We are the champions

It’s been three weeks since I left the News & Observer and entered gainful unemployment, so to speak, and I’m still getting used to this new normal of not having a regular workplace to go to every day. It’s been a strange series of adjustments and jolts, starting with news two weeks ago that North Carolina rock legend Sara Romweber had died. Not having a place to publish a proper obituary was throwing me for a loop, until my former competitors over at Indyweek were kind enough to let me do one there (whew).

There was a bit of a respite last week with South By Southwest, the massive festival in my long-ago stomping grounds of Austin, Texas. Going to Austin every March is one of my annual compass-setting rituals and I was already registered, so I went and it was the usual amazing time, equal parts exhilarating and exhausting. I saw friends and family and ate way too much TexMex and barbecue, and I also kept busy doing some freelance reviews for Rolling Stone.

NametagDMThis week, however, I’m back home and the reality of really being gone from the N&O is starting to sink in. It no longer feels like an extended stretch of days off, but La Vida Freelance, and here we go. It came with a punctuation mark, too, Thursday night’s annual North Carolina Press Association Awards dinner. I attended, and it was most likely my final act as a member of the N&O newsroom team. It will almost surely be the last time I’ll ever wear a nametag like this one.

Us journalists are funny about awards. We all feign nonchalance because it’s what one does, and we talk a good game about how awards are ultimately meaningless, which is certainly true as far as it goes. Deep down, however, we’re just like anybody else: Whether it means anything or not, winning stuff is fun, especially if it involves dinner paid for by somebody else.

So I went and I won two this year — one for the N&O and one for the Durham Herald-Sun, which is now owned by the N&O and shares newsroom staff. I won second place in feature writing for a piece about the singer Nina Simone’s roots in the town of Tryon, a story pegged to her induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame last year; and third place in arts and entertainment reporting for a feature about artists in the down-east town of Kinston.


Overall, the N&O won 34 awards and came in second in the overall-excellence category, behind the Winston-Salem Journal but ahead of the Charlotte Observer, our…or rather the N&O’s former big in-state rival (it’s going to take me a while to start thinking of the N&O as “them” rather than “us”). Now that the N&O and the Observer are owned by the same corporation, the papers are more partners than competitors. But like the old corner store of daily-paper journalism, having them for a rival is something else I miss.

Credit where credit is due, the NCPA organizers put on a much tighter program this year compared to years past, when the ceremony had the pace and vibe of a high-school graduation. I still remember last year’s interminable event, when we were entering Hour Three and one of my co-workers sighed, “Now is when you really miss cocaine” (still my most indelible NCPA memory from years of attending).

This seems like a fitting capper to my 28-year run at the N&O. Going on a month into my followup chapter, I’m still catching my breath and trying to figure out what’s next even though I’ve actually been pretty busy. I’m in the midst of final (I hope!) rewrites on the North Carolina music-history book, and I’ve got a decent amount of freelance work to do. But the freelancer’s lot is to fret about whether or not that will keep coming, a feast-or-famine cycle I’ll have to get used to.

Meanwhile, the Piedmont Laureate calendar is gradually filling up. Please come see me at an event soon.


A few words about…Ryan Adams

DRANYTBack on Feb. 13, when the New York Times dropped its bombshell piece alleging sexual misconduct by my old book subject Ryan Adams, about a half-dozen emails with the story link appeared in my inbox within two minutes of it going online. Most of them were along the lines of OMG have you seen this?! But a few were also inquiries, from people asking what I thought or if I’d be writing about it.

One of the people asking if I was going to write about it was an editor at the paper, to whom I responded: “I’m not touching this with a 10-foot pole.” Figuring that the world could do without my hot take on the situation, I opted to leave it alone.

And yet that did not stop anyone from asking.

I was scheduled to do a few events at last month’s North Carolina Book Festival, and I figured (correctly, as it happened) that I’d get asked about Ryan. So I wrote out a statement that I read at my Feb. 23 presentation about book-writing, figuring that would be the end of it.

