Drinking with Writers

Songs of Home

The Steep Canyon Rangers celebrate the music of the Old North State

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

What do you do after spending several weeks playing sold-out shows across Australia, some of them with Steve Martin and Martin Short? If you are the Steep Canyon Rangers, you come back to North Carolina and play a lunchtime show inside a strip-mall record store in Raleigh. If you are the Steep Canyon Rangers you even carry your own equipment through the front door and snake your way through the crowd on the way to the stage.

There were no crowds when I arrived nearly an hour or so before the noon show on a chilly Wednesday in early December. The Steep Canyon Rangers had just released their latest album, North Carolina Songbook, which they had recorded live at MerleFest in April. The album is a celebration of North Carolina music, featuring the band’s renditions of the work of some of North Carolina’s most foundational voices, including Thelonious Monk, Doc Watson, Elizabeth Cotton and James Taylor. The album was released on the Friday after Thanksgiving, a day that many music lovers have come to revere as National Record Store Day Black Friday. In support of the album, the Rangers had decided to play record stores, starting with School Kids Records in Raleigh.

If you want to feel uncool, I invite you to visit an independent record store that sits a stone’s throw from a university campus.

“VIPs only down front,” says the record store manager from behind the bar. I call it a bar because while it is a counter where you can pay for records and merchandise, it is also a bar in that beer is served from behind it.

“I’m friends with the band,” I say. He knits his brows as if he has heard this hundreds of times over the years from lame dads like me. But it is the truth. I went to college with mandolin player Mike Guggino, and I have written about the band and gotten to know them over the years.

I decide to try another tack. “I’m with the media,” I say, which is also true. After all, you are right now reading the media story I wrote, but this was not enough for the manager.

“You have to purchase an album to be a VIP,” he says.

“That’s it?” I ask. “I was going to do that anyway.”

“Great,” he says, not smiling. “You can be a VIP.”

As the clock crawls closer to noon, the store begins to fill to capacity with a mixed crowd that ranges from college students to retirees. Someone has ordered pizza. Beers are being passed from the bar back through the crowd.

“Do a lot of bands play here?” a middle-aged woman asks the manager.

“A couple times a month,” he says. He looks around. “But nothing like this.”

I hear someone say my name, and I turn to find Graham Sharp, one of the band’s vocalists, carrying his guitar case and pushing through the crowd. I say hello to him and pray that the record store manager has seen us greet one another by name.

The rest of the band streams in behind Sharp, each of them carrying an assortment of instruments. The band takes the small stage, nearly filling it. The room is warm and pleasant; everyone clearly happy to be out of the office or skipping class in favor of live music from one of North Carolina’s most famous bands.

“Hey, y’all,” Sharp says to the audience. “These are songs we recorded at MerleFest.” The crowd cheers at the mention of the iconic festival. “But we haven’t played them since April.”

“We relearned them on the way here,” says lead vocalist Woody Platt to the audience’s laughter. And then the band is off into a rollicking version of Charlie Poole’s “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” Platt’s rich baritone playing a wonderful historical opposite to Poole’s higher pitch.

The event soon takes on the feel of a college keg party, a feel that is intimately familiar to the Steep Canyon Rangers. The band was co-founded by Sharp and Platt at UNC-Chapel Hill in the late ’90s, when both were undergraduates. They released their first album in 2001, and they have released 13 albums since then, a few in collaboration with Steve Martin.

“This new album is a homecoming for us,” Platt later tells the audience. “We released our first record with Yep Roc Records, and that’s who’s just released North Carolina Songbook.”

And what a homecoming. The album is not only a celebration of famous North Carolina musicians and their music; it is also a testament to the Steep Canyon Rangers’ ability to blend and bend genres and styles while making a cover song seem like their own.

The band moves through gorgeous covers of Thelonious Monk’s “Blue Monk,” Tommy Jerrell’s “Drunkard’s Hiccups,” Ola Belle Reed’s “I’ve Endured,” Elizabeth Cotton’s “Shake Sugaree,” closing out the set with the state’s beloved James Taylor’s “Sweet Baby James,” sung by bassist Barrett Smith, a longtime friend of the band who is the newest addition.

At the close of the show, Platt sets down his guitar and tells the audience that the band will hang around for a little “shake and howdy,” but they have to get over to Chapel Hill for a mic check. They are singing the national anthem at the Dean Dome before tonight’s Tar Heels game against Ohio State. A homecoming indeed, but while so much has changed for the Steep Canyon Rangers, shows like the one at the record store prove that so little about them has.  PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

The Long Road to Overnight Success

From poet to publisher, Emily Smith makes her mark with Lookout Books

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

I first met Emily Smith in September 2010 at the annual conference of the Southern Independent Booksellers’ Alliance in Charleston, South Carolina. She was there with a Spartanburg publisher called Hub City Books, which was releasing a poetry collection by Ron Rash. Emily had designed the collection’s cover. A year later, I saw Emily again, but this time I saw her photograph online: She was attending an awards dinner in New York City, where a book she had published was a finalist for the National Book Award in fiction. A lot had happened in the intervening year.

The book Emily had published was Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories, by Edith Pearlman, a short story writer in her 70s who had long been a favorite of the literati, while never breaking through to a larger, critical audience. Pearlman’s book was the first to be released by Lookout Books, a publishing imprint housed in the Publishing Laboratory inside the University of North Carolina Wilmington’s creative writing department. Emily, along with editor emeritus Ben George, published Pearlman’s book as Lookout’s first release. The book would go on to be nominated for a number of prizes, and it would later win the National Book Critics Circle Award. It was quite the debut for a small press. Publishers Weekly called it a “knockout start,” and Ron Charles of The Washington Post praised Lookout’s release as “one of the most auspicious publishing launches in history.”

