Move Over, J.T.: “Carolina’s Calling Me”

Are you sick and tired of being sick and tired from North Carolina’s political implosion? Worn out with the shame and sorrow caused by the UNC athletics cheating? Yeah, me too. We’ve just elected the alpha dog of meanness to the US Senate;  the “Carolina Way” turns out to be an ugly scam. Every day it looks worse. But you know what? Leave the rotten athletics out of the picture, and the Carolina we love is still there.

This hit home last night at a swell concert at Carolina Performing Arts. A sold-out concert at Memorial Hall, that special place preserving the memory of the founders and shapers of the oldest state university in the country (something not even the ravening destroyers of the current General Assembly can take away). A concert of hot music and smart lyrics by–yes!–two bands that got their starts at UNC-Chapel Hill. The four members of Mipso graduated just this past May; the founding members of the Steep Canyon Rangers are Class of 1999.

Mipso at the Longview during Raleigh's IBMA bluegrass fest in October. L to R: Jacob Sharp, Wood Robinson, Libby Rodenbough, Joseph Terrell. Photo: Dan Schram.

Mipso at the Longview during Raleigh’s IBMA bluegrass fest in October. L to R: Jacob Sharp, Wood Robinson, Libby Rodenbough, Joseph Terrell. Photo: Dan Schram.

The  Mipso quartet are all North Carolina bred and born. They jumped into the river of music as it came to them, and in the manner of bands like The Stray Birds or the Black Lillies or Chatham County Line, they are weaving the strands of Americana into fresh songs for this century. In some ways, a better comparison might be with Tift Merritt, that Carolina almost-alumna with the big heart and the poetic lyrics riding on her sweet tunes. As did Tift, the three men of Mipso studied writing with the great writer-musician Bland Simpson, and you can hear the connection in the simplicity of their stylings and the plain honesty of their songs.

Mipso larks about on stage, making jokes and inserting funny musical quotes, and are clearly amazed and delighted that their dream is coming true–they’ve been touring this country and Japan since graduation–and (gasp) that they been able to buy a mini-van. “It’s silver, a Honda Odyssey. It’s got, like, 18 cup holders!” Success is measured in many ways, and one of them is whether you can fit coffee into a moving vehicle packed with four musicians, their kit and all their instruments, including a stand-up bass.

But for all their fresh youth, there’s a lot of wisdom in their songs, and a purity of emotion that is well-served by their near-grass instrumentation of guitar, mandolin, bass and fiddle, and their three- and four-part harmonies. (Last year, guitarist Joseph Terrell won a song-writing contest at MerleFest (honoring Merle Watson, who died before they were born), and the band has been invited to play there in 2015.) They played older songs and ones not yet recorded, but the touchstone for the evening was “Carolina Calling,” from their 2013 album Dark Holler Pop. You can hear it, and see a charming video of its being recorded, on their website. It may not overtake James Taylor’s 1968 “Carolina in Mind,” but it stands a chance, and, you can dance to it. “Must be Carolina calling me, reminding us of how we ought to be…”

The Steep Canyon Rangers at a previous MerleFest. Photo: Greg Lawler.

The Steep Canyon Rangers at a previous MerleFest. Photo: Greg Lawler.

Mipso reveled in joy of coming home to a packed house as long as they could before giving the stage over to the “one of our favorite bands!” the Steep Canyon Rangers. Now based in Asheville, that six-man troupe is 15 years more polished–I mean, suits and all, y’all–with a big sound genealogically much closer to classic bluegrass than Mipso’s. Success is not so new to them (they’re Grammy-winners; they’ve recently been touring big venues with Steve Martin and Edie Brickell), but they haven’t forgotten where home is, either. Lead singer/guitarist/founder Woody Platt sneaked  a line about goin’ to Caroline into “Old 97,” while fiddler Nicky Sanders drove the train. Mad props to Sanders for mad fiddling! He danced all around the stage, sawing the strings off his bow, but he was wearing soft shoes, so you couldn’t hear his feet. But, drummer Michael Ashworth has a “box kit” with which he could make as much clacking clogging sound as needed. Mike Guggino blistered his mandolin, going far into high lonesome territory. Graham Sharp’s banjo bubbled through every song, and his deep voice gave serious resonance to the vocals, where Charles Humphrey’s bass doubled it. (If you missed their triumphal return to UNC, or even if you didn’t, you can catch them tonight, Nov. 15, on A Prairie Home Companion, beginning at 6 EST. Maybe they’ll play their new song “Radio” on the radio. They’ll also be playing Raleigh’s  Lincoln Theater Jan. 24.)

It was a smashing set, but the sweetest song came at the end, when the Rangers invited Mipso back for an encore, and the younger musicians placed themselves next to the older, fiddle by fiddle, bass by bass, mandolins in tandem, and guitars together. Tall Woody Platt stepped back and let shorter Joseph Terrell lead the singing on a beautiful gospel-inflected tune. When the two front men left the stage, their arms were wrapped about the other’s shoulders, one reaching down, the other reaching up. That’s the Carolina way.

Without the consolidated University of North Carolina, we’d be in a world of hurt. Here are a few completely random observations about its limitless value.

Ask all the North Carolinians you meet, and a high percentage of them will tell you that they heard their first live classical music when they went to school at one of UNC’s branches.

The underwater archeology department at ECU is working on the ship of the most famous pirate of all, the dangerous and wily Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard. If you think rural eastern NC doesn’t love its major university, you have never crossed the border into the Pirate Nation.

Whenever I need to acquire some horticultural fact, I turn to “the people’s university,” our land grant college NC State, with its incredible Cooperative Extension network.

Recently in the fabric store in Carrboro, a young man came in, looking for just the right interfacing. All the women in the store wanted to know where he’d been so long–turned out he’s doing his senior year of high school at the UNC School of the Arts, where he’s studying costume design. “It’s one of the top schools for it,” he said. “I want to go to college there, too, because I’m sure I’ll be able to get work with a degree from there.”

Study the rosters of major dance companies. In many, you’ll find dancers who received their training at UNCSA.

I’m a UNC-G alumna. Back then, the former women-only school still did not have any sports but intra-murals, and everybody got along just fine.

Recently, the students at ASU voted in droves, despite all attempts to deter them.

Before ECU had a medical school, people in the whole eastern swath of the state had to go to Raleigh or UNC Memorial Hospital in Chapel Hill.

While on the topic of medicine–UNC’s the place where a skinny girl from Burgaw can rub shoulders in the lab with a Senator’s son, and receive a doctorate in neurobiology on her way to becoming a medical doctor. At NC State, she took a triple major and double minor in sciences, and when she got into medical school, she found she was far better prepared than her cohort who’d been to “the best” private schools.

Walker Percy went to UNC.

Today at the Farmers Market in Durham, there was an info table about AgrAbility, A cooperative project utilizing the resources of NC A&T, NC State, ECU and other organizations, its focus is helping farmers and gardeners keep on keeping on despite arthritis and other disabilities. Since the only thing more important than art is food, locally grown, I say, thanks to the university system.

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