By David Menconi
Chapel Hill musician Kirk Ross leads something of a double life, political reporter by day and rock star by night – except, of course, for those times when the legislature’s session runs into late-night hours, or a storm is coming. Covering calamities from 2016’s infamous HB2 “Bathroom Bill” to this year’s Hurricane Dorian, he’s logged a lot of miles.
“I have a windfall pretty much every time North Carolina has one crisis or another,” Ross says. “My usual stuff runs in Carolina Public Press and Coastal Review. And then whenever all hell breaks loose here, whether it’s something political or a hurricane or whatever, the Washington Post calls. I’ve been on their hurricane team for every major storm since (2016’s) Matthew.”
Now 60 years old, Ross moved to Chapel Hill from his native Indiana in the 1980s, drawn by a girlfriend and better job prospects. While taking classes at UNC, he started writing a column for Chapel Hill News and playing in local bands. His longtime band Lud formed in 1993 and is still going more than a quarter-century later.
“It was cool because Bryon (Settle) and I were both old to begin with,” he says with a laugh. “So we were ‘The Old Guys’ and in Lud, we had this young woman drummer Graham (Curry) just beating the hell out of the toms. That was fun. We started out playing whatever we played, not many songs. Then we started doing songs and became a music machine, put out some nice records.”
Ross also logged time at the Carrboro Citizen and put in a few years as Indyweek’s managing editor, where he tried to push the paper’s music coverage in more of a humanistic direction.
“I tried to get people thinking about musicians as human beings rather than providers of product,” he says. “I wanted to cover how people live and how a community can sustain itself – to write about music, not the business of music. I was interested in how we keep people playing music long-term, not just be a town where you were in a band from 19 to 23 and then straightened up. It’s important to sustain music and arts communities.”
Ross is a freelance journalist nowadays, primarily covering politics and the environment. Sometimes his music and journalism intersect. The latest Lud album, Yellow House, opens with a song called “Report on the Americas,” and he says he’s also been writing a lot of what he calls “hurricane songs.”
But his favorite writerly thing to do is a project like a 2,000-word feature analyzing where every dollar of this year’s disaster-recovery bill goes. The past decade has been the most politically polarizing in recent memory, and Ross has had a front-row seat to numerous controversies and scandals.
“I sit right there, one of about two-dozen people with a floor pass,” he says. “Part of the job is bearing witness, especially in an atmosphere like this. I have a long institutional memory, which gives some perspective. I try not to get too lost in the tick-tock of it all. But it is not a good political climate right now. There’s a struggle to even believe in consensus, let alone achieve it. I’m not sure I see an immediate solution. But I am hopeful that North Carolina will vote its way out of things.”
After a long day enduring the political grind, music comes as a welcome relief.
“It’s beyond relief,” he says. “I played a gig one night last year after I drove out of Bladen County following a rough day of reporting, and it was beautiful. I was just happy to be alive, doing what I do. I got to sweat for a really good reason.”
Kirk Ross will be one of the participants in “Piedmont Laureate Presents: How to Cover Politics and Stay Sane, An Election-Year Preview,” 7 p.m. on Dec. 4 at Chapel Hill Library. Other participants include USA Today’s Steven Petrow and the News & Observer’s Dawn Baumgartner Vaughan. Admission is free.