There are centuries-old publishing houses in New York City that would kill for a single season’s title to receive the acclaim that Binocular Vision received, but there are simply too many bottles and not enough lightning. Or perhaps there is only one Emily Smith, and her journey from advertising executive to publisher of acclaimed books is perhaps as rare as the aforementioned glass-encased lightning.

In early November, Emily took a break from promoting the most recent Lookout title, This Is My Body: A Memoir of Religious and Romantic Obsession, by Cameron Dezen Hammon, to sit down with me over coffee at Social Coffee and Supply Co. on Wrightsville Avenue in Wilmington. It was a cool fall morning, and Emily and I found seats by the bright windows just inside the front door. Our conversation turned toward the first time we met in Charleston back in the fall of 2010.

“I’d gotten to know the folks at Hub City because I was their inaugural writer-in-residence,” she says. “I went there as a poet, but part of the residency had me working 20 hours per week for the press.”

“What were you doing before that?” I ask.

“I’d been a graduate student at UNC Wilmington,” she says, “and I’d worked in the Publishing Laboratory here, which I now run.”

But her experience in design and marketing, as well as her ability to network and build relationships, predates her time as a graduate student in Wilmington and writer-in-residence in Spartanburg. After finishing her undergraduate degree at Davidson, Emily spent several years in advertising at J. Walter Thompson in Atlanta. “We worked with big clients,” she says. “Ford Motor Company, 20th Century Fox, Domino’s Pizza. But I burned out. I knew it wasn’t what I wanted to do.”

She left Atlanta and returned to Davidson, where she worked in the Advancement office, forging relationships with alumni and the community, and raising money for the university. But something was steering her toward writing, and she enrolled as a poetry student in the MFA program at UNC Wilmington. After finishing her degree and serving as the writer-in-residence at Hub City in Spartanburg, she returned to Wilmington as the interim director of the Publishing Laboratory in 2007.

In her role as interim director, Emily found a distributor to ensure that the Publishing Lab’s titles were sold beyond the campus and outside of Wilmington. When a national search began for the permanent director, Emily decided to apply. “I thought, it would be silly not to try for this after doing this job for a year,” she says. She got the job and forged a dynamic partnership with Ben George, who at the time served as editor of Ecotone, the university’s national literary magazine. The two joined forces to found Lookout Books, which they envisioned as a literary imprint dedicated to publishing women, debut writers, and overlooked work by established authors.

“Ben came to UNCW with a reputation as a meticulous, thoughtful editor,” Emily says. “And I knew the other side of the business. I had an advertising and marketing background. I knew the design part from working at Hub City. I knew how to work as a small press and handle distribution.”

After the success of Edith Pearlman’s Binocular Vision, Lookout Books quickly garnered national attention, and the press has consistently delivered critically acclaimed and award-winning books by both established and debut authors.

I ask Emily about the press’s current release, This Is My Body, by Cameron Dezen Hammon. “It’s the story of someone who grew up culturally Jewish and then converted to evangelical Christianity post-9/11,” she says. “9/11 was a time in which everyone and everything felt spiritual, and Cameron was caught up in it. She converted and moved with her musician boyfriend to Houston, where they performed music at an evangelical church.” The longer she stayed in the church the more she found herself caught up in a misogynistic culture that limited her to a gender role that defined both her faith and spiritual talents. “It’s a story of seeking something and discovering something else,” Emily says.

I cannot help but think about Emily doing the same, setting out on a search that took her from advertising executive in Atlanta to graduate student in Wilmington to writer-in-residence in Spartanburg and back to Wilmington, where she would publish titles that would make Lookout Books an overnight literary sensation. PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

Full Circle

In praise of the underdog, screenwriter Nick Basta takes on the charmed life of legend Yogi Berra

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

In the fourth grade, Nick Basta loved two things: Yankees baseball and making his buddies laugh. While he enjoyed being on the diamond, he caught the acting bug when he made his friends laugh by impersonating the woman in the Enjoli perfume commercial (“I can bring home the bacon/Fry it up in a pan.”).

Flash-forward a few decades and he is walking the red carpet alongside movie stars like Cynthia Arivo and Janelle Monáe. “I started out just wanting to make people laugh, to make them feel good,” Nick says. “And I kept going.”

Nick has kept going over the years, and he is a long way from the snickers of his fellow Catholic schoolboys back in upstate New York. We are sitting at a corner table at Slice of Life in downtown Wilmington, drinking Pinner IPAs and eating pizza in the middle of a Monday afternoon when Nick lists all the cities where he has lived and worked over the years: New Orleans, Boston, New York, Wilmington, places just as diverse as his acting roles, but in each city Nick has managed to carve out a career on stage and on the screen.

He attended college at SUNY Alfred, where he majored in ceramics and where acting kept getting in the way. He appeared in plays like Our Town and worked with an improv group. After college he moved to New Orleans to pursue a music career, but the stage called him there too. He met his wife, Joey, when they appeared opposite one another in a play titled Once in a Lifetime.

“Was it scandalous?” I ask. “The two leads meeting on set, dating, getting married?”

Nick laughs. “No, it wasn’t scandalous,” he says. “Nobody noticed. There were 25 people in the cast, and some nights there weren’t even that many people in the audience.”

He found his way to the big screen in New Orleans as well, and he received his Screen Actors’ Guild card after a speaking part in his first feature film, Tempted, starring Burt Reynolds.

Ceramics, music: Nick had done his best to pursue something other than acting, but now he decided to focus on it. He and Joey moved north to Boston, where he enrolled at Harvard.

“What was it like being in acting school after being on the stage for so many years?” I ask. Nick smiles, takes a sip of his beer.

