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.  OH

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

The Accidental Astrologer

Feeling Your Goats

Everyone will experience the Capricorn Effect in 2020


By Astrid Stellanova

Eat your peas and collards, Star Children. Tradition will matter.

Soften your hearts and strengthen your minds.

On January 3, Mercury joins the Sun, Jupiter, Saturn and Pluto in Capricorn, meaning none of the signs can escape the Capricorn Effect in 2020.

Here’s what the sky says: The new year brings a new vision, and, er, caps off the past two years of tumult, transition, mergers and misfires, with calculation and transformations that will change our realities. As any astrologer will tell you: The Goat always triumphs.


Capricorn (December 22–January 19)

You have to think about your professional image, Sugar, or feel like you do. You’ve worried yourself half sick over how you stack up, because you pit yourself against an old nemesis with big juju. Basically everyone from Here Comes Honey Boo Boo could outclass this old blow-hard rival. Stop worrying.

Aquarius (January 20–February 18)

Confidential matters and family secrets have kept you knotted up. Listen, if karma won’t slap you, ole Astrid has to, because it’s time you noticed you don’t have to be the standard-bearer for integrity and discretion.

Pisces (February 19–March 20)

There are changes to your inner circle, and close networks that have been shifting. The old dynamic is completely changed, in case you didn’t notice. Want to be the ringmaster of the s*@t show? Don’t think so, Honey Bun.

Aries (March 21-April 19)

I’m thinking you seized the wrong freakin’ day, Ram. As your mission and position have changed, did you notice exactly what condition your condition was in? Right — you were too busy seizing. Let it go. Not yours to wrestle with.

Taurus (April 20–May 20)

You, Brothers and Sistahs, are sweet but twisted. Some of that blunt force you used will get you over the fence to new places this year, but also forces you to take a kinder view of the differences. That makes the new places mean something.

Gemini (May 21–June 20)

One side of you strongly wants to do the right thing. The other side of you wrestles with giving others their fair share, due credit and fair play. You insist it ain’t your pasture, not your bull crap, but, sometimes, Sugar, it is.

Cancer (June 21–July 22)

Focus on close relationships, Sweet Pea, like your partners at work and at home. It is worth remembering that they are the ham in your ham sandwich. The jam in your PB&J. The clapper in your Liberty Bell.

Leo (July 23-August 22)

You aren’t a fan of fitness or workouts, but your life and lifestyle demand a reboot. It will also need to be interior — think volunteering or offering your services. Don’t rush when you’re waiting for the last dang minute.

Virgo (August 23-September 22)

The next generation, Sugar, is writ large in your sign. Think babies, teens, pregnancies and young adults populating your life. Things are coming full circle. What does this signify? Why don’t you overthink it?

Libra (September 23–October 22)

Home, family and land are all at the center of your world. Given how outdone you feel by those near and dear, realize everybody knows your give-a-damn is busted all to pieces. But giving again, and communicating will be your redemption.

Scorpio (October 23–November 21)

You’re thinking, excuse me, Dante, but what circle of hell is this? Yet the things you excel at (even if you wish they would go away) include publishing, communicating and educating, and they keep offering opportunity. Take the stage, Sugar, and ascend.

Sagittarius (November 22–December 21)

Just show you the money. Everything you do concerning property, charity, and finance will work for you and benefit others. Keep your head up, Darlin’, or that crown will slide right off.  OH

For years, Astrid Stellanova owned and operated Curl Up and Dye Beauty Salon in the boondocks of North Carolina until arthritic fingers and her popular astrological readings provoked a new career path.

Greensboring No More

For the Gate City, the ’20s are set to roar

By Margaret Moffett

Midsummer, like clockwork, it begins — the rat-a-tat-tats and oompahs and wah-wha-whas  floating across east Greensboro, teasing autumn’s arrival.  

“It,” of course, is the N.C. A&T State University Blue and Gold Marching Machine, a drum-banging, horn-tooting, whistle-blowing wall of sound that high-steps through half-times of Aggie home games several Saturdays each fall.

Year after year, the band starts preparing for football season around July, when air conditioners run without ceasing and even the evenings leave you hollow-eyed and sweat-soaked. 

Ask anyone who lives within a mile or two of campus — from Dunleath to downtown, East Bessemer to East Market. Ask them about the time they sat on breezeless breezeways, or opened their windows in the middle of a heat wave, just to hear The Machine practice. Not perform, mind you. Practice. 

They’ll tell you it was worth it. So worth it.

This is a small thing. Impactful, yes, and also delightful. But small.

Greensboro is home to a thousand small things. The lighted Christmas balls in Sunset Hills. The hippie scene on Tate Street, unchanged since 1969. The dogs that chase fly balls at Greensboro Grasshoppers games. The Eastern freaking Music Festival.   

