Just like the beginning of the decade, the idea of writing a reflection on roughly 10 years of conversations in music started off as an exciting endeavor. Just like actually living through the decade, I’m exhausted. Once I started shuffling through my mind’s filing system and scribbling down names of musicians, I quickly realized: “I’ve talked to a lot of fucking people.”
Don’t get me wrong; I’m not complaining. The perk of having homework every week is talking to talented, passionate and driven local, national and international musicians. That being said, here are some (but not even close to all) of the standout talents, conversations and happenings from the last decade of music in ILM.
Some of my favorite locals to talk to always have more to say about how our community makes the music than they do about playing the music itself. They touch on kinship and harmony, unique to Wilmington.
Travis Shallow continues to be an open book in his music-making. When he spoke about his sobriety in 2017, he touted deep appreciation for friends like Bob Russell. Russell completes Shallow’s full band, The Deep End, who released “The Great Divide” that same year.
It’s rare I get to be a fly on the wall as a band rehearses and interacts with each other. I’ve spoken with Striking Copper a few times since sitting in on a practice in 2015. This was before their debut album, “Mirror,” came out in 2016, and follow-up single, “Running to You,” in 2018. We dished on albums, singles, and marriages in the encore pages. It could have been the nostalgia of sisters Ali Donnelly and Jacquie Lee perfecting the “Hocus Pocus” theme song for a special Halloween show they were prepping for, but I’ll always remember walking into their mic check and hearing their haunting harmonies in person for the first time.
The Midatlantic broke our hearts when they split about two years ago. I sat down with band founder and mandolin player Jason Andre for the first time over a cup of Grinders’ coffee in 2015. It was right before they released their well-received, full-length album, “Sound Over Water.” The band was successful by 2016: They culled a large local fan base with their almost punk take on bluegrass and were playing lots of shows, including an appearance at FloydFest. However, they pumped the brakes in 2017. When a little birdie (by the name of Jason Andre) told me they were coming back in 2019, my next question was, “When can we talk?”
Anna Mann is someone I’ve often spoken with over the last decade at length about Wilmington music. She, along with Will Daube, founded Carolina Pine Music Festival and Productions back in 2013. Though Carolina Pine went on hiatus for a couple of years, Mann brought it back just last month to much appreciation.
I actually knew Anna as an intern at another local paper many moons ago; her quiet demeanor is what has always stood out to me. Now, I think it’s just humility. Between founding Carolina Pine Fest and Alt-zalea, and promoting local bands like Dirty White Rags, she’s done more in music during this decade as a promoter than I think she’s been given credit for at times.
Another behind-the-scenes staple in Wilmington right now is Catherine Hawksworth, owner and operator of Modern Legend. Hawksworth is also in the music-booking game, working alongside Sean Thomas Gerard (Onward, Soldiers) at Bourgie Nights. I particularly enjoyed our back and forth on her perspective on today’s music scene earlier in 2019: “Right now seems to be a very inspiring time for Wilmington,” she told me, referring to the upcoming Riverfront Park venue and new young local bands, like Team Player and Wax Imperials. In my opinion, she is among the “young blood” and hungry people she praises and promotes.
I’m sure we’ll hear more from Hourglass Studios’ Trent Harrison. Hourglass got its start in 2010, and ever since several local musicians and bands have recorded their work alongside Harrison. Countless artists I’ve interviewed over the last decade have expressed their gratitude and respect for him.
Plus, Harrison is ending the decade with a reopening of Live at Ted’s–a significant win for a decade that saw the loss of beloved small downtown music venues like Soapbox, Ziggy’s/Throne Theater/Blue-Eye Muse, The Whiskey and Calico Room.
It’s not surprising that right around 2016 more conversations revolved around politics in music. Ani DiFranco’s 2016 tour, dubbed “Paint Congress Blue,” was a not-so-surprising reflection of her progressive politics. Her decades-long career has always involved political activism.
“Obviously, I’m putting out my wishes for the next election cycle,” she admitted in January before the 2016 primaries, a wish that wasn’t exactly granted in November. In 2019, just a day after Congress voted to impeach Donald Trump, I can’t help but think about what DiFranco said then:
“I think it’s dangerous to just focus on the presidential battle. Meanwhile, democracy is more complicated and the other races happening in these other states are as much or more important. . . . I think we have a real opportunity in coming years to make important changes in terms of climate change, criminal justice, etc.”
I consider myself lucky to have spoken to three members of the Drive-by Truckers. While Jason Isbell has long been departed from the Southern rock group, Isbell, Patterson Hood and Mike Cooley are all Southern-bred and marry historic and current social-justice issues and politics with music seamlessly. The latter two have worked together for more than 30 years. I spoke to both of them about their 2016 album “American Band.” They write about some pretty significant (and depressing) shit from the decade, such as political scandals, Black Lives Matter and Charlottesville. What I admire most about artists like Cooley and Hood is not just how they tell a story with their music but how they manage to gut-punch listeners with history and facts behind it. Whether unrepentantly pissed or hopeful, goddammit, they’ll make you feel it.