“It was the hardest thing I’d ever done,” he says. “Seventy hours a week of speech, movement, Shakespeare, appearing in several shows at once.” He pauses for a moment as if recalling the grueling years of graduate school. “At least it was the hardest thing I’d ever done until I moved to New York City.”

After six years in New York, where Nick worked as an actor and Joey worked as an agent, they decided to look south after giving birth to their daughter. They heard about a small coastal city in North Carolina where Hollywood had taken root. They moved to Wilmington, where Nick’s first role in a feature film was as “Impatient Bus Customer” in Safe Haven.

“The role called for a guy with a Boston accent,” Nick says. “I’d spent all that time at Harvard, so I thought I’d put that Boston accent to use.”

Since moving to North Carolina, Nick has worked steadily in film and on television shows like Queen Sugar, True Detective and Under the Dome, but he cannot help but be disillusioned by the fact that the industry that brought him to Wilmington now exists as a ghost of itself.

“I haven’t shot a movie or a show in North Carolina in six years,” he says. “The industry is what brought us here. A lot of great people left the area and moved to Atlanta and New Orleans. It’s too bad.”

While the film business in Nick’s adopted hometown has slowed over the years, the same cannot be said for his acting career. Next year he will appear as Gloria Steinem’s editor in the biopic The Glorias, starring Julianne Moore, Bette Midler and Alicia Vikander. This month he appears in the Harriet Tubman biopic Harriet alongside Cynthia Arivo, Janelle Monáe and Joe Alwyn.  As excited as he is to share the screen with such incredible talent in service of such an important historical figure, Nick admits that he is a little nervous about his onscreen persona. “I play a slave trader named Foxx,” he says. “I’m a really bad dude in this movie, and it was hard.”

“What do you mean?”

“It was just an emotionally tough movie to shoot,” he says. “There were a lot of tears on the set, and I’m not just talking about the actors. Assistant directors and production assistants were crying because of the things that were happening in front of them. But that made it all feel real, and it’s an important film.”

Perhaps it is the heaviness of Nick’s last two films and their focus on the lives of heroic, iconoclastic women that has steered him toward the craft of screenwriting, and in the direction of one of the most beloved figures in sports history. Last year, Nick completed a screenplay based on the life of Yankees great Yogi Berra, and he has already secured the rights from the Berra family.

“We’re focusing on the 1956 World Series perfect game when Yogi was catching for Don Larsen,” he says. “And we’re calling the movie Perfect, not only because of Larsen’s perfect game, but all because of Yogi’s life; it was perfect.”

I ask him if was difficult to write a story about a man who faced very little conflict in what seemed to be a charmed life.

“No”, Nick says. “Yogi was the consummate underdog, and no one looked like him or played like him or spoke like him. But he made people feel good. I think we need a movie like that right now.”

I picture Nick as that young boy back in New York, doing his best to make his friends feel good. New York, New Orleans, Boston, Wilmington, and now, with the story of Yogi Berra, back to New York, where it all began.  PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

The Third Person Project

In search of a buried and forgotten past

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

As his 2011 essay collection Pulphead makes clear, John Jeremiah Sullivan possesses the inestimable skill of sifting through American popular culture to separate the bright, shiny things from the timeless ones. The seemingly divergent essays in the collection ricochet between a hilarious yet stirring portrait of the Tea Party movement circa 2009, a deep dive into the origin myths surrounding Guns N’ Roses’ frontman Axl Rose, and meditations on loneliness, identity, and what is perhaps the most American trait of all: our Protean ability to recast ourselves in different renditions throughout our lifetimes. With this in mind, Wilmington, a city that is always revising and reinventing itself, is the perfect place for John Jeremiah Sullivan to live and work.

On Labor Day, John and I spent a few hours on his back porch, and, over a couple of appropriately named Long Weekend IPAs from Kinston’s Mother Earth Brewing, we discussed Wilmington’s frustrating history of not only shedding the past, but also burying it. Of course our conversation began with the most violent and shameful event in the city’s history: the race massacre of 1898, which is, to this day, the only successful coup d’état in American history, and something the city largely ignored for over a century. As John puts it, in Wilmington “our identity is based on something we can’t talk about.” But John has joined a legacy of writers and thinkers who are willing to research and talk about 1898. From these various investigations and discussions has sprung the Third Person Project, a group of citizens, scholars, students and researchers who are dedicated to scouring the past to uncover Wilmington’s missing and buried moments.

I ask John how the Third Person Project got started. He takes a moment to consider the question, and I imagine his mind cycling back through reams of microfiche and dusty pages of reference books and telephone directories that had been left hidden in basements and tucked away on bookshelves across the city.

“It grew out of the projects that make it up,” he finally says, the first of those projects being The Daily Record project, in which a group of scholars and local eighth-graders searched for editions of The Daily Record, an African-American newspaper that was thought lost to time after white marauders destroyed the printing press in 1898. The group found seven copies of the newspaper, and they scanned them and published them on their website.

“The experience of finding those newspapers and studying them gave us a sense of how thick the wood is here, how much there is to drill,” John says. “Wilmington has an unusual amount of lost history.”

Nowhere is this lost history more apparent than in Wilmington’s African- American life and culture. Take jazz musician Percy Heath, for example. Born in Wilmington in 1923, Heath was a bassist who played alongside icons like Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie, and was a member of the iconic Modern Jazz Quartet. While it is popularly believed that Heath grew up in Philadelphia, John informs me that Heath did not permanently leave Wilmington behind after the move north. He would return to Wilmington throughout his young life, a fact either glossed over or altogether absent from jazz history.

“Percy Heath played in the marching band at Williston,” John says, his voice edging toward an exasperated laugh. “And he was the class president! Every rock you turn over in Wilmington has a story like that.”

