FEATURE: David Menconi - North Carolina's Piedmont Laureate
By Brian Turk
Most of us didn't know ex-News and Observer music journalist David Menconi when he was a geeky kid growing up in San Antonio, Texas. We didn't see him sitting in front of the radio listening to Casey Kasem’s “American Top-40” every Sunday on the local Top-40 station KTSA, waiting to hear what the number-one song was that particular week, with a look of anticipation rivaling a money-hungry stockbroker at the bell. But his prolific writing during his nearly three-decade run at the News & Observer allowed us to know him like kin.
Menconi’s first foray into journalism was as a sportswriter for his high school paper in Denver, Colorado -- mostly because he liked sports but wasn't designed to excel at them. After arriving at Southwestern University in 1979, he turned his focus to music, churning out mountains of record reviews for the student paper. "I used to do acres of record reviews as an undergrad," explains Menconi. "My college only had a thousand students. I can only imagine that people were mystified by the number of album reviews in this paper. But the paper was happy; I was filling up space for them."
That tenacious approach laid a solid foundation. "There is no substitute for the proverbial 10,000 hours to figure out how to be good at something," shares Menconi. "I’ve often said I’m happy I cut my teeth as a writer before the internet. It would be so cringy to have that early stuff out there. I used to do these things I thought were really clever that just make me wince now. Back in 1982, this band Point Blank came out with a record called On a Roll and I wrote a review that said only, ‘No they're not.' My review of Ah Ha's first album, in its entirety, was 'Uh-uh.' I thought I was so cool. You do have to get that out of your system somehow. But I am glad it wasn't archived for posterity."
Menconi went on to the University of Texas and earned a Masters in Journalism while working on his craft at The Daily Texan. His first job out of school was at the Daily Camera in Boulder, Colorado, where he had to write about much more than music. "I got to interview Allen Ginsberg at some length while he was at Naropa Institute,” Menconi says. "I taped our conversations, sent him the transcribed copies and he sent me a postcard back, saying how well the conversations went. I still have that postcard 30 some odd years later." (more on Ginsberg and Menconi here)
After a few years, the Daily Camera was feeling like a dead end. Luckily, he got a call from a News and Observer business writer he’d met at a wedding, saying the N&O was looking for a rock writer. So he headed to Raleigh at the beginning of 1991 with no clear idea of how long he would be staying. "At that time the newspaper business worked in a way where you would spend 5 years somewhere like N&O and then try to move up to The New York Times, Chicago Tribune or Washingon Post. The one time I had a shot, I got a call from the Washington Post in 1999, looking for a music writer. But my twins had just been born, and the job was going to be too demanding. I wouldn't have been around that much, so I had to say no thank you."
Luckily for us, Menconi let his roots run deep here in North Carolina. And honestly, the Triangle was fortunate to have a writer of his calibre covering the scene during the rize of everyone from Superchunk to Carolina Chocolate Drops. When he retired from the News and Observer this past Feb. 28, it marked the end of an era. But Menconi didn't leave the paper because he wanted to wear flip-flops more and pants less. Instead, it was because of changing priorities in the newspaper business.
The changing digital-first media landscape demanded more attention to search-engine optimization, keywords, online page-view traffic, curiosity-gap headlines and other mechanized functions than actual writing. It often felt less like journalism than a hit-hunting grind, far removed from the newspaper business he’d started in three decades earlier.
"The day I announced I was leaving, I made a post on Facebook," says Menconi, "I had an interview to do over at Duke. So I put up the announcement online, drove over to Durham, parked and checked Facebook. The outpouring was incredible.” As a capper to the experience, The Beatles ballad “In My Life” came on the radio at that moment.
Post-N&O, Menconi is still focused on the world of North Carolina music history. He had been selected as North Carolina Piedmont Laureate the month before and was also trying to wrap up his new book on North Carolina music history (tentatively titled “Tobacco Rogue,” to be published by University of North Carolina Press in 2020), so the weight of the N&O was something to leave behind.
"It's actually been a relief since leaving N&O. I had taken on too much. I was trying to finish this book while doing a weekly radio show, and I had just become Piedmont Laureate. But the Laureate experience has been great for me, especially during this time. I am number 11 in the line of Laureates. They do a different specialty every year, like a poet or screenwriter. My area is creative non-fiction and biography."
During David's year as Piedmont Laureate, he is focusing on North Carolina music history with a series of programs breaking that topic down. "I have an event coming up at the end of June about Durham blues. I’m working on another event about beach music with Craig Woolard, the lead singer of The Embers, Charlie Brown the DJ, and Park Puterbaugh -- who is currently writing what will probably be the definitive history of beach music."
It’s a big year for North Carolina music overall. Menconi's laureate year also coincides with the NC Arts Council’s Come Hear North Carolina campaign, with Gov. Roy Cooper proclaiming 2019 as North Carolina’s “Year of Music.” And it might have been perfect timing for his departure from his lengthy career at the paper. "It's funny, right at the start of the laureate year, I got together with a bunch of my predecessors," says Menconi. "One of them, the poet Mimi Herman, told me, ‘Be thinking about what you want to give up this year because you will have to give up something to do this.' It's funny that the day job is what I wound up giving up."
If we take into account David Menconi's 28 years at the N&O, his biography on Raleigh's own Ryan Adams, his forthcoming book on North Carolina music history, and his weekly show That Old North State Radio Hour on 95.7-FM That Station, it's safe to say Menconi is North Carolina's "Music Guy." His departure from the News and Observer leaves a gaping hole in the narrative fabric of our music scene. But his work diving deep into North Carolina's musical past makes him a cultural resource that seems better suited to his current projects.
David Menconi has a busy calendar as Piedmont Laureate. For the full events calendar, click here. David's next scheduled talk is June 29, 2019 — "Piedmont Laureate Presents: Durham's bluesy history" with Bill Phillips, Darrell Stover, Glenn Hinson and a performance by Lightnin' Wells, at Durham South Regional Library, 2 p.m. Admission is free.