Weeks later, however, people are still asking — and I figure it will inevitably come up next week, when I’m at South By Southwest in Austin, Texas. So what the heck, I’ll put the statement on here, too, even though I have no grand revelations. I wish I did.

I have said very little in public about the recent Ryan Adams allegations. Almost nothing, in fact, and I’ve had my reasons.

Ryan has been gone from Raleigh for a very long time, and he has not even played a show anywhere in North Carolina in nearly 14 years — since June 2005. He and I have not communicated directly in many years, either, so whatever insight I may have once had into him as a person does not seem relevant to his current circumstances. Moreover, I have not wanted to give the appearance of trying to sell books or otherwise capitalize on a terrible situation.

For whatever it’s worth, I never witnessed or heard about anything like the allegations in the New York Times story, either back in the day or while reporting on him after the fact. This should not be surprising. Ryan’s time in Raleigh was more than 20 years ago. He was just breaking into the music business and did not yet have his own recording studio, record label or standing in the industry to boost anyone else’s career.

Of course, I heard some stories because everybody in Raleigh of a certain age who was crawling clubs back then has at least one Ryan Adams story. As told to me, they were mostly humorous anecdotes in which no one took him too seriously — like the time he jumped into a hot tub full of women uninvited, or got chased out of a house and down the street in Boylan Heights with a broom.

In light of recent revelations, stories like that don’t seem nearly as funny or innocent as they once did. I think of Phoebe Bridgers, a singer/songwriter and one of the women quoted in the New York Times story. She wrote a song about her time with Ryan, “Motion Sickness,” that kind of induces shudders from the very first verse.

I hate you for what you did
And I miss you like a little kid
I faked it every time but that’s alright
I can hardly feel anything at all…

That leads to the chorus, in which Bridgers declares she has “emotional motion sickness” and croons in a shell-shocked voice, There are no words in the English language I could scream to drown you out.

At least we got to actually hear that song. Some of the other women in the New York Times story gave up music altogether, and the word “tragedy” seems somehow inadequate to describe that.

At this point, I have no idea what a right or just outcome would look like. It’s not my place to either condemn or defend Ryan. I’ve written a lot about Ryan over the years, very possibly too much. So right now, what seems appropriate for me to do is this: to listen.

Sara Romweber, rest in peace


Let’s Active in a 1984 promo shot. From left, Sara Romweber, Mitch Easter and Faye Hunter.

Well, that didn’t take long. Here it is only Tuesday of my first full week away from the News & Observer after 28 years — and already, there’s a story that’s killing me not to do for the paper. If I were still in the newsroom, I would be spending today writing a proper N&O obituary and remembrance of Sara Romweber, who died Monday night from cancer at the much-too-young age of 55.

Romweber was one of the great drummers in North Carolina music history. I was a fan long before I moved here, thanks to her time in the band Let’s Active in the early/mid-1980s. And once I got here and started seeing her in other bands, that fandom only grew. From Let’s Active’s brainy art-pop to Snatches of Pink’s metallic glam-rock, with the runaway-train garage-rock of her brother’s Dex Romweber Duo somewhere in between, she played a very wide range of music and did so brilliantly, invariably displaying casual nonchalance — always on-point, never unnecessarily showy.

So here is a sample of her at work, and below that a quick remembrance I put out on Facebook and Twitter.

UPDATE: Whattaya know, I was able to give her a proper sendoff in Indyweek.


Whenever I’d see Sara Romweber onstage, I would ask myself: How does she hit those drums so hard? Because even though she was soft-spoken and slightly built, Sara could flat-out bring the thunder — especially in her brother-sister act Dex Romweber Duo, and in Michael Rank’s Snatches of Pink. She also played on some of my all-time favorite records with Let’s Active.

I think the only time I actually interviewed her was for the Flat Duo Jets box set liner notes a few years ago. And she told me one of my favorite anecdotes of that whole project, about life growing up in the Romweber family home in Carrboro:

“Dex would be practicing by himself in the basement, where the furnace was. His voice really carried & it would come up thru the vents. You could hear his voice & guitar really well on the 2nd story from the basement, like a speaker. He’d be learning songs our mom knew, Elvis ballads, and he’d keep stopping because he did not know the lyrics. So mom set down her knife, opened the door & said, ‘Dex, honey, that goes…’ ‘Okay, thanks!’”