Another story is that of Charles W. Chesnutt, an author who was born in Cleveland and raised in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and who, by the turn of the 20th century, was the most celebrated African-American writer in the country. His seminal work, The Marrow of Tradition (1901), is probably the best-known fictional portrayal of 1898, even though its portrait of white terrorism effectively ended Chesnutt’s career.

Because Chesnutt spent his adult life in Cleveland, scholars have long wondered why he chose to fictionalize the events of 1898, especially because doing so exposed him to critical peril. It has been assumed that Chesnutt’s childhood in Fayetteville and his ties in eastern North Carolina are what made the events of 1898 so important to him, but John has found a more direct connection: Chesnutt’s uncle was a man named Dallas Chesnutt, who left Fayetteville and settled in Wilmington in 1876. Dallas Chesnutt forged a career as a postal worker, but he also had a second career as a printer. What did he print? It turns out he was the printer of The Daily Record, the newspaper the white mob set out to destroy by burning Dallas Chesnutt’s printing press in 1898. John argues that Charles Chesnutt’s interest in Wilmington’s coup d’état was not simply historical, cultural or political; it was deeply personal.

John points out that the 1898 race massacre was not the beginning of Wilmington’s attempt to unwind the positive changes brought about by Reconstruction. He recently discovered that the Confederate memorial statue in Wilmington’s Oakdale Cemetery is one of the very first, if not the first, Confederate statues in America, erected only a few years after the end of the Civil War.

Considering the milestones in Wilmington’s racial history — the erecting of what could be the nation’s first Confederate monument, the 1898 race massacre, the battles over integration, and the Wilmington Ten — John argues, “If it’s possible to be the anti-conscience of the South, Wilmington is, but we can reverse the polarity of that.” He smiles and looks into his backyard, the weight of what he has just said seeming to settle over him, the clouds that presage Hurricane Dorian not yet on the horizon.

“But that may be the thing I love most about Wilmington,” he says. “People who live here now can take a hand in it. I have a funny feeling that what happens in Wilmington — when it comes to the political destiny of the South and this country’s struggle with racial equality — somehow it matters what we do here.”  PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

Southern Holy Smoke

Matthew Register’s quick rise from roadside to barbecue fame

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

For Garland, North Carolina, native Matthew Register, it all started with a dream, a dream of teaching his three young children how to cook barbecue.

“In eastern North Carolina, you’re always around barbecue,” he tells me on a warm July day. The two of us are sipping pale ales from Foothills Brewing on the back deck of his family’s vacation home in Kure Beach. “Soon I realized that I could stand outside and drink beer and listen to music and nobody would bother me if I was cooking. And then I read John Shelton Reed’s book Holy Smoke, and it changed me. I began experimenting with recipes and giving barbecue away. People started calling and asking if I’d make barbecue for their family reunions.”

Once the people of eastern North Carolina, a place so steeped in barbecue history and culture that it has its own style of barbecue, came calling, Matthew and his wife, Jessica, knew they were on to something. They opened a roadside stand and sold barbecue sandwiches for $5. They wanted to sell 30 on the first day; they sold 150 instead.

“We couldn’t believe it,” he says. “It all happened so fast.” And then the Sampson County Health Department got involved. “I have a really good relationship with the health department now, but back then they made pretty clear that I couldn’t be selling sandwiches on the side of the road.”

Matthew and Jessica began the search for a spot to open a small restaurant, and a former fish market seemed like the perfect place. In April 2014, Southern Smoke opened in downtown Garland, and the dream of teaching his children about barbecue exploded into something Matthew never could have imagined. Since then he has appeared on The Today Show. He has been featured in magazines and spoken at conferences around the country. And, in May, Register released his first cookbook, Southern Smoke: Barbecue, Traditions, and Treasured Recipes Reimagined for Today.

Even after all those hallmarks of success — a thriving restaurant, national acclaim and a cookbook — Matthew, as he writes in the book’s introduction, “didn’t set out to become a chef. In fact, even once cooking all day was my full-time job, I was uncomfortable with the title.”

I ask him if he has grown more comfortable with being considered a chef in recent years.

“A little,” he says. “When I think of the word chef, I think, that’s what Keith Rhodes is. That’s what Dean Neff is. That’s what Ashley Christensen is. I’m slowly growing more comfortable with it.” He takes a sip of his beer and looks at his book, where it sits on the table between us. “But now I’ve got this cookbook, and I’m dealing with those same feelings when people call me author.”

Make no mistake: Matthew Register can cook barbecue, but he can also write about it. While there are plenty of wonderful recipes in Southern Smoke, there are also the stories behind them. For example, the recipe for Smoked Chicken Quarters with Papa Nipper’s Church Sauce tells the story of Jessica’s grandfather, Jimmy Nipper, a man who “spent much of his youth shoveling hardwood coals into pits night after night, cooking whole hogs.” While he went on to join the North Carolina highway patrol, Jimmy continued to cook for fundraisers and church functions.

One of my favorite recipes is for Saltine Cracker Fried Oysters, which features a secret passed down from his great-grandmother Grace Jarmen Hart. The recipe also features instructions for making his grandmother Dorothy Hart’s tartar sauce with Duke’s mayonnaise, to which Matthew dedicates a short essay that argues for Duke’s being the best mayonnaise around. Don’t use it? “That’s a shame,” writes Matthew.

I ask him about the stories and historical information that accompany the recipes, and he tells me it was important both to honor his family as well as the diverse backgrounds of the people who have contributed to Southern cuisine.

“With Southern food, there may be five different wives’ tales about a dish, but you still don’t know where the food came from. A lot of people don’t understand how important West African food and culture are to Southern cuisine and vegetables like okra, for example. Our barbecue style is from the West Indies. A lot of our cuisine came from other parts of the world. But this is our story. This is what we are.”

