Chapel Hill’s Music Scene


By Laurie Paolicelli

Dave Menconi’s “Step It Up & Go” is a reminder of popular music in North Carolina and the Role Cat’s Cradle Plays in Putting our Music Scene on the Map

The Squirrel Nut Zippers with Ben Folds Five, from left to right: Ken Mosher, Tom Maxwell, Stuart Cole, Chris Phillips, Katharine Whalen, Jimbo Mathis, Ben Folds, Je Widenhouse, and Robert Sledge.

Chapel Hill, Carrboro and Hillsborough have long been known as a musical mecca, an oasis, a vital stop on the Silk Road of song. But this area’s connection to the music we listen to – and to the music our parents and grandparents listened to – is deeper and vaster than you may know. Luckily, David Menconi does know it, and in his new book, “Step It up & Go,” published by UNC Press, he shares everything he knows about our music scene – a scene which has been here for over a hundred years.

Step It Up & Go by Dave Menconi.

The book “Step It Up & Go: The Story of North Carolina Popular Music, from Blind Boy Fuller and Doc Watson to Nina Simone and Superchunk,” is a must read for any music lover. David Menconi is a journalist and author who lives in Raleigh. He spent three decades writing for daily newspapers, 28 of those years at the Raleigh News & Observer. This book is not a mere fanboy’s recollection of the Good Old Days. Menconi digs deep and shows how working-class roots and rebellion tie North Carolina’s Piedmont blues, jazz, and bluegrass led to beach music, rock, hip-hop, and more.

Kay Keyser, compliments of Our State magazine.

The story of every college town is one of people passing through. It’s the same for our musical history. Rocky Mount native Kay Kyser came to town in the 1920s to attend the University of North Carolina, where he was a cheerleader and conducted the student orchestra before going on to become the “L’ Professor of Swing” with his big band (he eventually came back to Chapel Hill to retire). In the 1930s, thanks in part to Blind Boy Fuller’s sidekick Floyd Council, Chapel Hill was a prominent satellite to the blues scene in neighboring Durham. In the 1960s, Doug Clark and the Hot Nuts emerged as one of the East Coast’s top party bands on the same frat house R&B circuit as the beach music bands. And before becoming “Sweet Baby James” as the top 1970s confessional sing-songwriter, James Taylor spent a stretch of his childhood growing up in Chapel Hill.

A number of readers might turn to Chapter 10 with interest. It’s called “The “Next Seattle” Era.”

Cats Cradle posters of bands that have played throughout the years.

Menconi summons not only the sound of the times, but the feel of them. He writes: “Over the twenty-eight years I covered music for the News & Observer, Cat’s Cradle nightclub was something like an Indi-rock town commons. More than just a place to see live music, it was a gathering spot to catch up on what was going on. And whether in Carrboro (its home since 1993), or Chapel Hill before that, it’s always been a historic repository, too. One of the Carrboro incarnation’s most prominent interior features is a mural painted by Zen Fesbee/Shark Question guitarist Laird Dixon, of Elizabeth “Libba” Cotten—legendary Carrboro-born blues woman and author of “Freight Train,” a Piedmont blues classic she wrote about the passing trains she’s heard in the early years of the twentieth century.

Some noteworthy tidbits:

Floyd Council was born in Chapel Hill and was a popular blues guitarist, mandolin player, and singer. He was sometimes credited as Dipper Boy Council. Syd Barrett, of the English psychedelic rock band Pink Floyd, created the band’s name by juxtaposing the first names of Council and South Carolina bluesman Pink Anderson, having noticed the names in the liner notes of a 1962 album by Blind Boy Fuller.




Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five released their respective full-length debut albums in the same year, 1995. Both bands even recorded at the same area studio, Wave Castle in Hillsborough, working on the fly and on the cheap.

Ben Folds Five.

Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five released their respective full-length debut albums in the same year, 1995. Both bands even recorded at the same area studio, Wave Castle in Hillsborough, working on the fly and on the cheap.

Menconi writes: “If Chapel Hill’s “next Seattle” hype had seemed ludicrously overblown, watching Squirrel Nut Zippers and Ben Folds Five ascend the charts felt truly bizarre. But each album cracked million selling platinum territory leading to ever larger states. The Zippers begin in 1997 playing President Clinton’s second inauguration with LL Cool J and Usher, and they rang in 1998 on “Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve.”

And in 1998, Ben Folds Five became only the second Chapel Hill act to play Saturday Night Live. James Taylor was the first. Ben Folds currently lives in Australia. For a listen of his most recent piece about the pandemic, visit here:

The Kraken is a popular spot for live music. Check their website new operating hours..

“There’s an amazing array of musical talent in Chapel Hill, Carrboro, and Hillsborough today,” says Katherine Whalen, former member of the Squirrel Nut Zippers. “Our current group, Certain Seas, plays often around town. On Monday nights visitors can hear top notch jazz at Imbibe in downtown Chapel Hill. We play at The Cave, Yonder in Hillsborough, Local 506 and Cat’s Cradle. Chapel Hill will always be a Mecca for musicians.”

It’s difficult to imagine Chapel Hill without a thriving music scene. But as long as we are here to hear them, to nurture and clap for them, to hold the light from our iPhones high and sway to their rhythm in the darkness, the musicians who create the sounds of our time will keep on passing through.

Check out Dave Meconi’s Podcast: interest:

More about the book:

Laurie Paolicelli is the Executive Director of the Chapel Hill/Orange County Visitors Bureau.

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