She also talked at length about monster movies, soccer, Catholic school, the many bands she and her siblings played in over the years — about everything except herself, in fact. I think that was pretty typical, because Sarah did not seem like one to call attention to herself. But you only had to see her play once, and you’d never forget her.

Alas, she is another one gone too soon — from cancer at age 55, preceded in death by her old Let’s Active bandmate Faye Hunter.

Rest in peace, Sara. Gonna fire up “Cypress,” “Dead Man” and “Ruins of Berlin” in your honor.

Thank you, friends

Last month, when I began telling people privately that I was going to leave the News & Observer after 28 years, almost everyone reacted with enough genuine shock to surprise me. But that was nothing compared to the response when I put the word out to the world at large.

UglyCryThese past two weeks have been amazing — the most wonderful, depressing, heartbreaking, uplifting and bittersweet experience of my life. I have wept, repeatedly and embarrassingly, in public and private. And every time I think I’m done, here it comes again; seems like I’ve still got some grieving to get through. And while my head knows it’s the right time to leave the N&O, my heart is going to take a little longer to come around.

LastDeskShotIn all, nine of us left the N&O newsroom, representing around 200 years of total journalistic experience and institutional knowledge. It was a similar story at other McClatchy-owned papers across the country. I think most of us departed more in sorrow than in anger, and I’m hoping for the best for my former co-workers who are still trying to hang in there at the N&O. I’m afraid it’s going to be rough, and it hasn’t exactly been a picnic up to now.

Probably for some byzantine accounting reason, McClatchy is classifying this as “retirement” for everyone leaving. But full-on retirement is not an option for me at this point. I do have a few months of breathing room, with book-writing and Piedmont Laureate activities and a little freelance work to get me through this stretch of time. Nevertheless, I’ll have to figure out a Next Act pretty soon. I’ll keep you posted.

SocksFirst, though, I’d like to bask just a little while longer in the afterglow of all the love and kindness that’s come my way. I’ve heard from people across social media, in-person and even in my mailbox at home, where various neighbors have left pick-me-up gifts including chocolate, notebooks and cool socks. Jeri Rowe, a longtime friend and colleague from Greensboro, checked in with a written tribute so nice, it’s kind of impossible to feel worthy. It’s been like getting to watch my own funeral, and hearing from so many people has meant a lot.


Martha and me. Photo by Dave Russo.

It reached a crescendo this past Saturday afternoon at Kings nightclub in Raleigh, where my wife Martha Burns orchestrated a lovely going-away bash I’ll remember forever. I’m not great at guessing crowd sizes, but it looked like close to 100 people came by to pay respects, give me a hug, tell a story. Some were kind enough to play a song or two — Caitlin Cary and Matt Douglas, two-thirds of Tres Chicas, Dana Kletter, Ryan Kennemur, The Sirens, Kenny Roby and even our neighborhood super-group Patrick Ward Ramsey leading the crowd in a sing-along version of “With a Little Help From My Friends.”


Matt Douglas and Caitlin Cary. Photo by Dave Russo.

Peter Blackstock, one of my closest friends for over three decades, came all the way from Austin, Texas, and read a few very entertaining excerpts of our writings back and forth over the years. My old N&O co-worker Bob Langford got on the mike to do a comedic roast of a tribute, showing the perfect onstage timing I’ve always envied. And my BFF Scott Huler…well, I’m including it below because words fail me beyond noting that the thought of it will make me tear up for the foreseeable future.

Scott, of course, was the first creative-non-fiction Piedmont Laureate back in 2011, and I am honored to follow in his footsteps. As it happens, his latest book just came out, “A Delicious Country: Rediscovering the Carolinas Along the Route of John Lawson’s 1700 Expedition.” He’ll debut it with his first reading on Wednesday, March 6, at Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh. So we’ve made it a “Piedmont Laureate Presents” event — two Laureates for the price of one! — which means I have the honor of introducing Scott and his co-presenter, Tom Earnhardt of UNC-TV’s “Exploring North Carolina.”