Aside from writing the recipes, I ask him about the experience of making a cookbook. “We shot the photographs for the whole cookbook in four days,” he says, his forehead breaking out in sweat at the mere memory of it. “It was late July, early August, 100 degrees. We made 16 to 18 dishes a day. We just cranked out food.” Perhaps that is what Matthew is best at: cranking out food that is personal, consistent, and brimming with history.

“We opened Southern Smoke and had a long line on the first day, and the line hasn’t stopped,” he says.

Later, after telling Matthew and his family goodbye, I notice a plaque hanging just outside the front door. It reads, “Be careful with your dreams. They may come true.”

Matthew Register should have been more careful.  PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

A Born Storyteller

Wills Maxwell makes comedy real

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

Wilmington-based comedian Wills Maxwell routinely opens his sets with a joke about what he claims is his desire to fit in. “I’m a conformist,” he says. “I’m such a conformist that the only reason I’m black is because everyone else in my family is.”

The son of an attorney and an insurance claims adjuster, and the brother of three sisters — all of whom have advanced degrees — the career path Wills has taken proves he is not one bit concerned with conformity. Even when he was a kid growing up in Raleigh, Wills knew he wanted to be a storyteller.

“My ambition was to write comic books about superheroes,” he says. “I wanted to tell stories however I could, so I came to UNC Wilmington and studied filmmaking and screenwriting and learned how to tell stories that way.”

The skill Wills developed behind the camera landed him a job directing the morning news at WWAY TV-3, the NBC/CBS/CW affiliate in Wilmington, but it was his talent in front of the camera that landed him a weekly segment he calls “What Did We Miss?” in which he “tells you the stories that WWAY did not.” The three-minute segments cover outlandish news, and they are marked by Wills’ hilarious one-liners and asides. In one episode he covers a crew of car burglars in Los Angeles who are using scooters to flee the scenes of their crimes. In another episode, he covers the story of a man in an Easter bunny suit who breaks up a street fight without removing his mask.

It is no surprise that Wills is able to turn inane news items into comic gold. He has been perfecting his comedic timing and writing for several years, first on stage at Dead Crow Comedy Club in Wilmington, and later on stages across the Southeast. His big break came last year in Charlotte when he made it to the finals round of StandUp NBC, a nationwide search for stand-up comedians from diverse backgrounds. That success got him an invite to return to this year’s Nashville competition and an automatic leapfrog to the second round, where he will have two minutes to earn another spot in the finals.

For Wills, it all comes down to storytelling: “Comedy lets me tell stories in a way that puts people into my perspective, so maybe they can leave the show just a little more aware of how other people live.”

Recently, Wills and I sat down for lunch at the Dixie Grill in downtown Wilmington, and as we ate — a club sandwich for me and a chicken finger basket for him — we discussed his desire for audiences to see things from his perspective. I ask him what that means to him.

“In the summer of 2015, I went to Charleston, South Carolina, to work on an independent film,” he says. “I arrived in town a week after Walter Scott was shot in the back by a police officer while he was running from a traffic stop because he had a broken brake light. Filming wrapped and I left Charleston one week after Dylan Roof murdered nine people just because they were black.”

He pauses and looks out the window at the tourists on the sidewalk, some of them heading north on Market Street toward the city’s Confederate monuments.

“Those were dark bookends to my summer in Charleston,” he says. “Even before those tragedies I was on edge and paranoid, and I was thrown by Charleston’s adoration for the Confederacy. But I found some kind of relief in seeing the Confederate flag being flown because it showed me that I was not welcome everywhere. I did not have to rely on suspicion. It was proof.”

I ask him if it is hard to take these serious issues and make them funny in front of an audience.

“It can be hard,” he says. “The goal is to make people laugh and to make them feel good, but I want things to stick with people in a way that makes them say, ‘Oh, I’ve never thought of it like that.’ After Walter Scott was shot, I made jokes about being afraid of the police. Now, maybe someone in the audience doesn’t have my paranoia about the police, but if they hear my jokes it may make them understand a little about why I feel afraid.”

I comment that all comedy is based on tragedy, either your own or someone else’s.

“And laughing helps us understand it,” Wills adds. “It helps us look at someone else’s tragedy and really see it, but every audience is different.”

Later, this summer, Wills will be returning to Raleigh Supercon, a three-day festival for people who love comic books, science fiction, fantasy and video games. “It’s nice to be in front of a crowd that gets my jokes about the Power Rangers,” he says.

I imagine that it is also nice for him to get away on a weekend instead of pulling late nights in clubs after waking up at 3 a.m. to get to the news station to prepare for that morning’s show. I ask him how he does it, how he works the stage late into the night and works behind the camera early in the morning.

“I feed myself,” he says. “I stay alive. I pursue what I want to do.”

Spoken like a true nonconformist. PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

One Man’s Good Advice

Clyde Edgerton and the art of negotiation

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

In 2011, my wife and I were living in West Virginia when I learned that my first novel was going to be published. My editor asked me to reach out to any well-known authors I knew to see if they would offer a blurb for the book jacket. The problem? I didn’t know many well-known authors, so I began sleuthing for email addresses. Clyde Edgerton’s was one of the first I found. I wrote to him and told him that I, like him, was a North Carolina native who had written a North Carolina novel, and I wondered if he would be willing to give it a read and consider offering some kind words. He not only read my novel and offered some kind words that ended up on the front of the hardcover, he offered some criticism as well. There was one particular scene in the novel that he felt went on a little too long, and he suggested some edits. I made the edits; they were the last I made before the novel went to print, and they improved the novel in ways I never could have imagined. I had never met Clyde Edgerton. I had never been one of his students. He was just being kind, giving more of his time and talent than I ever expected.

