One of my fondest memories of visiting my grandmother and grandfather in Corinth, Mississippi was, after the requisite hugs and kisses at the front door, heading back to my grandfather’s “lair” – the back room. Lew Miller was a man of few words, but back in the TV room, where he always sat in his favorite reclinable chair, he’d open up and talk. I remember sitting on the couch with my dad and uncle and simply listening as they discussed the stock market, golf, politics, grown up stuff.

But to me, the favorite thing about that back room was my grandfather’s pipes. You’d get within 10 feet of the back room doorway and the aroma of smoky cherry pipe tobacco (I think his brand was Captain Black Cherry) would hit you. Not hard, but welcoming. That sweet, mysterious vapor in the air that signaled his presence. In later years, after doctors and my grandmother finally said “enough” and Lew stopped smoking, the room still had the remnants of all the years of the pipes – absorbed into the wood of the walls, like a friendly ghost.

Here’s a little about Lew: He was a charter member of Planning Commission of the Chamber of Commerce. He was a Rotarian for 56 years. He was past president of the Corinth Board of Realtors and was a master appraiser for the State of Mississippi. I also knew that he was an adventurer – he took my grandmother, mom and aunt to Mexico in the 1950’s, which I always found exotic. He was a tree surgeon, and worked on the trees on the grounds of the North Carolina capitol. He worked for the National Park Service. He was an avid reader – the back room had a wall of shelves filled with his mail order Readers’ Digest books, many of which I still have. And in his travels, he met Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair (and I presume had a cocktail with them and talked about the social issues of the day.) And he was married to my grandmother Mae for 64 years.

My grandfather passed away in 2001, and my grandmother followed him in 2006. And as we gathered in the house at 1016 Shiloh Road to divide the belongings, I asked for his pipes. They occupy a special place on my bookshelves now, and an even more, a special place in my mind and my heart. I took them down today for the photo, lifted one to my nose, closed my eyes and remembered a magical time.

The lost soul of rock and roll

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 7.54.03 AM Photo courtesy of Julie Williams Dixon

I think it must have been 1982 or ’83, my freshman year at UNC. We’d spent the evening crawling Franklin Street when we got word of a “late night” at the SAE house. Now, these things were legendary parties, and if you heard about one, you’d better make sure you were there. The cutest girls, lots of beer and who the hell knows what would happen by the end of the night. We headed that way, and when we arrived, it was already crowded. Weaving my way through the crowd of sweaty, drunken frat boys and sorority girls, I suddenly heard music – very loud music – coming from the stairway that led down into the basement. So that’s where I headed. What I saw next would not only leave a permanent imprint on my college life, but inform my tastes and interest in music from that point on.

I waded down into a smallish room full of people standing in a sea of beer cans and ankle deep water, and there before me were three young musicians creating a wall of sound I’d never experienced before. One on upright bass. One on a small drum kit, and the one in the front playing a beat up Silvertone and screaming loud, raw, primal rock and roll like a crazed, wounded animal. Dex Romweber, Tone and Crow. The Flat Duo Jets.

Now, I’ve never been in a room with Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent or anyone of that vintage. But I could only imagine how being that close to any of those musicians would have the same visceral punch as I was getting from Dex and the Duo Jets. Electricity. Charisma. Abandon. I’d been to many concerts, but this was something completely different. It was old, but they were making it new. Making it their own. And from that point forward, I was hooked.

I saw the Jets a few more times during my days in Chapel Hill, and followed them from a distance as I started my advertising career, moving from Birmingham to Asheville to Cincinnati and Dallas. I saw them on Letterman. I read about them in the mainstream rock magazines. I watched their career trajectory. And I was always happy that their music had found an audience on a national scale.

Well, time passes fast and in 2003 my wife and I along with our young son moved back to the Raleigh area, and I began reconnecting with many of the musicians I adored during my college days. I also started filming a music documentary on the 80’s decade of North Carolina rock and power pop. I had the privilege of interviewing my heroes: Don Dixon, Rod Abernethy, Robert Kirkland, Mitch Easter, Terry Anderson & Jack Cornell, Jeffrey Dean Foster, Jon Wurster, The Pressure Boys, The Connells and many, many more.

And I reconnected with Dexter, which resulted in one of the best interviews I’ve done. We both had many years under our belts since that night in the SAE basement, and Dex had many hard miles on him. He’d experienced the ups and downs of music celebrity and critical praise, inspired artists such as Jack White and Cat Power, and did a lot of things to himself that if he had it to do over again, probably wouldn’t.