Y’all come.

# # # #


Me and Scott. Photo by Dave Russo.

My best friend is David Menconi, so what I have is music.

Menconi watched my life explode in the 1990s, waited for the flames to die down and then came up, dusted me off and said, ‘There’s a band you have to go see.” And then came years of my life where the entire playlist, live and on records, was the Backsliders. Someone who leads you to the Backsliders manifestly has your best interests in mind.

But apart from the local bands David introduced me to are the mixtapes. I once was heading out on a car trip and asked David for a mix, with a few requests. That became mix number 1, and along with that he made a second tape with two albums: On one side, Hollywood Town Hall by the Jayhawks, and on the other The Gilded Palace of Sin by the Flying Burrito Brothers. So if you’re keeping score, David introduced me to the Backsliders, the Jayhawks and Gram Parsons.

At some point I began responding with mixes of my own, and we developed a shorthand, the tapes accompanied by song sheets with song titles followed by half-spoken thoughts, staccato comments understood almost subliminally, a personal semaphor — twin talk, a bestie language.

I want to share one of those with you.

When long ago it became clear that the News & Observer and I were going to have to start seeing other people, David made me a mixtape with a title cribbed from a line from “Animal House,” and that tape has some resonance now. The tape is called “Leaving: What a Good Idea.” Subtitle: “The Rearview Mirror at the end of the rope.” The song sheet is no longer with the tape because the song sheet lives in the treasure box on my dresser, with the birth certificates and passports and pictures of the kids. With the stuff I must not lose track of.

It started with the Replacements’ “Hold My Life” — comment, “Because I just might lose it” — followed by “Downtown Venus,” and his crib note reminded me of a drive down Wade Avenue when I had recognized a sample in that song. Menconi’s the music guy, but he’s giving me credit for hearing things. This is the tape that introduced me to Joe Henry’s “Trampoline”: note: “So this time I’m not coming down.” The Elvis Costello song “We Despise You” has only the crib note “hee hee hee,” and the Tom Waits version of the seven dwarf’s marching song (“heigh ho…heigh ho…”) refers to our work turning into toil. David’s comment: “I’ve got this story I’d like you to localize.” Ennio Morricone is there, Shawn Colvin is there, Nirvana is there. Towards the end David gets literal, and we get Willis Alan Ramsey singing “Goodbye Old Missoula,” Booker T and the MGs’ version of “Exodus,” and it ended, perfectly, with the B-52s’ “Follow Your Bliss” and David’s benediction: “may we all find it.”

And now David is leaving — what a good idea! — and I, and we, will manage his departure, though surely not as gracefully as he managed mine.

David has traveled with me and eaten burgers with me, watched endless sports games and movies and kids with me. And in fact, that’s really the whole thing, isn’t it? We’ve been eating lunch together at one place or another at least once a week now for nearly 30 years, and there are times when we barely talk at all because we just know everything the other one has to say, and at the end of that lunch I still feel like I’ve been to therapy. We talk about writing and stuff because we’re writers, but it’s like plumbers talking about plumbing. We just talk.

We both turn for comfort every year to the Christmas specials, and those specials help us communicate, too. One year the annual newspaper awards came out and we got the email with the list, and we both got skunked. I’m a broken, ruined person, with a shriveled black hole where my heart should be, and I desperately need that external validation. But I didn’t even get a chance to get up from my chair before the phone rang. Menconi, in the voice of Charlie-in-the-Box, from “Rudolph”: “I guess we’ll just have to wait til next year.” And suddenly I didn’t need the stinking award because I had Menconi.

We both revere that “Charlie Brown Christmas Special,” and we find in Linus the meaning of friendship. Linus watches Charlie Brown wreck one thing after another, yet Linus just hangs around. Charlie Brown gets no cards, and there’s Linus. Charlie Brown wrecks the play and there’s Linus. Charlie Brown screws up the tree and there’s Linus.