Combined, they constitute the je ne sais quoi that is Greensboro. Woe betide any newcomer or visitor who scoffs at our je ne sais quoi:

“OK, maybe we don’t have a Trader Joe’s or a world-class auditorium,” we would snarl — obviously in the pre-Trader Joe’s/Tanger Center for the Performing Arts era. “But we re-enact the Battle of Guilford Courthouse here all the dang time. Plus our community swim meets are fierce. Oh, and Safety Town. Bet your kids didn’t go to Safety Town (clearing our throats for compulsory recitation of Greensboro’s unofficial motto). “This is a great! Place! To live!”

For years now, we have clung to small things as proof of this city’s worth. But they don’t fit neatly on marketing materials or land us on lists of Best Cities in America. The ice skating rink at LeBauer Park is all well and good to a Fortune 500 company looking for a new headquarters. Its leaders, however, would much prefer a robust economy and low unemployment; an entrepreneurial spirit and an energetic workforce; a youthful culture and a vibrant downtown. 

They’re looking for big things. And big things have been missing from Greensboro’s narrative for far too long.

But the times they are a’changing. Over the course of 2020, the city is set to blossom like a Greensboro red camellia (It’s our official flower. Look it up.) 

In the first quarter alone, the Greensboro Coliseum will host the U.S. Figure Skating Championships, the women’s and men’s ACC basketball tournaments and first-and second-round games in the NCAA basketball tournament. The $90 million Tanger Center on the eastern tip of downtown will open sometime amid March Madness.

As the year unfolds, we’ll be treated to one of the busiest periods of construction and revitalization in the city’s history. That means more luxury apartments and boutique hotels. More office towers and mill renovation projects. More cool entertainment districts and cultural pop-up events.

You know, you almost could make the argument that this city is poised for a rebirth.

Aw, heck, let’s just go ahead and call it: 

Greensboro is back.


Shall we take a moment to recount the Dark Days?

Quickly summarized: Textiles and tobacco began their slow marches to death in the mid- to late-1990s. Then came 9/11, followed by a brief economic resurgence, followed by the Great Recession. 

Greensboro lost more and struggled longer than other progressive Southern cities, which seemed to more easily be replacing the high-paying manufacturing jobs lost to overseas competition and recovering from the disintegration of entire industries.

In North Carolina’s third-largest city, however, tobacco farmers and textile workers found themselves at the mercy of a service economy that offered lower wages and reduced benefits. Unemployment rose and median income fell. Corporate headquarters moved and longtime businesses folded. Developers delayed projects, or axed them altogether.

Greensboro was depressed. And depressing. 

Robbie Perkins had a front-row seat for the downturn — as a nine-term member of Greensboro City Council, including a turn as mayor from 2011 to 2013; as a commercial real estate developer who struggled to close eight-figure deals at the height of the crisis; and as a resident of four decades who was emotionally and financially invested in the community when it was at its most robust. 

“This city got hit really hard,” he says. “People who lived here and slogged their way through it don’t realize it as much as people from the outside.” 

One thing he knows for sure: “We’re better now than we were. A lot better.”

And then some. Median household income is on the rise — finally — as is the promise of better-paying jobs. Young people are sticking around a little longer. Exciting projects are beginning to gel. New industries have emerged. Vitality has returned.

For proof, look no farther than our burgeoning aerotropolis. About 5,800 people work in and around Piedmont Triad International Airport — roughly 1,500 of them at the world headquarters of HondaJet. Perkins notes the aviation economy is prompting an unprecedented surge in nearby development. Even as we speak, workers are grading 700 acres here and there around the airport, perhaps for future distribution and logistics operations, or maybe retail and office construction.

He’s expecting the N.C. 68 corridor to  pop sometime this year.

Then there’s the Publix distribution center, which Perkins promises will have “a substantial benefit to Greensboro.” Around springtime, the Florida-based grocer will start building a $400 million warehouse for 1,000 workers, whose $44,000 annual salaries will surpass the city’s median earnings.

Perkins goes on to praise Greensboro’s emerging downtown and incredible infrastructure. Plus, our universities will collaborate on projects like the Joint School of Nanoscience and Nanoengineering — and even relocate some functions to the Center City, as they did with the Union Square Campus. 

So sayeth Robbie Perkins: “It’s all going in the right direction.”


If Perkins is correct that people outside Greensboro best recognized our economic malaise, then perhaps the reverse is true:

It takes someone with perspective to recognize our renaissance.

Enter Denise Turner Roth, a former city manager who left town in 2014 to work for the Obama administration. As the General Services Administration’s No. 1, she managed 12,000 federal employees, oversaw a $20 billion budget and travelled to just about every major metro in these United States. 

Upon moving back to Greensboro with her family in 2018, Roth immediately spotted the most noticeable — and to hear her tell it, the most significant — upgrade made in her absence.