Clyde’s kindness and giving of time continued in the spring of 2012 when he appeared at Pomegranate Books in Wilmington, North Carolina, to attend one of the first events of my book tour. I had not expected him to be there, and it was a little like shooting free throws while Michael Jordan watched from the stands, but I will never forget how deeply honored I felt. At the conclusion of that event, I spoke a little about a new novel that I was working on, and I expressed the difficulty I was having with the ending. A few days later, I received an email from Clyde, sharing his ideas about how to end novels in ways that satisfied both writers and readers.

Clyde and I struck up a friendship after my wife and I moved back to North Carolina and settled in Wilmington in 2013. He christened our second child. Our kids go to the same school. We have shared the stage with other authors at literary events and fundraisers around the South, and over the past few months we have fallen into a routine of eating omelets and biscuits and gravy and sharing sliced tomatoes in a booth at White Front Breakfast House at the corner of Market and 16th Street.

That was where we were sitting recently when I sought Clyde’s advice about a particularly difficult ethical situation I was facing in my professional life. Aside from the respect I have for Clyde as a writer, it is exceeded only by my respect for him as a citizen and altruist. After asking for his advice, Clyde shared some wisdom he had gleaned from a local reverend, friend and ally named Dante Murphy.

“Don’t get angry at people in these situations,” he said. “When it becomes personal that anger can poison you. Get angry at institutions. You can change an institution. It’s harder to change a person.”

Clyde knows what he is talking about. For the past few years he has been one of a handful of citizens leading the charge to uncover racial inequities in the New Hanover County School System, something he first encountered while tutoring students at Forest Hills Elementary. The school had a Spanish language immersion program, and while the student body was 46 percent African-American, every single one of the 40 slots in the language program had been taken by white students before open enrollment even began. Since then, the former principal and school system have given a number of excuses — some laughable, some offensive — about the racial disparity in the program. None of it has deterred Clyde and a group of citizens from following leads, learning of other instances of discrimination or wrongdoing, and meeting with parents, school board members and city and county employees.

None of the students on whose behalf Clyde is working have ever met him. They are not his children, but he is working for them regardless. It is similar to the compassion and care he showed me all those years ago, but the kindness he showed me never got him banned from county school property.

How does Clyde address these issues with school leaders? The same way he approaches finding a satisfying conclusion to a piece of fiction he is writing.

“Some writers think that story comes from conflict,” he says. “I don’t think that’s always true. Conflict can be impassable, and there’s no story with an impasse. I think good stories come from negotiation. Good stories happen when everyone can see they have a stake in a good outcome.”

For a good outcome, whether in a community or a novel or a literary friendship, negotiation is key. Clyde, please pass the sliced tomatoes.  PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

Blood Memory

Five friends and a meal to remember

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

In his first poetry collection, 1998’s Eureka Mill, Ron Rash writes about the connection he feels to his father, grandmother, and grandfather, especially their waking before dawn to work in textile mills. Rash refers to this connection, the connection to an ancestor’s experience without the experience itself, as “blood memory.”

I have always felt a kinship with Ron, and it is not just because our people come from the same places — the South Carolina Upstate and western North Carolina. I feel a deep bond with the experiences he writes about, the people he portrays, and the often disappearing landscapes he puts on the page. Is it blood that connects us? No, but when I read his work I feel like I understand Ron and the people he writes about as much as I understand my mother and father and the people who came before them.

This is what I was thinking about — this blood memory — when I left my adopted hometown of Wilmington and drove across the state, where the Appalachian Studies Association was hosting its annual conference on the campus of the University of North Carolina-Asheville. Normally, I am not someone who enjoys conferences: the academic talk, the nametag gazing, the feeling that everyone there is vying for the same thing, whether it is publication, notoriety, or the keys to both. But I felt at ease as the elevation increased and the air cooled because I knew I would be spending the weekend with writers and scholars who view the world in much the same way I do.

There were many people I was looking forward to seeing again or meeting the first time during our stay in Asheville, but I would be lying if I said I was not giddy at the thought of spending time with Lee Smith, someone I do not see as often as I would like and someone I will go to my grave believing is the most charming and warm-hearted person in all of American literature.

Along with novelist Silas House and his husband, writer Jason Howard, my wife Mallory and I had plans to have dinner with Lee in Asheville on Friday night before Saturday’s conference keynote event: a discussion between Lee and Ron Rash with me serving as the moderator.

I had met Silas House a few times over the years, but I really got to know him after we spent an evening in Swain County, North Carolina, last spring, facilitating creative writing workshops and readings with groups of high school students from western North Carolina and New York City who were participating in a literary exchange program. I had never met Jason before, but I knew his work, much of it focused on Kentucky’s rich music history and environmental issues like mountaintop removal. 

For dinner, the five of us met at Rhubarb in downtown Asheville. Asheville has become a culinary mecca over the past decade, and while you may hear a lot about restaurants like Cúrate and Cucina 24, Rhubarb serves consistently incredible food comprised of regional ingredients. John Fleer, a Winston-Salem native and Rhubarb’s owner and chef, is the former executive chef at Blackberry Farm, and he was named one of the “Rising Stars of the 21st Century” by the James Beard Foundation. After a meal at Rhubarb that might include crispy fried hominy dusted with chili and lime alongside wood-roasted sunburst trout you can see how Fleer is steering into the 21st century with the roots of his Southern history fully intact. Rhubarb is one of my and Mallory’s favorite restaurants in Asheville, and we were proud to share it with Lee, Silas and Jason.

Over dinner and drinks, I asked Silas how he had come to know Lee.

“Over 20 years ago I submitted a story to a workshop Lee was teaching at the Hindman Settlement School in Kentucky,” Silas said. “And a few weeks later I went to one of Lee’s book signings. I was so nervous to meet her because I loved her books, and I wanted to be in her workshop.”

Lee laughed and picked up the story.

