By Laurie Paolicelli
In 1969, more than one-half century ago, humans first set foot on the moon, hundreds of thousands of young people gathered in New York’s Catskill Mountains for a music festival that became a cultural milestone, and the war in Vietnam dragged on while protest and resistance grew. It was the year that Richard Nixon became the 37th President of the United States.
It was also the year that the Cat’s Cradle opened its doors, and gave music a place to live and be live in the Triangle. First in Chapel Hill, now in Carrboro, bands will tell you that between D.C. and Atlanta there is no better club than the Cat’s Cradle.
Having hosted bands as diverse as Nirvana, Public Enemy, John Mayer, Joan Baez, and Iggy Pop, the Cat’s Cradle has become a must-stop venue for premier music acts over the past several decades. With a capacity of 750 people, the Cat’s Cradle allows concert-goers a chance to see established and up-and-coming bands alike in an intimate setting.
It’s become more than just a club: it’s an icon.
Marsha Fitch Wilson started Cat’s Cradle in 1969 by holding pop-up concerts in the Pickwick Theatre Building in Chapel Hill. The Cradle didn’t have a permanent location until a few years later, when it moved to the space now occupied by Mediterranean Deli. After being evicted over noise complaints — and what kind of music club would they be if they hadn’t been? — the music venue bounced from one location to another before settling down in the 300 building on East Main Street in Carrboro.
But without Frank Heath, the current long-time owner of Cat’s Cradle, its continued existence would have been in doubt. Bill Smith, world-famous chef, entrepreneur, and local music aficionado says of him: “Frank Heath doesn’t say much, so it would be easy to understand if people here didn’t realize what a debt we owe him. No club lasts that long. He can claim a lot of credit for the fact that this area is world famous for its music culture and for the respect and admiration that that recognition has brought us.”
Fifty-four years later, 1969 is still arguably the most historic year in modern American history. It was a year of triumphs and tragedies, and for this North Carolina college town area it was the year that live music would forever shape the trajectory of the town.
Musician Sam Grisman, who will play the Cradle on March 2, 2023 as part of the Sam Grisman Project presents the music of Garcia/Grisman, captures the power of live music: “The music that my father David Grisman and his close friend, Jerry Garcia, made in the early 90s, (in the house that I grew up in), is not only some of the most timeless acoustic music ever recorded, it also triggers my oldest and fondest musical memories. What I find most inspiring about this material is the way their camaraderie and their love and joy for the music, simply oozes out of each recording.”
Sam Grisman may have been describing his appreciation for the legacy of Dawg and Jerry’s music, but it also holds true of Cat’s Cradle… camaraderie and the love and joy for music.
To play the string game Cat’s Cradle, one child creates a symmetrical mesh of webbed string on both hands — a cradle — then transfers it carefully to the hands of another player. It is an ancient game that can go on for as long as a player can form a new shape with the string, never losing the original connections.
In Carrboro, a different kind of Cat’s Cradle becomes a web of music, passing hand to hand and changing shape across the years, but never losing its original connections, nurturing a generation of musical artists who spread their talents far and wide.
See you there.
Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.