There’s street art everywhere. On buildings and parking lots, storefronts and retaining walls.

“I thought it was an explosion of energy,” she recalls. “The colors jumped off and caught my eye. They made me want to stop and investigate.”

Most of the murals come courtesy of developer Marty Kotis, who has commissioned more than 100 pieces on buildings he owns across the city. City leaders followed Kotis’s lead, cataloging all of the city’s public art on a webpage — even relinquishing an old water tank at the Mitchell Water Plant to become an artist’s canvas.

Roth found it added an edgy, exciting, unexpected je ne sai quoi to the Gate City — the sort of quirky edge she noticed among other hip cool cities she visited as GSA administrator. 

“This is it,” she remembers thinking. “This is what Greensboro needs to be.”

Here’s why: If the city is to maintain its forward momentum, we must — What’s the right word? — mesmerize? captivate? beguile? Millennials and Gen Z’ers. Period. End of argument. They’re every successful urban area’s economic engine, not only as innovators and entrepreneurs, but also as homebuyers and consumers.

On that front, too, Greensboro has gained ground. You can see it in the way downtown comes to life after midnight on Friday and Saturday nights. 

And in the sudden explosion of breweries and distilleries near Center City. 

And in the popularity of Boxcar, a combination bar and arcade on Lewis Street that’s packed with college students craving dollar mimosas and Dance Dance Revolution SuperNOVA (yes, it’s a thing) on Sunday evenings. 

Since Roth’s exit and return, the city has opened two skate parks, a long sought-after amenity in street-punk chic. And UNCG basketball, now experiencing its own renaissance, has become a popular, inexpensive hang for students and alums.

But Greensboro’s menu now offers something Millennials and GenZ’ers need more than microbrews and games: opportunity. Take LaunchLab, a business accelerator program provided by the Greensboro Chamber of Commerce. The program pairs its startups with college interns from the city’s seven colleges and universities, doing both parties a solid. Another small business incubator, the Nussbaum Center for Entrepreneurship, offers budding business owners everything from coaching and office space to financial assistance.

And 2020 promises more of the Wow Factor 20-somethings demand.

Sometime this year, a new six-story Hampton Inn & Suites will open downtown, joining a Hyatt Place that welcomed its first guests in 2019 — and Westin and Aloft hotels are in various stages of development.

Also opening soon: a 188-unit upscale apartment complex — Hawthorne at Friendly — that’s so close to Friendly Center that residents will be able to smell the salmon patties cooking at K&W Cafeteria.

And later this year, redevelopers will finish a $54 million project bringing 200-plus apartments to the old Proximity Printworks Mill — just a hop across Yanceyville Street from the previously rehabbed Revolution Mill. That’s in addition to the nine-story, 111,000-square-foot office building set to open at the Greensboro Grasshoppers’ baseball stadium.

What was that we said about a deficit of “big things” filling Greensboro’s narrative? About fixating on “small things” to distract us from our economic unpleasantness? Meh, that’s so 2008. No, this is a city reborn, a city on the . . . Wait. Is that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” we hear coming from the general vicinity of N.C. A&T State University? Is the Blue and Gold Marching Machine actually playing Nirvana?

Cool.  OH

A graduate of UNCG, Margaret Moffett has called the Greensboro area home since 1985. After 27 years career as a newspaper journalist, she embarked on a career as a freelance writer and adjunct instructor of journalism at UNC-Chapel Hill. She resides in Dunleath in a 100-year-old house with her two cats.

Scuppernong Bookshelf

A Backward Glance

A look back at 2019’s favorite books from our favorite bookseller


Compiled by Brian Lampkin

Let’s take a column and look back at 2019 before we return to our regularly scheduled 2020. Here at Scuppernong Books we reject the idea of “Best Of” lists because we don’t believe that our authority extends to such absolute determination of quality. Instead we prefer the inarguable conviction that accompanies a list of our “Favorite Books of 2019.” Each staff member at Scuppernong has offered the two books they most loved — with a few reasons why — without any concern for hierarchy of quality. It’s a good way to go through life: Love more; judge less. Here’s a sampling of our choices:

The Furious Hours, by Casey Cep (Knopf, $26.95). A fascinating investigation of a corrupt, murderous, small-town Alabama pastor who terrorizes an entire county. Eventually, this nonfiction account connects to the unwritten last book of Harper Lee, whose own fascination with small-town murderous Alabama is well understood. It’s a remarkable piece of literary journalism, and Cep will be featured at the May 2020 Greensboro Bound Literary Festival. (Brian)

The Unlikely Adventures of the Shergill Sisters
, by Balli Kaur Jaswal (William Morrow, $26.99). Once again, Balli Kaur Jaswal proves herself to be a captivating and extraordinary writer. Full of authentic characters with rich histories, individual voices, relatable struggles and controversial dilemmas, this book manages to be a family portrait, a mystery, a drama, a cultural exploration and a comedy all at once. With the passing of pages, I alternately shed tears and laughed aloud, which, let me tell you, is no small thing. (Chella)

