I heard about this book on a fan page for the Avett Brothers, and since I love music almost as much as reading, it seemed like something to check out.
Menconi was a music reporter for the Raleigh News and Observer for many years, and the book reflects his deep connections to the community. It’s structured by time and genre- each chapter deals with a different location and type of music. North Carolina is often overlooked in the music scene, but it turns out to have had a significant influence on genres ranging from rap to bluegrass to blues to the 90s alternative scene. The chapters that provided the greatest new information to me were the ones on Durham blues of the 1930s and ’40s and the hip-hop out of the Triangle in the ’00s. Connections are drawn between the bluegrass/folk/country music of the mill workers in the Piedmont and the tobacco workers further east, and recognition of cross-cultural influences between whites and Blacks were frequent and relevant. Menconi touches a bit on how music reflects on the communities it comes out of– I would have liked to have seen more about how the early 20th century labor movement and performers and music were tied together. A deep dive into the development of beach music was a delight, and the story of Doc Watson was a solid anchor for the book. Many specific songs are discussed in the book, some of which I was not familiar with, so I had to stop frequently to look them up and listen.
Why Step It Up and Go really worked for me was because I lived in North Carolina from 1999 – 2013. Bars I went to were mentioned, towns I lived in, bands I had seen. It was like seeing my 20s and early 30s show up on the written page. Interspersed in each chapter were smaller sections about specific artists who weren’t the subject of the chapter, but were still related. The first thing I did was check for “my” bands in the index- the Connells, Squirrel Nut Zippers, Ben Folds Five, the Avett Brothers, Doc Watson, Superchunk, and the Steep Canyon Rangers. They were all there- and I discovered that Merge records was based out of North Carolina, and was established as a studio for Superchunk. The Connells, another Raleigh band, never made it big in the US, but had a couple of successful songs in Europe. “74-75” is the best known, in part because of the video for the song, which features members of Broughton High School’s class of ’75 and then photos of them in the late ’90s. It was updated again in the 2000s. Having two pages dedicated to the song brought back fond memories for me.
I thoroughly enjoyed the book due to the historical research, and how the popular culture of the everyday people is shown to reflect trends, what’s important, and how sometimes you just don’t make it, even though you work hard. But I also loved it because I have been to the small towns that are the birthplaces of these performers, I lived the music in clubs like Ziggy’s and the Lincoln Theater. Separating my fond memories from the book is hard- I would assume any North Carolina based music fan would enjoy it, but it might be harder if you don’t have a connection to the community. I hope someone has created a playlist on this book, because it would be truly an enjoyable experience to listen to.