Book Review: David Menconi — Step it Up and Go

Attempting to weave together the many and varied stories that collectively tell the story of popular music in North Carolina is a task of herculean proportions. It’s a task best not taken on lightly. Luckily for those interested in the subject, David Menconi seems born to meet just such a challenge.

The connections between, say, Maceo Parker and the dB’s might not be readily apparent, but in Menconi’s skillful hands, their stories come together, each filling in a critical gap in the overall musical tapestry of the Tarheel State. Menconi digs into everything from beach music to gospel to R&B to (of course) bluegrass to Robert Moog and his analog modular synthesizer. And Step it Up and Go doesn’t read like some sort of anthology: Menconi’s storytelling skill finds the common thread that holds these stories together.

As readers of this site will have discovered, my own musical tastes tend to steer clear of a few forms (opera, bluegrass, death metal) while digging deep into others (rock, soul, jazz, blues). If David Menconi has a set of preferences of his own, you wouldn’t know it by reading Step it Up and Go. The manner in which he recounts the tale of a rather obscure (to me, at least) figure like Charlie Poole makes the story a real page-turner: who was this guy, and why on Earth does he matter? Menconi tells us, and he does so in a way that enriches, that draws the reader into the story.

A sweeping topic like the history of North Carolina popular music could be approached from a scholarly viewpoint. Tackled that way, the resulting book might be jam-packed with relevant information, but it wouldn’t necessarily be an interesting read. Menconi’s approach focuses upon the human details, and it’s not at all difficult to conceive the idea that an ambitious (and well-funded) director might use Step it Up and Go as a template to create a PBS-type documentary series. I’d certainly tune in.

But until – and even after – something like that happens, time spent reading 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 is essential reading.