The Source of Self-Regard
, by Toni Morrison (Knopf, $28.95). Morrison’s death in 2019 left a crater in the literary world that is unlikely to be filled any time soon.  This collection of essays, speeches and meditations is her final published book. The Source of Self-Regard is brimming with all the elegance of mind and style, the literary prowess and moral compass that are Toni Morrison’s unique purview. (Ashley) 

Who Killed My Father, by Edouard Louis (New Directions, $15.95). “That’s the trouble with stolen things, like you with your youth: We can never quite believe they are really ours, so we have to keep stealing them forever. The theft never ends. You wanted to recapture your youth, to reclaim it, to re-steal it.” Skillfully and incisively balancing love, terror, and rage, this taut memoir examines Louis’ own relationship with his father, and the social and cultural conditions in France that formed his father and laid the groundwork for his death. A rare memoir of righteous anger laced with inexplicable affection. (Steve)

The Ash Family, by Molly Dektar (Simon & Schuster, $26). “You can stay for three days, or the rest of your life.” Thus is the ominous timeline given to Berie — renamed Harmony — when she runs away to live off the grid in the North Carolina mountains. At first, life with the Ash Family seems idyllic, but soon Harmony finds that the disturbing feelings she’s tried to ignore were rooted in sinister happenings on the farm. A literary thriller, this novel also has gorgeous nature writing that casts an eerie melancholy throughout. (Shannon)

Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, by Lori Gottlieb (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $28). This is an honest look at the practice of psychotherapy as told by a therapist and the therapist’s therapist. “Therapy elicits odd reactions because, in a way, it’s like pornography. Both involve a kind of nudity. Both have the potential to thrill. And both have millions of users, most of whom keep their use private.” A must-read for anyone interested in psychology. (Timmy)

Normal People, by Sally Rooney (Crown, $29.95). This is worth all the hype! Rooney distills what it feels like on that curious edge of teenage/adult life while stumbling through a first love headfirst. Honestly, she may be a mind reader. She is that good at capturing the lives of two friends (and lovers) from very different backgrounds at Trinity College in Dublin. Sally Rooney, I love you. (Mackenzie).

Other choices: Dreyer’s English, by Benjamin Dreyer (Chella); Red at the Bone, by Jacqueline Woodson (Brian), Women Talking, by Miriam Toews (Steve); The Dutch House, by Ann Patchett (Shannon); A Devil Comes to Town, by Paolo Maurensig (Ashley); Monster, She Wrote, by Lisa Kröger and Melanie Anderson (Jenny); Trick Mirror, by Jia Tolentino (Mackenzie); Machines Like Me, by Ian McEwan (Timmy).  OH

Brian Lampkin is one of the proprietors of Scuppernong Books.

Come Join the Dance

Celebrating 36 years of life, the Greensboro Scottish Dance Society keeps ancient traditions alive — while flying into the future

By Jim Dodson     Photographs by Bert VanderVeen

First row: Pete Campbell, Jerry Cecil, Andrea Lee, Mary McConnell, Melody Glick, David Thomas Second row: Craig Davis, Sherri Davis, Kate Seel, Roger Seel, Patty Lindsay Kinkade, David Glick Third row: Sam Dawson, Catherine Holt, Judy Roy, Sarah Vincent Fourth row: Margaret Young, Fran Young, Esther Leise, Merritt Wayt

Fittingly, (as if from the very pages of Robert Louis Stevenson) it was a dark and stormy night.

As wind shrieked and rain swirled outside the warm confines of First Presbyterian’s cozy fellowship hall, the 50 or so members and guests of the Greensboro Scottish Country Dance Society, replete in their finest tweeds and proud clan tartans, performed a country a dance called “The Last of the Lairds” to a lively jig titled “The Stool of Repentance,” the fourth set on the program of their annual Emerald City Ball St Andrews Day Dance.

“It’s a fine night for a Scottish dance,” said Jerry Cecil, coming off the floor with his wife Andrea, a bit winded from a turn that requires both physical and mental fitness. “Then again, any night is perfect for Scottish dancing. Even a cold, rainy night like this won’t stop this crowd.”

Cecil, a retired IRS worker and avid golfer from Forest Oaks, knows what he’s talking about — having been a member of the Greensboro chapter of the Royal Scottish Country Dance Society since 1987, a handful of years after the group was formed by Mary McConnell and later joined by her Renaissance husband, Pete Campbell.

This year’s Ball in late November celebrated the organization’s 36th anniversary. The large turnout in the midst of a November Nor’easter spoke volumes about the passion of these hardy Caledonian dancers.