But he was still making wonderful, soul piercing music, drawing on the good times and bad times of his life and putting them into song.

A couple of months ago, I ran into Dexter at the Cave, a Chapel Hill institution. It was Sunday night, so the crowd was small. He recognized me, shook my hand and thanked me for buying him a hotel room in Dallas several years before when our paths crossed out there and he and his drummer were sleeping in their van as they made their way from Louisiana to Oklahoma. I was amazed that he remembered, but he said, “I’ll never forget what you did for us out there. I can’t thank you enough.” I asked him how he was doing, and he said, “Not real good. I’m having to sell my guitars and equipment to get by.”

I asked him if he’d be willing to play some house shows, and he said yes, so I began helping him books a few gigs. One of those gigs was with Rod Abernethy at his Downstairs at Neptune’s series this past Wednesday night. Alternating between mournful and frenzied, Dex did what Dex does – electrify, mesmerize, hypnotize and captivate the audience. He told stories of heartbreak. Shared experiences of self-abuse.

Screen Shot 2015-08-21 at 10.25.14 AM Photo courtesy of Julie Williams Dixon

He talked about conquering his devils and coming to terms with his own morality. But most of all, he entertained us. And we walked out feeling like we’d been hit by a powerful force. There were some young kids there – teens and early 20s, and I watched the looks of disbelief on their faces as Dex played. It was like they were discovering something completely unknown to them. A new element unearthed by time. I was amazed as he pulled out the song, “Smile,” written by Charlie Chaplin in 1936. And a song called, “Paradise,” which he’d heard on the Dick Van Dyke Show. He knew the lyrics by heart.

He is still a force of nature.

When the show was over and I was helping Dex carry his amp and guitar up the stairs and into the rainy Raleigh night, he turned to me and said, “Mike, I’m so glad you could be here tonight. I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve done for me. I made you something that I want to give you. It’s in my car.” We carried his gear across the street, and as he opened the door to his backseat, I was struck by the clutter – empty cups, fast food boxes, musical equipment, show flyers, piled up in the back. Dex rummaged around and pulled out a piece of paper. “I made this for you,” he said, as he handed me a drawing.

Dex, you made my night. I will treasure this forever.


To read a really fantastic blog post on Dexter’s show, visit!

We Were Loud


Be Loud

Be loud
Let your colors show
Be loud
Have everybody watch
Throw your soul
Let the wind pick it up
Rustle in the leaves
Because you are you
Wade in the water
Be loud
Stay strong
Put your smile on
Be loud
And move with grace
Explode with light
Have no fear
Be loud
See the world
Be yourself
Don’t hide away
Be joyous
Because you are you
Be loud

Sophie Steiner

That poem, written in 2012 by Sophie Steiner, is the inspiration behind “Be Loud” – a weekend of music and togetherness for the Chapel Hill and Carrboro musical community. And the greater community of people like me who love and appreciate the talent – past, present and future – that we are blessed with in this area. Sophie passed away from cancer in 2013, and although I never met her, I think she would have loved every second of this weekend. It was not just a celebration of music, it was an affirmation of her life and positive energy.

I was privileged to be able to attend both nights – and see some of my musical heroes on stage again. The Pressure Boys, The Connells, Dexter & Sara Romweber, A Number of Things, and a reunited Let’s Active with Sara on drums again after all these many years.

During my time at UNC (’82-’86), I was lucky enough to have been able to see these fantastic groups and artists in their heyday. A Pressure Boys show was ALWAYS an event – they could take the roof off a place with their energy and talent. And Let’s Active heavily influenced a whole generation of bands – R.E.M. and many others.

Mitch, Sara, Suzi, Lynn and Missy absolutely did justice to Afoot/Cypress-era Let’s Active songs. So tight, so amazing. And we could all feel the presence of the late great Faye Hunter.

I was struck by how the musical community comes together for benefits like this. Musicians come together selflessly, giving and enthusiastically. I watched the faces of the performers and saw happiness and joy written all over them. And I saw pure bliss on the faces of audience members (including mine).

As one friend said, “I pity anyone who has never seen the Pressure Boys live.” Truer words have never been spoken. It was like we were all magically transported back to 1984 – back to our youthful, energetic 20s and full of reckless abandon. Anyone attending this weekend felt that again. And when Mitch Easter and crew took the stage, it was clear why he is such an influential legend – not just in North Carolina, but around the world. The man can play guitar. And Sara Romweber can hit the skins like nobody.