(I’m excited for Drive-By Truckers’ January 2020 release “The Unraveling”—hopefully we’ll get to chat about it before another Wilmington show!)
This decade saw the loss of many icons in music: Etta James and Donna Summer (2012); Prince and David Bowie (2016); Tom Petty (2017); Aretha Franklin (2018); and Dick Dale (2019).
I can’t help but think about conversations I’ve had with musicians who have since passed. They stand out because these individuals took time (like most everyone I speak with) to share what they love and why they love it. The difference, for me, is there won’t be another interview or another time to “dig deeper” into an album or story behind a song.
I had the pleasure of speaking with Gregg Allman in 2016 before his scheduled performance at Greenfield Lake Amphitheater. One of my favorite stories from him came from a memory about his first guitar and his brother, Duane: “He said, ‘What you got there, little brother?’” Gregg remembered. “‘This is capital M, capital Y—MY guitar.’”
Allman fell ill and ultimately couldn’t perform at GLA. His band, however, played a free show to a large, grateful crowd. While Allman sadly passed less than a year later, I like to remember another sentiment he left with encore: “The big blessing is to have your undying passion also be the way you make your living.”
Guitarist Neal Casal was so kind and humble when I spoke to him in 2015. Casal, who passed in August 2019, was considered a “hired gun” in some bands but came to Wilmington in July that year as part of the Chris Robinson Brotherhood and returned in August with Hard Working Americans. He was a prolific performer and songwriter, too, having written five hours of original intermission music for the 50-year Grateful Dead’s Fare Thee Well tour. Nevertheless, whenever I’d ask about his various roles and accomplishments he would gently steer the conversation back to CRB and Chris Robinson. “If it wasn’t for Chris, I never would have done the Grateful Dead set music,” he said. I wouldn’t be in the Hard Working Americans; all of it started with him.”
Salvación had released a brand new EP entitled “Keep Up The Fire” when I connected with drummer Carlos Denogean in 2016. An enthusiastic player and promoter of heavy metal throughout ILM—and drummer for Weedeater—he and his cohorts founded Wilmington’s first annual classic heavy-metal fest Thou Shall Rock. It was probably one of the first real conversations I had with someone about this particular genre and subscene in the music community—and Denogean wanted to showcase and celebrate it. “The metal scene in Wilmington is diverse and vibrant,” he explained, “and the fan base is equally spirited.” Denogean passed away in August 2018.
In retrospect, I remember my 2017 interview with Chuck Mosley (Faith No More) to be quite poignant. He laughed and quipped his way through his personal anxiety and professional demons. Even while thriving in the world of punk rock, he talked about struggling with being “an outcast among outcasts.” After parting ways with Faith No More, he said there was an unfair image portrayed to the world—one full of erratic and destructive behavior that Mosley conceded to but was always trying to separate himself from. “I’ve been known to self-medicate,” he said, “but music is something I always come back to. I don’t need anything else, it just takes me somewhere where everything is alright.”
Mosley passed away in November 2017.
With the addition of the Wilson Center in October 2015, Wilmington has seen a lot of big names. From Liza Minnelli at their opening night gala to next February’s sold-out Diana Ross show, the Cape Fear Stage knows entertainment, especially those who tap into nostalgia.
I was stoked to talk to R&B legend Aaron Neville in 2016; he had so much to say about making music and trying to avoid being pigeonholed by the music industry. Just as well, I was thrilled to speak with Patrick Simmons of The Doobie Brothers in 2017 about his delight when folks sing along to “Jesus is Just Alright.”
However, 15-year-old me squealed in delight when I called Jewel (2016) and Sarah McLachlan (2019). The two women held prominent places on the soundtrack of my pre-teen to full-on emotive teenage years.
While we’re talking about awesome female voices at Wilson Center, Grace Potter sparkled and shined, literally and figuratively, during her 2016 performance. It’s a rock show I’m not sure Wilson Center has topped yet…
The Record Company is significant to this kind of reflection because I think they (metaphorically speaking) represent Wilmington’s trajectory in live music. This rock ‘n’ roll three-piece originally was booked at Bourgie Nights for their first Wilmington show in 2016, but moved to downtown’s now-shuttered Throne Theater to meet ticket demand. Fast forward a couple years later, they returned to play Brooklyn Arts Center in 2018 and again in June 2019 in an ever-larger venue, GLA.
The Record Company and others’ growing popularity is something I’m glad we can continue to accommodate. Something lead singer Chris Vos said to me before their first show reminds me, while these venues (and their varying sizes) have played very important roles in what music we see here in ILM, the people that fill the seats are ones ultimately steering the ship.
“They always say ‘the band sold it out,’ and I always say: The band didn’t sell it out; the people sold it out—the people that support the music.”
So there you have it, Wilmington. Keep buying tickets, support your favorite local, regional and national bands whenever they play so they’ll continue to come back … and I can keep talking to these amazing, talented artists.