As Campbell’s nimble piano and Mara Shea’s infectious fiddle filled the room for the next dance set  — a “Reel for Cosmo John” —  Cecil paused to explain that Scottish country dancing — a communal form of folk dancing from the 18th century, when it was done in the barn as well as the ballroom  — that got into his bloodstream near the end of his college days in California. But here in the Gate City, his passion found its truest expression among others who share his reverence for the past and a love of country dancing.

“Because each dance is different, with specific steps and patterns of its own, the switching of partners and such, Scottish dancing can seem a bit intimidating. I know I felt that way at first,” Cecil acknowledges, explaining that’s why most folks who do it attend classes to learn the steps and figures to the many different dances. The good news, he goes on to say, is, once you get a few basics down and practice a bit, everything tends to flow. “Scottish dancers aren’t at all judgmental. Everyone is welcome, especially beginners. You’ll never see Scottish dancers looking at their feet, he reflects. “What you’ll see instead is people smiling and laughing as they twirl around the hall. At heart, it’s really about music, fun and friendship.”

His wife of four years, Andrea, nods in agreement. “I’m afraid that I’m still getting the hang of it,” she allows with just such a grin. “But it really is fun.”

Cecil’s description pretty well describes any of the four dozen or so dancers on the fellowship hall floor at any moment, a diverse gathering of local members and visitors from similar clubs, some of whom traveled from as distant as Atlanta and Staunton, Virginia, simply to be on hand. Even the evening’s gifted fiddle-player, Mara Shea, was herself just off a flight from Aberdeen, Scotland, where she made a quick flight to attend her college graduation from Elphistone Institute at the University.

For her part, Mary McConnell got interested in this form of community dance after she learned about it during a Thanksgiving dinner at her sister’s house in Richmond, Virginia, in 1979. Back home in Carrboro, she spotted  a notice that a Scottish Dance class had just started in town and went to investigate.

“I was coming down a hallway and heard this magical Scottish music coming from the dance,” she recalls. “I knew this music from my childhood. I knew I’d found home.”

A short time later, Mary attended the first Thistle School in Banner Elk the week before the annual Grandfather Mountain Highland Games. It was there, in 1982, that she met Pete Campbell, a researcher in environmental sciences at UNC- Chapel Hill who’d been a country dancing aficionado since his days at Swarthmore College, in Pennsylvania.

“Because I used to stay up half the night in the labs, you see, when everyone else was gone, I always listened to Scottish dance music to keep me awake. I was destined to get hooked!” he allows from his piano bench during a break between dance sets. A musical polymath who founded and played in numerous folks bands, Pete helped found  the international folk dance group at UNC, now celebrating its 55th anniversary,  and did a bit of everything from English contra dance to old-fashioned American square dances until he activated his ancestral genes and gave his heart to Scottish country dance.

At the Thistle School’s Teacher’s candidate class in 1982, Mary met Greensboro resident Karen Becker, who convinced her to start a similar class in the Gate City. The class began at Lewis Recreation Center in September of that year. Mary later went to St Andrews, Scotland, for her Teacher’s Certificate, relocating to Greensboro in 1983 to build the echocardiography laboratory at Moses Cone Hospital. Becker was a weaver at Old Salem with a strong background in early American domestic skills and international folk dancing.

“We started with a small group of about eight or nine dancers,” Becker remembers. “In Scottish dancing,  we dance with a  partner but it is the whole group, or set, that dances as a team.” Adds Mary: “Everyone dances with everyone else and has their part in the dance. There is no need to come with a partner. It’s a very egalitarian dance form.”  Scottish dance steps, she explains, are somewhat challenging and energetic. The figures are complex, and unlike contra or traditional American square dancing, there is no one calling out the moves. The steps, holds and patterns must be learned, something that requires both physical exertion and mental focus. “These factors set Scottish dance apart, and those of us who love it are forever young,” she adds with a laugh.

“It’s really not as hard as it seems to someone watching it for the first time,” echoes Becker, today a semiretired costume and living history coordinator at the Frontier Culture Museum in Staunton, Virginia. “When it’s done well, with the springs and setting steps done in quick time, Scottish country dancing is like watching people take flight, barely tethered to the floor. The energy is quite striking and irresistible.”

Another misconception, says member Patty Lindsay Kinkade, a former American history teacher at Southeast Guilford High School who joined the dance group in 1985, is that participants are obliged to have Scottish heritage and a family tartan. “I happen to wear a Lindsay tartan but other members wear whatever tartan appeals to them,” she says. “Some have Scottish heritage. But many others don’t. “It’s the enjoyment of sharing the dance tradition and dressing up to celebrate this tradition that appeals to everyone.”

For her part, longtime member and textile designer Sarah Vincent points out that a Scottish dancer could go anywhere in the world and feel “right at home joining a dance that goes back hundreds of years.” She got hooked on bagpipe music in college in Michigan and soon found her way to the Greensboro group in 1985, a year after the local club became an official sponsored club of Greensboro Parks and Recreation.

