—Article by David Menconi
Orange County figures prominently in my new book, Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk – and not just because it’s being published by University of North Carolina Press in Chapel Hill. A lot of the story unfolds in and around the vicinity of Chapel Hill, going back in time about a century. Here is a part of the soundtrack.
John Dee Holeman, “Chapel Hill Boogie”
Born in 1929, Durham bluesman John Dee Holeman is one of the last people left who still has first-hand memories of the late great Piedmont bluesman Blind Boy Fuller (who died in 1941). Holeman is also well-acquainted with speakeasies from long ago, including in and around the hoppin’ party town of Chapel Hill. “Chapel Hill Boogie” is a jumpy little remembrance of alcohol-fueled good times.
Elizabeth Cotten, “Freight Train”
There’s been talk of changing the town of Carrboro’s name because of namesake Julian Carr’s white-supremacists leanings and deeds. If that comes to pass, Cottenboro would make a fitting replacement name, after the legendary Piedmont blueswoman Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten. Born in 1893, she grew up in what was then known as West End. The blues classic “Freight Train” is a song she wrote as a child, inspired by the sound of passing trains. A mural of Cotten, painted by artist/guitarist Laird Dixon, adorns an interior wall of Cat’s Cradle nightclub.
Kay Kyser and His Orchestra, “The Old Lamp-Lighter”
Rocky Mount native Kay Kyser got his start in show-business in the 1920s at UNC, where was a cheerleader and also conducted the student orchestra. From UNC, he went on to a renowned career as bandleader and radio personality, as “The Ol’ Professor of Swing” in “Kay Kyser’s Kollege of Musical Knowledge.” “The Old Lamp-Lighter” dates back to 1946, toward the end of his career. Kyser retired back to Chapel Hill in the 1950s and lived there until his death in 1985 at age 80.
Andy Griffith, “What It Was, Was Football”
Before becoming “Sheriff Andy” in Mayberry, Andy Griffith was a UNC student, graduating in 1949. Four years later, Chapel Hill-based Colonial Records released the recording that would be Griffith’s breakthrough: “What It Was, Was Football,” a humorous monologue about a country boy unwittingly stumbling into a football game. Two years after that, he was on Broadway before eventually landing his signature role in “The Andy Griffith Show.”
James Taylor, “Copperline”
The man the world would come to know as “Sweet Baby James” spent a long stretch of his formative years growing up in Chapel Hill, where his father Isaac Taylor moved the family to take a a job at UNC’s medical school in 1951, when James was 3 years old. He would leave while still a teenager, but memories of those years left a mark on songs like the ode to homesickness “Carolina in My Mind.” And there’s also this sweet remembrance of childhood days playing in Morgan Creek near what is now the James Taylor Bridge on Highway 15-501. Co-written with the novelist Reynolds Price, “Copperline” appeared on Taylor’s 1991 album “New Moon Shine” – and is, of course, the namesake of this blog.
Red Clay Ramblers, “Hard Times”
Originally formed in 1972, Chapel Hill’s Red Clay Ramblers have traveled a long and winding road, including star turns on Broadway and movie screens. Along the way, they became one of the late great playwright/director Sam Shepherd’s favorite bands, appearing in multiple projects of his. But through it all, the Ramblers remained a signature North Carolina act, with deep and abiding connections to the Southern vernacular style. Here they cover the 19th-century Stephen Foster classic “Hard Times.”
Flat Duo Jets, “Wild Wild Lover”
A renowned local family in Chapel Hill, the Romwebers have yielded up multiple musicians in legendary North Carolina bands including the late Let’s Active/Snatches of Pink drummer Sara, UV Prom’s Joe – and Dexter, singer/guitarist of the incendiary guitar-drums duo Flat Duo Jets. From the Jets’ 1990 self-titled debut album, “Wild Wild Lover” represents the group’s high-water mark in the mainstream: It was the song the Jets played when they appeared on “Late Night With David Letterman” that year.
Southern Culture on the Skids, “Voodoo Cadillac”
For several years in the 1990s, venerable roots-rock group Southern Culture on the Skids was Chapel Hill’s most nationally successful band. And here’s the Skids song you’d hear the most, “Voodoo Cadillac” from the Skids’ 1995 album “Dirt Track Date.” Although it never made the singles charts, it was on the radio and television constantly as bumper music during newscasts and sporting events during the mid-1990s.