But this weekend was about Sophie. And about remembering the precious gifts we have in our health and the health of the people we love. Treasuring every second we have together and never taking anything for granted. The bands got loud, the crowd got loud, and (as I am reminded today by my hoarse voice) I got loud.

I hope we got loud enough for Sophie to hear us. And I hope she is smiling at it all.






The Fab Four at Fifty


On February 9th, 1964, I was about two months away from entering this world, so I didn’t get to witness what played out that evening on CBS. However, in the years since, I’ve lost count of all the times I’ve watched the footage of four lads from Liverpool playing the Ed Sullivan Show on that Sunday night fifty years ago. But the Beatles changed my life forever. It was through them that I not only discovered the power of music, but fell completely in love with it. From the age of 9, I sat for hours and hours listening to their records and wondering how anyone could write songs so addictively simple, yet so deep. I’d mow extra yards just to buy their records – every record I could get my hands on. Then I bought Paul’s, George’s, John’s and Ringo’s solo stuff. I amassed it all. And I listen today with wonder at how fresh it still sounds.

This Sunday night at The Cat’s Cradle in Carrboro, NC, nearly 40 talented area musicians will gather to pay respect to this historic occasion. And of course, I’ll be there. I may even bring my kids. I think that 50 years from now, they might have fond memories of it.

Remembering Gram Parsons, North Carolina style

One of the things I absolutely love about living in this part of North Carolina is how the music community comes together so seamlessly for important shows. For instance, a couple years back my friend Jeff Hart helped organize a benefit concert for a cancer charity. The show celebrated the 40th anniversary of the release of George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass.” More than 50 of the best musicians in the area joined together, played the record in its entirety, and made that night one of the most fantastic things I’ve witnessed in recent memory. Tomorrow night, Jeff and many of the same folks from the Harrison show are again banding together to celebrate the music of Gram Parsons on the 40th anniversary of his death. By all indications, it will be another musical milestone for our community. The musicians make it look so easy, but incredible amounts of hard work and practice go into productions like this, from learning the songs to figuring out stage logistics. I can’t wait for the lights to dim and the music to start tomorrow night at 8 in Carrboro!

gram parsons poster

I love living in Comboland

CombolandWhen I was in college at UNC, I went out to see so many bands during my four years I can’t even tell you everyone I saw. Not even close. But there was music up and down Franklin Street nearly every night of the week if you wanted to listen. I graduated in ’86, left the state to build a career and was gone until we moved back in 2003. In 2005, I started shooting a documentary film on the 1980-1990 decade of rock and power pop in the area and am still in the process of shooting and trying to raise money to edit and finish it. (Watch out for Kickstarter round two this year!) So far I have over 110 hours of footage and have loved every minute of getting to know the bands and musicians I worshipped in my younger years and have grown to admire and respect so much through the process of interviewing them and filming live shows. I’m thankful every day to live in a state with so much musical abundance and good will. My friend Jefferson Hart has been such a wonderful resource to me throughout this ongoing project – connecting me with many of the artists and introducing me to lots of memorabilia. I’ve never played an instrument and I’m a terrible singer, even in the shower, but I’ve always loved music. And every time I’m around Jeff or any of the NC rock folks, I’ve constantly amazed at how much everyone really cares for each other and tries to help each other out. Playing shows together, doing benefits, whatever, it really is a true community of friends. I’m sure there’s a little tad of competition from time to time, but you’d never know it. This weekend at The Pour House, yet another great event is happening that I plan on attending. Get out and enjoy the musical treasures all around us!

“42” through the eyes of an 11-year old

jackie robinson 1956It’s a rainy Sunday afternoon here in Wake Forest, and Henry – my 11-year old – and I just got home from seeing “42.” As we drove the the theater, I wondered how much of the film I’d have to explain to him. I wondered how many of the themes he’d actually understand. I wondered how the racial climate of that day would resonate with someone who has largely been oblivious to anything remotely similar in this day and age. As it turns out, I really had to explain very little. (Just some baseball terminology and some of the expressions of the day.) He got it. In fact, he asked very few questions, and as the film ended and the title cards began to appear, he sat quietly and just watched. Then the title came up that read, “42 is the only uniform number retired by all of major league baseball,” he said, “Really? That’s really cool.” The film was very well done because you don’t have to explain anything – it’s presented in a way that anyone can understand. I’ll test that theory when I go next week and take my 9-year old daughter. Can’t wait to see it again.