Early on, the Greensboro Society became affioliated with the Royal Scottish Dance Society (RSCDS), based in Edinburgh, which promotes and develops Scottish country dance and music worldwide for the benefit of future generationa. They are now members of the Carolina Branch.

The local chapter found a new home and a boost in membership at The Guilford Grange Hall, which is also the home to the robust Fiddle & Bow Country Dancers. “The wooden floor there is perfect for country dancing — and much kinder to aging bodies,” notes Pete Campbell, inspiringly spry at 79 years and counting. “A good number of our regulars are older folks who find dancing like this a great way to stay in shape — and mentally sharp. It’s also the warm social aspect that appeals to everyone.”

No small amount of socializing goes on between dance sets, when some dancers inevitably “pause to take a rest and catch up on news and gossip,” quips Karen Becker.

“It’s really like a great big family,” agrees Sarah Vincent. “A social dance in which you change partners often and make friends easily doing it. Nobody really cares if you screw up. The fun and friendships are the important parts. Would you believe, weddings have come out of these dances?! We also attend each other’s anniversaries, births and even funerals.”

Over the years, the Greensboro group has performed at Celtic festivals around the state, including the annual one at Bethabara. Last autumn, the Greensboro dancers were featured performers at Hillsborough’s inaugural Outlandish Scottish Festival, with Pete Campbell introducing scores of festivalgoers to  traditional Cèilidh dancing that had whole families and young couples enthusiastically joining the dance. 

“Scottish country dance is really for everyone, young and old, from any walk of life,” says Mary McConnell. “For many of us, it is a joyful thing to dress up and dance the way others have done for centuries.” She adds that her hope is to  attract younger dancers from around the Gate City. In the meantime, the society’s regular dance class series, which began in September, is on Tuesday nights Tuesday night at The Grange. The first class is free of charge and open to all.

A highlight of the Scottish year comes this month with the annual Burns Night supper — a worldwide observance that typically celebrates the life and poetry of Ayrshire bard Robert Burns with music, poetry, dance and a famous “Address to the Haggis” on or about his birthday January 25.

This year, as in years past, Karen Becker will make the traditional haggis — best not to ask for the ingredient list — to be served with “neeps and tatties” along with traditional cock-a-leekie soup.

Piper David Thomas will lead the procession for the meal, followed by an evening of toasts, poetry and song, with Pete Campbell reciting the poet’s famous address from memory.

“It should be a wee fine time for all,” Campbell allows with his usual spry twinkle. OH

When Jimmy McDodson is toasting Rabbie Burns wi’ a wee dram, don’t inquire too closely what he’s wearing ’neath his kilt.

O.Henry Ending

Please, Don’t go

But Mama knew best


By Cynthia Adams

When a comedian once quipped that his mother was a one-way travel agent for guilt trips, I laughed. 

Hard. Too hard. And wiped helpless tears.

Our Southern Mama was just such a travel agent. We never parted without her entreaty, “Do you have to go now?”  It didn’t matter how long the visit — two hours or two weeks. It was her notion of expressing love.

Although . . . evidence to the contrary suggested this was born of habit. Even the carpet cleaner and pest control man got the same plea.

This refrain was a quirk, a true blind spot for our mother, much like the one in her trusted Lincoln Continental, which drove more like a Sherman tank after years of surviving Mama’s handling. You just didn’t know that utility post was about to catch you, then there it was, pinning you into the driver’s seat and smearing the side of the car with creosote. 

Hello light pole

She gave her own mother-in-law, Hallie, a tongue-lashing (behind her back of course — Mama was a Southern lady after all) for “hanging on hard just when you needed to go.” 

Poor Hallie was once accused of hanging onto the car door of Mom’s former land yacht, a Madea-worthy white sled with burgundy top and opera windows — just as Mama was heading home for her soap operas. (A grandchild long believed Mama was saying, “showstoppers.”) 

Mama never dragged our grandmother as she held to the Lincoln. Now that would have been a showstopper. For Mama, you see, was usually antsy, in a hurry, whenever it was time for her to make a departure.

Until the end, that is.

Her own leave-taking took so long I began to view her as capable of staying as long as she damned well pleased.

But the professionals knew otherwise. Mama had withered. And after 91 years and diminishing appetite, she was disappearing.

She received hospice care in her final months. My younger sister, who can be intractable, never understood hospice. Bless her heart, (Southern code for myopic) she just couldn’t grasp Mama would eventually leave us.

Could we blame her?

Weeks ago, Mama celebrated a birthday. We gathered for lunch and performed, like we had once done as children. 

I loved to make her laugh, so claiming I had discovered an ability to yodel, I cocked my arms like a baseball pitcher and operatically filled my lungs. Rivaling Florence Foster Jenkins, I unloosed a hideous yowl. 

