Oxford American celebrates North Carolina music with two local events

DON’T LET ME BE MISUNDERSTOOD: The winter issue of Oxford American, left, spotlights North Carolina music with a wealth of essays exploring the state’s sounds, past and present. Two local events – one featuring a singing circle that includes Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen, right – will take place in Asheville. Photo of Cohen by Jimmy Williams

North Carolina has a rich musical history and a thriving current music scene. Both are being recognized in the winter 2018 issue of Oxford American. The esteemed literary and arts magazine devotes the entirety of the issue to the state’s music and poetry. And in conjunction with the issue, Oxford American is hosting a series of events in four cities. That series of celebrations culminates with two events: one at Isis Music Hall on Friday, Nov. 30, and a separate event at Malaprop’s the afternoon of Saturday, Dec. 1.

Along with Asheville, events to launch the issue are scheduled in Raleigh, Durham and Charlotte. At Malaprop’s, authors will read selected stories from the magazine, with brief interstitial sets from Raleigh-born singer-songwriter Tift Merritt.

Merritt — whose essay on folk-blues musician Elizabeth Cotten is included in the magazine — will take part in all seven Oxford American happenings across North Carolina. Though she lived in New York City for nearly a decade and has toured extensively, Merritt still acknowledges deep roots to her home state.

“North Carolina has always informed the way that I tell stories,” Merritt says. “I grew up at a time where regional identity was really a strong and special thing.” After years during which she felt she needed to explore the world, Merritt says she realized, “I just want to be in this place where people know me, my child and my family.”

In addition to performing at the celebration events, Merritt is the talent organizer. While the Oxford American staff initially floated the idea of a touring “house band,” Merritt had another idea. She asked herself, “How can we put together something that is seamless and simple, but also encourages interesting collaborations and cooperation?”

The answer comes in the form of a “singing circle” featuring multiple artists. Merritt explains the concept. “I’ll sort of invite someone to sing with me and then set it off spinning,” she says. “From both a spiritual place and a production standpoint, it seems like a way to thread the needle somewhat elegantly.”

Isis Music Hall will be the setting for the Asheville circle, featuring Amanda Anne Platt (Oxford American‘s current opening spread displays an evocative photo — by Asheville photographer Sandlin Gaither — of Platt outside her West Asheville home), Tyler Ramsey, Shannon Whitworth and several others, including Pat “Mother Blues” Cohen. Born in North Carolina, the blues singer had a thriving career in New Orleans. But amid the post-Katrina devastation, she came home.

“You’re going to have ups and downs wherever you go,” Cohen says. “But if you have downs here, it’s a lot easier to live. People are basically pretty nice.” She brought her optimistic attitude with her.

“I said, ‘I’m going to build myself back up again; the more I work, the better I get. I’m going to get better and better every time I go someplace,” she says, “until everybody will know who I am.”

An image of Tryon-born singer and musician Nina Simone graces the cover of Oxford American’s 20th annual Southern Music Issue. Tiana Clark’s essay, “Nina Is Everywhere I Go” examines Simone’s role as a poetic influence. But that cover story is only one of nearly 20 North Carolina-focused features, delving into the life and work of artists as diverse as jazz giant John Coltrane, hip-hop producer/rapper 9th Wonder, James Taylor, alternarock legends the dB’s, John Cage, George Clinton and Etta Baker.

Other features in the 160-page issue explore the beach music scene, Latin music in Charlotte and the role of Kinston in the history of funk. The issue goes beyond music, including poetry from Ashevillean Nickole Brown and four other North Carolina writers: Tyree Daye, Benjamin Naka-Hasebe Kingsley, Zachary Lunn and C.L. White.

Since 2012, Charlotte native and Oxford American deputy editor Max George has been on the staff of the magazine, which is published in partnership with the University of Central Arkansas. “Even as a North Carolina native, I knew going into the production of this issue that it would be a deep well,” he says. “But I’ve been floored with the depth of the stories and the unexpected subjects that came about.”

The issue chronicles stories that might otherwise go untold. Writer and Winston-Salem native John Kirby is a record scout for reissue record label Numero Group and, says George, “a deep North Carolina music head.” His profile of Winston-Salem musician Wesley Johnson of the Teentones is one of many standout features. “We want to be as sensitive as we can to covering as many different genres, eras and artists as we can,” George says.

George concedes that the magazine simply can’t be comprehensive with its state-themed issues, but the winter 2018 publication remains an impressive sampler of North Carolina’s musical-cultural landscape: “We really try to present a snapshot of the scene from the state in the time and the place that we’re coming at it.”

WHAT: Oxford American’s Statewide Singing Circle
WHERE: Isis Music Hall, 743 Haywood Road, isisasheville.com
WHEN: Friday, Nov. 30, 8:30 p.m. $20

WHAT: Stories from Oxford American’s N.C. Music Issue
WHERE: Malaprop’s, 55 Haywood St., malaprops.com
WHEN: Saturday, Dec. 1, 3 p.m. Free

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About Bill Kopp
Author, music journalist, historian, collector, and musician. His first book, "Reinventing Pink Floyd: From Syd Barrett to The Dark Side of the Moon," published by Rowman & Littlefield, is available now. Follow me @the_musoscribe

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