The long road back to normal

Last night, all of us at Jennings, our agency in Chapel Hill, served a meal to the families at SECU Family House at UNC Hospitals. We’d solicited favorite holiday recipes from our clients, vendors and friends over the past few weeks and everyone a…

Walking for a friend.

In 1981, I moved from a small town in Alabama to Charlotte, NC. And I went from a high school of maybe 400 people total to a senior class of 785. I didn’t know a soul in Charlotte. I didn’t want to be there. I didn’t want to leave my friends behind and basically start over my final year in high school.

I remember showing up the first day of classes and feeling completely overwhelmed, lost and angry. I looked at every day as an endurance test – how could I make it through and just go home? I absolutely hated it.

Then one day, I met Russell Clary. I’m not sure if I met him in a class or in the cafeteria, but he changed my final year of high school. Russell took me under his wing and began introducing me to his friends. And he had a lot of friends. In fact, he seemed to know everyone. And everyone knew Russell. And to this day, I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about him. Which didn’t hurt as he was helping me with the friend-making process.

I might also mention that Russell was a great athlete – a starting offensive guard on the soon-to-be state championship football team. A team that went 14-0 and completely dominated everyone they played that year. And that didn’t hurt either as Russell was helping me make friends.

That year turned out to be the best of my high school career. I made more friends in those nine months than I’d made in the previous three years. Through Russell, I met many of the people who to this day remain my dear friends.

After graduation, we all went our separate ways. I to UNC-Chapel Hill and Russell to four years at The Citadel in Charleston. We didn’t keep in touch much during those years. We were finding ourselves and living in our own worlds. I heard from time to time things about Russell – that he was back in Charlotte in the insurance business. But we really didn’t talk and (without the benefit of the Internet or Facebook or email back then) we just became disconnected.

I didn’t see him at our 10 year reunion, or our 20 year reunion. But three years ago, I heard from friends that Russell had been diagnosed with ALS – Lou Gehrig’s Disease. And that a group of South Meck grads were gathering in Charlotte to walk for him and raise money to help find a cure.

In 2010, I drove down and saw many of my old classmates, and reconnected with lots of people. I also saw Russell for the first time since 1982. His eyes lit up when he saw me, and although he was having trouble walking, he shook my hand, gave me a hug, and told me how happy and appreciative he was that I’d made it. I wasn’t able to do the walk in 2011 because of an out of town business trip, but I monitored Russell through out network of friends and made a donation to the ALS foundation.

Which brings me to this weekend. April 27-29, 2012. I’m here along with 100+ other South Mecklenburg High grads for our 30th reunion. And the planners of the weekend had the foresight and inspiration to schedule it on the same weekend as Russell’s walk.

This morning at 9:00 AM, we all gathered at Independence Park wearing our Team Clary shirts, greeted each other with hugs and a few tears, and gathered around Russell once more for our annual team photo. I was able to get a few seconds with him, and although he’s lost the use of his arms and hands, is confined to a wheelchair and has difficulty speaking clearly, once again his eyes lit up when he saw me, and he tried as best he could to tell me how much he appreciated me coming to the walk. And when he threw his head back and laughed, the old Russell was still there, with a wicked sense of humor and a smile for everyone.

I’m proud to say Team Clary won “most walkers” for the third year in a row – 125. And our team raised over $16,000 for ALS research. But the thing I’m most proud of is that 30 years later, many of us are willing to stop what we’re doing in our lives and take a couple of days to honor Russell.

Tonight we’ll gather for our “formal” reunion dinner. And I hope Russell will have the energy to be there. He is enrolled in a clinical study that doctors are hopeful will extend the lives of ALS patients, but none of us know for sure how much longer we’ll have him in our lives. I for one, cherish every minute.

It’s been a tradition every time we get together to paint the rock in front of the high school. For the past few times we’ve been here, we’ve painted it in honor of Russell. Today was no different. And as I get ready to head over to the restaurant, my thoughts turn to the guy who befriended me those 30+ years ago. A guy who simply took the time and made the effort to help me out. A guy who really didn’t have anything to gain by being my friend. Tonight, as I get a chance to reconnect with my classmates, I’ll think of the man who connected me in the first place, and made such a huge difference in my life. Thank you, Russell.

russell rock