Welcome to my life. I move to Raleigh to start a job and there’s Menconi. My marriage ends and there’s Menconi. His kids come along and there’s Menconi. I leave the paper: Menconi. I get married — Menconi. Kids of my own. Menconi. Lunch every solid stinking week come heat, hell or hurricane — Menconi. And, true enough, the opposite. Menconi’s life hits a speed bump and there I turn out to be, so I guess this works both ways. And Menconi walks away from the N&O, and here I am again.

I have nothing to offer but my company, and nothing to claim but my gratitude for the best friend that I’ve ever had.

I probably should have made a mixtape.

— Scott Huler
March 2, 2019


Secret to a long life is knowing when it’s time to go


Photo by Teresa Moore

And so begins the task I have dreaded the coming of for so long…

Well, folks, I guess it’s time for me to make it official: After 28 years, I am leaving the News & Observer at the end of this month.

February 28 will be my final day there, after which I’ll join this latest exodus from the newsroom. I’ve been at the N&O long enough to become part of the furniture, as the saying goes. The thought of leaving it behind makes me feel…well, a confusing rush of emotions.

Anxious and scared, for starters, especially over non-trivial matters like what we’ll do for health insurance. Bereft, kind of heartbroken, crushed — that starts to cover it. You’d think 28 years would be long enough to stay anyplace, especially when the job has changed as much as this one has. And yet part of me is still not ready to let go, even though this is a voluntary separation. But the only thing that feels “voluntary” about it is the timing. More layoffs and cutbacks seem inevitable, sadly, so at this point it’s jump or be pushed.

At the same time, I have to admit there’s a certain amount of relief to it, too. I’ve been expecting and dreading this for so long, trying to hold it off while living under a sword, and now it’s finally here. The bloodletting in my world began in the spring of 2008, when the bottom dropped out of the world economy and hit print media especially hard. Other sectors of the economy recovered, eventually, but print never did. Making our situation even more dire, the N&O’s corporate owner McClatchy had taken on billions of dollars worth of debt in a merger not long before the crash.

Between steadily declining revenues and lingering debt, we’ve been spiraling downward ever since. More than a decade of layoffs, buyouts and attrition whittled our once-mighty newsroom staff of 250 down to around 40 survivors. I am as surprised as anyone else that I’ve lasted this long. All of us have felt immense pressure to produce, especially during the newsroom’s series of “digital-first reinvention” initiatives the past two years. We’ve given our best, all of us, even as some of us have handled it with more grace than others. I’ll cop to having thrown a tantrum or two, and I’m not the only one. It’s been difficult.

I’m sure I’ll have plenty more to say about this later. Right now I’m still trying to process it in a way that focuses more on being glad it happened than sad that it’s ending. And I’m having trouble figuring out how to say goodbye to a place that’s been home for most of my career. In all probability, this will be the end of me as a full-time journalist, which feels like having an arm torn off. I’m kind of not sure who or what I’ll be after this. I’ll definitely still be writing in some way, shape or form, and not just because I’ve got a book to finish. For better or worse, writing is not something I can stop.

At the very least, I’ll still be posting on this blog through the year. I’ll also be doing my radio show, and Piedmont Laureate programsmaybe one on job-hunting (ha ha ha). Obviously, this is profoundly awkward timing and not what I would have picked for my time as Laureate. I had hoped this year could be one of opportunity for the paper as well as for me, but it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen.

If there’s a silver lining to the dark cloud of my imploding career, it’s that this might be an interesting transitional period to share as I try to figure out whatever my “next thing” will be. I don’t like to think too much about it, but it’s very possible that writing is going to become more sideline than primary means of support. We’ll see. At this point, I really don’t know.

Stick around and I’ll let you know how it’s going. Support your local newspaper, wherever you are, because it’s important. Come out and see me at the North Carolina Book Festival this week. And come to my going-away party — the afternoon of Saturday, March 2 at Kings in Raleigh.

Meantime…I loved being the News & Observer’s music critic for so long, more than I can say. It’s been an honor and a privilege, the time of my life.

I’ll be seeing you.


Brushes with greatness: The New York Times bestseller list


UTPressLogo.JPGOne 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.

HanifATCQcoverAnd 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.