Mama winced and grinned widely, so, I pretended this called for an encore.

She shook her head, saying “You won’t do,” which is another Southernism loosely meaning, “outstanding foolishness.”

I returned to Mama’s bedside with my hubby two days later, and we sat with her before her momentous departure. 

She gripped our hands with a surprising firmness. 

“Don’t go,” she asked.

The next morning, Mama slipped away.

Only a week afterward, I witnessed a lunar rainbow. It was a luminous, tremulous, indescribable vision. Earlier that day, my brother saw sun dogs — yet another beautiful celestial phenomenon.

Despite myself, I found myself whispering to the night sky. “Please. Don’t go.”  OH

Cynthia Adams is a contributing editor to O.Henry.

Simple Life

For the Time Being

To count the hours . . . or make them count


By Jim Dodson

My office over the garage, which I fondly call the “Tree House,” is a place where time stands still, in a manner of speaking, something of a museum for dusty artifacts and funky souvenirs that followed me home from six decades of traveling journalism. Among them is a collection of wristwatches that accompanied me most of the way.  They’re part of what I call Uncle Jimmy Bob’s Museum of Genuine & Truly Unremarkable Stuff.

Most unremarkably (if you know me), many of the watches are broken or simply worn out from the misfortune of being attached to my person. Suffice it to say, I have a history of being tough on timepieces, having cracked more watch crystals than I can count, and either lost or damaged half a dozen of these loyal beauties by various means.

I suspect that a good shrink could have a field day with the fact that all these defunct watches are the same model and brand — the famous Timex Expedition models, an outdoors icon known for its durability and rustic beauty.

You can blame black-and-white television for this unholy devotion.

See, when I was a little kid and the TV world was not yet in living color — I was a highly impressionable son of a successful advertising executive, it should be noted — my favorite commercial was a spot for Timex watches in which suave company pitchman John Cameron Swayze subjected Timex watches to a series of live  “torture tests” in order to prove that the durable timepiece could “take a licking and keep on ticking.”

To this day I remember watching slugger Mickey Mantle wearing his Timex during batting practice. Other favorites included watches freed from solid blocks of ice by a wielded hammer, also dropped to the bottom of fish tanks for hours or put through the washing machine cycle, even attached to the bow of a roaring speedboat!

In fifth grade, I actually wrote a research paper on Timex watches, learning that the company started in 1854 in Waterbury, Connecticut, producing an affordable six-dollar clock using an assembly line process that may have inspired Henry Ford to do the same with cars half a century later. The company made its name by selling durable pocket watches for one dollar. Even Mark Twain carried one. During the Great Depression, they also introduced the first Mickey Mouse watch.

I received my first Timex watch for Christmas in 1966 and wore it faithfully everywhere — to bed, to baseball practice, even to Scout Camp where I took it off to do the mile swim and never saw it again, the start of a tradition. 

The next one I owned was an Expedition model purchased for about 25 bucks with lawn-mowing money. I wore that sucker all the way through high school, occasionally losing and finding it in unexpected places while putting it through the kind of personal abuse that would have made me a natural for Timex TV spots.

For high school graduation, my folks gave me an elegant Seiko watch, a sleek Japanese quartz model that never needed winding and kept perfect time but never felt right on my wrist. 

I have no idea what happened to that lovely timepiece. Or at least I ain’t telling.

By the end of college, I was safely back to Timex Expeditions, the cheap and durable watch that would accompany me  — one lost or broken model at a time — across the next four decades.

I mention this because a month or so ago, during a particularly busy stretch, I misplaced my longest-running Expedition and, feeling it might be the end of time or at least civilization as we know it, impetuously ordered a replacement model from the internet with guaranteed 24-hour delivery  . . . only to discover, the very day the new watch arrived, that the missing watch was under my car seat all along, keeping perfect time.

God only knows how it got there.

But the message wasn’t lost on me.

Why do I need anything delivered within 24 hours?  Instead, perhaps it’s time to slow down and pay attention to what is already happening here and now, to pause and take notice of the simple things that give my life its greatest purpose and meaning. 

The start of a new year is a time when many of us pause to take stock of how far we’ve come this year and may be headed in the year to come.  After a certain age, the question of how to make use of whatever time we have left to do the things we still hope — or need — to do is also on our minds.

Yet in modern America, “where time is money,” most of us live by the silent tyranny of the ticking clock, obsessed with achieving deadlines and keeping schedules. With no time to waste, we put everything on the clock or at least mark it down in the Day-Timer, making helpful “To-Do” lists and dinner reservations, planning holidays a year in advance, booking flights to warmer seas, appointments with the decorator or therapist, paying the mortgage on time, picking up the kids at 3 —all of it shaped by, and subject to, the hopeless idea of saving time.

