The person who has a desperate and almost toddler-like need for attention from whoever is onstage and will go to any lengths to get it, screaming seemingly random things. Many years ago, I was reviewing Billy Joel at UNC’s Smith Center in Chapel Hill and seated next to three guys who repeatedly screamed, “Long Island, Billy! Long Island!” all night long — except, with their New York accents, it came out sounding more like, “Lon Guyland!” — apparently because they had that in common with Joel. Understand, we were nowhere near the stage and there’s no way Joel could have heard them in a noisy arena, which I would have pointed out if the three guys had ever paused. But everyone in their immediate vicinity got to hear it over and over: “LON GUUUUUYLAND!”

The Heckler — Next level up from the 2-year-old is someone who doesn’t just want attention from the person onstage, but confrontational dialogue. You really don’t want to be anywhere near The Heckler in a crowd, for fear of being mistaken for him (and it’s just about always a him, not her), especially at a comedy show, where hecklers are likely to become part of the act. But it’s instructive to see how performers react to hecklers. I remember Superchunk guitarist Jim Wilbur, a world-class heckler himself, scoffing at someone from the stage of Carrboro’s Cat’s Cradle: “C’mon, it has to be a lot meaner than that to be a truly effective heckle.”

The Super-Fan — The person who is determined to prove they’re the most avid, knowledgeable fan in the place. They’ll start clapping and/or screaming at the first note of every song, to communicate that (a) they recognize it and (b) are therefore cooler than you. Being around The Super-Fan can be pretty miserable, but on occasion it’s amusing. Some years back, I was reviewing Merle Haggard at Cary’s Booth Amphitheatre and the old-timer next to me greeted the start of each song by declaring in a down-home drawl, “Thas a GOOD one!” He was right, too.

The Lover — The person who yells “I love you” at whoever is onstage. Whether or not this crosses the line usually comes down to frequency. If someone yells that repeatedly over the course of a show, yeah, it starts to seem a little creepy. But if it’s yelled just once and the person onstage hears it at the right moment, the results can be comedy gold. Years ago at Raleigh’s Memorial Auditorium, Lyle Lovett responded to a stray “I love you” with a droll, “Thank you. That’s a very nice thing to say to, well, almost anybody.” And Ryan Adams, a man not exactly known for grace under fire onstage, had the perfect comeback when an early-show “I love you” rang out at Raleigh’s Meymandi Hall in 2005: “Then I apologize in advance.” Funny thing, he hasn’t been back here since.

The Singer — The person who is gonna sing, by God, no matter what, which may or may not be problematic. Proper behavior on this involves simply reading the room. If it’s a big sing-along of some beloved song where everybody in the crowd is doing it at the performer’s encouragement (which was the case for much of McCartney’s show), then by all means join right in. But if you’re the only person in your vicinity singing, and doing so loudly enough to be heard at the expense of what’s coming from the stage, that’s an invitation for death-stares. Nobody bought a ticket to hear you. Save it for your shower at home.

The Conversationalist — The person who is there to talk, not listen, and will not be dissuaded. A few years back, I was at the Carolina Theatre trying to listen to singer/guitarist Jonathan Tyler play a solo acoustic cover of Townes Van Zandt’s “Pancho and Lefty” — one of the greatest and most poignant songs of all time, at least in my book. Unfortunately, a couple of bearded hipster douchebros nearby were having a conversation about work and took serious umbrage when I asked if they could quiet down or take it to the lobby. “No,” one of them hissed between gulps of beer, “this is a concert not a library.” Then, to underscore the point, he and his buddy started talking even louder. Nice. We had really good seats for that show but moved to the back to get away from those guys.

The Inquisitor — Related to The Conversationalist, and specific to reviewers, this species is even worse: The person who insists on talking to you after spotting your notebook, either to interrogate or lecture or give an unasked-for hot take. It’s even more fun when they just want to be antagonistic. At Walnut Creek on a rainy 2017 night during Chris Stapleton, a guy approached me to ridicule me for my choice of attire, a raincoat. Then there was the time a decade-plus ago when I was reviewing the Black Eyed Peas at Booth Amphitheatre, and this button-down-fraternity type and his date insisted on standing on their chairs directly in front of me. “We’re not moving,” he taunted. Then he noticed my notebook and added, “You should get a better job.” Since they weren’t gonna move, I did, right after thanking him for the career advice.