Sonic Youth, “Chapel Hill”
In the early 1990s, with Nirvana climbing the charts, Chapel Hill was emerging as an alternative-rock hotspot. New York’s Sonic Youth was the American rock underground’s ultimate cool kids at that time, and they paid tribute to “Chapel Hill” with this 1992 song – inspired by the 1991 murder of Internationalist Books owner Robert Sheldon, a crime that remains unsolved. Sonic Youth had been in town immediately after Sheldon’s murder, opening for Neil Young at the Deandome.
Superchunk, “Precision Auto”
During those heady 1990s days of “alternative as the new mainstream,” when the U.S. record industry was searching for “the next Seattle” and more bands like Nirvana, Superchunk was Chapel Hill’s best and brightest. A big reason was songs like “Precision Auto,” which kicked off their 1993 album “On the Mouth” – a song both catchy, and fast as a speeding muscle car.
Archers of Loaf, “Web in Front”
Another of Chapel Hill’s “Bands Most Likely To” from the 1990s alternative era, Archers of Loaf turned out to be one of that generation’s most widely heard bands thanks to a couple of soundtracks. “Web in Front” appeared in director Kevin Smith’s 1995 comedy “Mallrats” as well as, most memorably, on MTV’s “Beavis and Butt-Head.”
Squirrel Nut Zippers, “Hell”
While 1990s Chapel Hill seemed to be teeming with of-the-moment bands, the two that actually went platinum were about the last ones that anybody would have predicted. The first was Squirrel Nut Zippers, a hot-jazz band made up of musicians who’d previously played in punk bands. Improbably, the Zippers’ calypso tune “Hell” was a hit in 1997 on both radio and MTV, with a video filmed at Cat’s Cradle.
Ben Folds Five, “Brick”
The other Chapel Hill band of that era to hit it big was this smart-alecky piano-pop trio. But where most of Ben Folds Five’s oeuvre was in the young, loud and snotty end of the spectrum, their surprising breakthrough hit “Brick” was a somber, downcast song about a teenage abortion.
Kaze, “What’s Good”
UNC alumnus Kevin “Kaze” Thomas has long been a sort of unofficial ambassador of local hip-hop, serving as host and emcee for rap shows at area nightclubs as well as making his own records. From his 2003 album “Spirit of ’94,” Kaze’s “What’s Good” was produced by Little Brother deejay/producer Patrick “9th Wonder” Douthit and recalls hip-hop’s early-1990s golden age.
Tift Merritt, “Bramble Rose”
Catherine Tift Merritt got started playing music seriously in the late 1990s while at UNC, where she connected with her earliest collaborators. She went on to make a string of fine albums (most notably 2004’s Grammy-nominated “Tambourine”), and she started strong, too. “Bramble Rose” is title track from her 2002 debut album. It’s a song that was memorably covered by Eagles drummer Don Henley in 2015, with cameos from Mick Jagger and Miranda Lambert.
Rachel Kiel, “Shot From a Cannon”
Carrboro singer/songwriter Rachel Kiel’s music recalls North Carolina’s 1980s generation of jingle-jangle underground-pop bands like Let’s Active and The dB’s. This is title track of her 2017 album of the same name, one of many fine works produced by Jeff Crawford.
H.C. McEntire, “Houses of the Holy”
The Mount Moriah frontwoman has made two solo albums, most recently 2020’s “Eno/Axis,” named after the Orange County river she lives alongside. There’s lots of stately Americana goodness and dignity to “Eno/Axis,” plus a genius-level unexpected curveball at the very end – a radically reworked version of this 1973 Led Zeppelin song.
Mandolin Orange, “Time We Made Time”
This Chapel Hill duo of Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz specializes in plainspoken devotional songs, both modest and arresting. Playing and singing very quietly has not kept them from becoming one of the area’s most popular acts. “Time We Made Time” is the closing track on 2019’s “Tides of a Teardrop,” Mandolin Orange’s first to make the Billboard charts.
Sylvan Esso, “Frequency”
The electronic duo of Amelia Meath and Nick Sanborn lives in Durham, but they do their recording in a studio in Orange County – including their 2020 album “Free Love,” which is their first since 2017’s Grammy-nominated “What Now.” During the pandemic summer of 2020, they teased out videos for various “Free Love” songs including “Frequency,” which was directed by Asheville musician Moses Sumney.
David Menconi’s Step It Up and Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk will be published October 19th by University of North Carolina Press.