“And when you came through the line and told me your name so I could sign your book, I said, ‘How funny. I just read a very good story by someone named Silas.’”

“And it changed my life,” Silas said. And his life is still changing. His most recent novel, Southernmost, received rave reviews and kept him on a book tour for most of the spring and summer.

Over the years, Jason came to love Lee just as much as Silas does.

“I was in Washington, D.C. a few years ago,” Jason said, “and suddenly I heard Lee’s voice on The Diane Rehm Show. I dropped what I was doing and drove right to the NPR station. The receptionist asked me what I needed, and I said, ‘I’m just waiting on Lee Smith to finish her interview.”

Lee burst out laughing.

“I came out of the studio, and there you were. It was like we planned it.”

Before dinner, Mallory and I had discussed whether or not she should bring her camera gear, but we decided against it. We wanted to enjoy the evening talking to people we do not get to see that often. But Mallory did take one photo with her cell phone; in it, Lee, Silas, Jason and I are all squeezed onto one side of the table. If you did not know better, you might think we were family.

The next afternoon, during the conference keynote, Lee, Ron Rash, and I spent an hour or so onstage in a packed auditorium talking about Appalachian writers and literature and issues specific to the region.

“I think it’s important to be able to steer students toward writing that reveals something about themselves,” Lee said. “There’s value in seeing your life on the page.”

“Robert Morgan did that for me,” Ron said. “And so did Fred Chappell’s book I Am One of You Forever.”

After our discussion, we took questions from the audience. Someone stood in the dark theater and asked if any of us have ever felt slighted because of the place we call home or how we speak.

“For me personally, that’s why I don’t want to ever lose my accent,” Ron said, “Because that to me is a rejection of your heritage. The way I look at it is, OK, you can make fun of my accent, but we can out-write you, we can out-music you, and we can out-cook you.”

I agree with Ron. I am proud of the place and the people I am from, and I am proud to share stages and dinner tables with them. They feel like family. They feel like blood.  PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

With the Author Himself

An internal dialog

By Wiley Cash   •   Photograph by Mallory Cash

Wiley Cash and I have known one another for almost 42 years, but I do not see him very often. Work as writer-in-residence at the state university in Asheville has him driving back and forth across the state quite a bit, and if you are to believe his social media accounts, he is usually sprinting through one airport or another, behind on a writing deadline and struggling to find Wi-Fi to return students’ emails. That’s what he gets for giving up his smartphone.

Life has been pretty busy since Wiley’s first novel, A Land More Kind Than Home, was released in the spring of 2012. Since then he has published two more novels, taken a few teaching positions, and moved a couple times. He and his wife, Mallory, who is a photographer, are also the parents of two young daughters.

A few weeks ago I sent him a text. (He can still text with a flip phone. It just takes him longer.)

Me: let’s get a beer

Wiley: high cholesterol. Been jogging. Coffee?

Me: does beer give you high cholesterol?

Wiley: beer makes it harder to jog

Me: where should we meet for coffee? Prefer a place that also serves beer.

Wiley: our house Thursday morning

Mallory meets me at the door when I arrive at their home near Carolina Beach.

“His majesty is still in his robe,” she says.

“Late night?” I ask.

“No,” she says. “He just works from home. His robe is like his employee uniform.”

“You work from home too,” I say. “You’re not wearing your pajamas.”

“Maybe the robe life is the exclusive lifestyle of authors.”

I look up and see Wiley coming down the stairs in a bright red robe and gray bedroom slippers. We shake hands.

“It’s been a while,” Wiley says. “When did you get glasses?”

“Last year,” I say.

He strokes his white beard and tucks his (graying?!) hair behind his ear.

“We’re getting old,” he says. He smiles. “At least you are.”

“I guess that means we’re having coffee instead of beer.”

He smiles and leads me down the hallway, past the kitchen, and into a sitting room that has recently been converted into his daughters’ playroom. He offers me a seat in one of two tattered yellow armchairs.

“When we bought this house we thought it would be a great place to host parties,” he says. He smiles and looks around the room. “Turns out it’s been a great place to host children’s books and games and toys.”

While Wiley makes coffee in a French press, we discuss what has kept him busy since his most recent novel, The Last Ballad, was published in the fall of 2017. He tells me about the Open Canon Book Club, an online book club he founded to introduce readers to diverse books by diverse authors, and the Land More Kind Appalachian Artists’ Residency, a retreat he and Mallory and two friends founded in West Virginia. He is also teaching, a lot: Aside from his work as writer-in-residence at the University of North Carolina-Asheville, he also teaches in the Mountainview Low-Residency MFA Program. In his spare time he is trying to work on a new novel, one that is already behind deadline.

“How are you finding the time and space to write?” I ask.

He pours me a cup of black coffee, pours one for himself, and then sits back in his chair.

“It’s hard,” he said. “I’m really busy, but everything I do is about writing in one way or another. When I teach, I teach writing. When I give a talk at a library or university, I’m talking about writing. When I’m reading books for the book club or reading through applications for the artists’ residency, I’m thinking about the written word and how it works to achieve an author’s intentions. Literally everything I do pertains to writing. My life is one huge literary conversation that never stops.”

“It all sounds like a lot of work,” I say. “Are there many rewards?”

“Aside from my mom constantly asking if my editor’s mad at me because my novel is late? Sure. There are a lot of rewards,” he says. “I’m so lucky that my one-time hobby has become my full-time occupation, or occupations.” He looks over his shoulder at a wall of glassed-in bookshelves in the living room. “Speaking of rewards,” he says, “you want to see a really cool one?”

He gets up and walks into the other room. When he returns he is carrying a small statue on a pedestal. “Meet Sir Walter Raleigh,” he says. He slides one of his girl’s chairs away from a children’s table and sets the statue on the chair. He makes a show of polishing it. “I received this a few weeks ago from the North Carolina Historical Book Club. I love it.”

