The sole criterion that the musicians in this book had to meet was that they were in some sense “from” North Carolina—born here, raised here, or did their most important work here. That’s a broad remit that’s bound to create some strange bedfellows: Clay Aikin and Charlie Poole, for example, or Superchunk and Nina Simone. I kept waiting for a chapter that didn’t hook me immediately, that made my restless fingers want to skip over to the next one. It never happened.
After nearly 30 years covering music for the Raleigh News and Observer, Menconi has that bone-deep knowledge of his subject that only a few music journalists can match—Richie Unterberger, say, or Ed Ward in his prime. And he’s got an amazing gift for contextualizing an artist or a song or a genre in a few words without sacrificing accuracy or nuance.
There are acknowledged legends in North Carolina music, like Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson, but Menconi’s net stretches much further, to include hip-hop, biker rock, and beach music as well. The latter was particularly interesting to me, as a relative newcomer (1996) to North Carolina—reading Menconi’s book was the first time I finally understood that phenomenon. (And if you think The Beach Boys are “beach music,” you really need this book.) Menconi treats all the performers he covers—even the teenagers from AMERICAN IDOL—with generosity and respect. He’s at his very best when covering the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill rock scene, his home turf, and his farewell to Sadlack’s Heroes—hangout for so many local musicians nursing broken dreams—is positively heartbreaking.
Even with the dozens of artists he covers, he was bound to leave out a few favorites—by choice, clearly, not by error. Still, I wish he’d been able to find room for singer/songwriter Marti Jones, and Dana Kletter’s brilliant band Dish. I suppose that just further demonstrates the richness of the North Carolina source material.
I have to add kudos to UNC press who did such a fantastic job on the design, layout, typesetting, and photo reproduction in STEP IT UP AND GO, making it a physical pleasure to simply hold this book in my hands. If there’s a heaven, there’s a special corner there for those who work at academic presses.