“You seem like a proud father,” I say. “Speaking of fatherhood, how has it changed your writing?”

“Being a parent has deepened the experience of storytelling in ways that have really surprised me,” he says. “Our oldest, who’s 4, is obsessed with narrative. I probably tell six or seven stories a day about saber tooth tigers and early people and ghosts and pirates. A few nights ago I heard her telling Mallory about how telling stories can cause them to feel true. That left a huge impression on me because that’s what I want to do as a writer. I want to tell my readers fictional stories that they believe nonetheless.

“And our 3-year-old is really interested in telling stories. A few days ago, she told Mallory a story that began It was the first day of school. His mother came to get him. He was not sad, but quiet. Are you kidding me? I don’t write opening lines that beautiful.”

“If your girls told a story about you, what would it be?” I ask. Wiley takes a sip of his coffee and looks toward the window.

“It was the first day of writing a new novel,” he says. “His mother had already called to check on his progress. He was not sad, but tired.”

“Pretty good lines,” I say.

“Thanks,” he says. “They’re yours if you write my biography.” PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.

Drinking with Writers

The Art of Civil Discourse

A little healthy organic juicing with Rachel Lewis Hilburn

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

Last year I attended a literary event with some of the best known writers in the country, but as soon as the event began it became clear that the crowd was more interested in seeing emcee Rachel Lewis Hilburn, a woman whose disembodied voice had been speaking to them for years from the studios of WHQR Public Media. She joined the station in 2011, and she was named news director in 2012. A year later she anchored the pilot episode of CoastLine, a show that focuses primarily on local and statewide issues and the people they affect. Over the past six years, Rachel and her guests have discussed issues as diverse as gun control, water quality, film incentives and Thanksgiving recipes. No matter what the topic, Rachel always finds a fascinating angle. I will admit that I once sat in my driveway for 15 minutes and listened as Rachel and a county official discussed recycling. Like her voice, Rachel’s questions are direct and smooth. Her interactions with people are civil and genuine, and she gives her guests an opportunity to tell their stories as well as the expectation that they will be held accountable for the stories they tell.

This is not to say that Rachel does not ask hard questions. I sat for a CoastLine interview when my last novel was released, and at one point Rachel read a quote from a terrible review I had received in a major newspaper. Then she asked, “How do you keep that dagger from staying inside you?” Ouch! No one had ever asked me how I recover from bad reviews, and that question forced me to be honest about the vulnerability of artists. I look back on that hour I spent on-air with Rachel as perhaps the best interview experience I have ever had.

I took an opportunity to ask Rachel a few questions of my own one chilly morning in late January. We met at Clean Juice in downtown Wilmington on the corner of Grace and North Front Street. I ordered the Immunity One, an organic blend of carrots, lemons, oranges, pineapples and turmeric. Rachel ordered the Glow One, a mix of organic apples, cucumbers, kale and spinach. We found seats by the huge windows that look out on Grace Street. While I serve on the board of directors at WHQR and have known Rachel for several years, there was one question I had never asked her.

“What was your path to public radio?”

“I started life thinking I would be an actor,” Rachel said. “And I went to the North Carolina School of the Arts, and then I moved to New York and L.A. and did some theater.”


“Yes,” she said. “At one point, when I was in L.A., I decided I wanted to have a steady income and see what other things I could do.” She laughed and took a sip of her juice. “So I became a financial adviser, but only for about two years.”

“How did you get to Wilmington?”

“I knew people in Wilmington, and I loved the East Coast,” she said. “I was tired of the desert in Los Angeles, and I just loved the texture of the weather here. I came to Wilmington and embarked on a process of finding the next version of myself.” During that process Rachel wrote and produced television news broadcasts for WWAY; she wrote and produced a documentary about the 1898 Wilmington race massacre; and she served as the executive director of the homeowners association at Bald Head Island.

When you stack all these jobs together — financial adviser, news writer, producer, documentarian and executive director of a homeowners association — it becomes clear that Rachel has been perfectly prepared for a career in public radio. Over the course of her diverse work history she has managed personalities, produced content, sought facts, and listened closely to people’s concerns and this is exactly what she is doing with an exciting new serialized program called CoastLine: Beneath the Surface.

According to the description on the program’s website, the community members who will participate in Beneath the Surface are “thoughtful and engaged listeners who’ve agreed to be part of a yearlong conversation. They are black and white, youngish and older. Their politics cover the spectrum left, right and center.”

In this politically charged environment, what happens when you put a group of diverse strangers in a room? Rachel has the answer: She assembled the group for a meet and greet a few days before their first on-air discussion.

“I thought I would have to do some goofy icebreaker,” Rachel said. “But no icebreaker was needed. People freely went around the room introducing themselves. They seemed really enthusiastic about being there, and they didn’t want to leave!”

Rachel said that, at least initially, conversations on Beneath the Surface will focus on local issues because she believes that is the place where people who are sitting together in the same room can achieve some level of civil discourse. Hopefully, that civility will trickle up.

“I happen to think the political dynamic, that super division and vitriol on Capitol Hill, and even at the state level, isn’t going to change until regular folks change,” Rachel said. “Public radio can pull back the curtain and introduce you to a situation in its context. It can introduce these whole human beings, and it makes it hard to put them in a box.”

In keeping with Rachel’s history of discussing timely topics and asking hard questions, the first topic broached on Beneath the Surface was the issue of Wilmington’s Confederate monuments. I listened to the show, and I could hear the strain in people’s voices, their discomfort in defending positions that may not be popular. But I could also hear other things: the click of boxes opening as people grew comfortable with one another; the sound of voices speaking calmly while sharing ideas and experiences. These were the sounds of whole human beings coming together and being civil.  PS

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.