Someone, my late Grandmother Taylor liked to say, is always waiting beneath the clock for a child to be born, a life to pass on, a decision to be made or a verdict to be rendered. A proper Southern Baptist lady who knew the Scriptures cold but enjoyed her evening toddy, she often told me, “Child, for the time being, you’re on God’s time. This is heaven.”

A nice thought, but just to complicate matters on the planetary scale, there’s the shadow of the infamous Doomsday Clock to contend with, the symbolic timepiece created by the world’s concerned scientists that chillingly charts the steady devolvement of the planet’s environmental and nuclear climates. In 2019, the minute hand was moved forward to two minutes to midnight.

So what happens next?

Presumably, God only knows that, too.

When it comes to contemplating the passing of time, I often think about the month “out of time” my wife and young son and I spent following our noses through rural Italy and the Greek Islands with no firm travel agenda or even hotel reservations. We met an extraordinary range of unforgettable characters and ate like gypsy kings. We swam in ancient seas, probed temple ruins and disappeared into another time, discovering a race of people who happily ignore the clock if it involves the chance for an interesting conversation about life, food or family. For the time being, it really was heaven. Somewhere along the way, I managed to lose yet another Expedition watch — but failed to notice for several days.

To us, a siesta between noon and 3 p.m. would be unthinkable in the heart of an ordinary work day, generally viewed as either a costly indulgence or colossal waste of time. Yet in Italy, Spain and many Arab cultures, the idea of pausing to take rest and recharge batteries in the midst of a busy day is viewed as a sensible restorative act, a way to slow down and keep perspective in a world forever speeding up.   

From the mystical East, my Buddhist friends perceive time as an endless cycle of beginning and ending, life and death and rebirth, time that is fluid and forever moving toward some greater articulation of what it means to be human. Native American spirituality embraces a similar idea of the sacred hoop of life, a cycle of rebirth that prompted Chief Seattle to remark that we humans struggle with life not because we’re human beings trying to be spiritual, but the other way around. A version of this quote is also attributed to French Jesuit priest and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, proving great souls think alike, even in different languages.

How ironic, in any case, that a booming West Coast city that is home to time-saving megaliths of commerce like Amazon, Starbucks, Costco and Microsoft is named for a man who lovingly presaged, decades ahead of his time, that we humans essentially belong to the Earth and not the other way around, and that, in time, when the last tree falls and final river is poisoned, we will finally learn that we cannot eat money or replace whatever is forever lost in time.

Fearing his own time brief on this planet, Transcendentalist Henry Thoreau went to live by Walden Pond “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”

I hold a similar desire close to my own aging heart, though in the short-term I sure would like to finish a trio of half-written novels I’ve been cobbling on for years, write a few more books about subjects that greatly interest me, and maybe — if there’s any time leftover — build a cabin in the Blue Ridge like the one my late papa and I always talked about “someday” building together.

For the record, just for fun, I’d also like to learn to speak Italian, play the piano and spend a full summer exploring the fjords and forests of Scandinavia with my wife. 

So much to do. So little time to do it.

That seems to be our fate. At least mine.

On golden autumn afternoons and quiet winter days, however, I swear I can almost hear Chief Seattle, Father De Chardin and Grandma Taylor whispering to me that we are all living on God’s Time, wise to wake up and slow down and live fully in the now as we journey into a brave new decade, hopefully appreciating the many gifts of time and its precious brevity. 

For the time being, I now have two fine Expedition watches that can take a licking and keep on ticking.

Though how long I can do the same, goodness me, only time will tell.  OH

Contact Editor Jim Dodson at jim@thepilot.com.

The Omnivorous Reader

The Unforgiving Arctic

Story of the perilous Lady Franklin Bay Expedition


By Stephen E. Smith

In July 1881, the USS Proteus set sail from Newfoundland for Lady Franklin Bay in the Canadian Arctic. On board were the expedition’s commander, Lt. Adolphus W. Greely, astronomer Edward Israel, photographer George Rice, and 21 men chosen from the U.S. military. Their stated purpose was to establish a meteorological observation station as part of the First International Polar Year. But Greely had a personal objective: to reach “Farthest North,” an achievement claimed by the British Navy decades earlier.

A month after departing Newfoundland, the Proteus anchored off Ellesmere Island in the Arctic Circle, where tons of supplies were unloaded, a substantial building constructed, and the expedition’s work began in earnest. The four years that followed were to be the most harrowing and terrible of all recorded Arctic voyages.

Buddy Levy’s Labyrinth of Ice is the latest and most comprehensive popular history of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition (the undertaking’s official designation), recounting in detail the travails that befell men subsiding on meager rations and caught in continuous sub-zero temperatures — sometimes 50 degrees below — during extended periods of total darkness. Their suffering notwithstanding, Greely’s men fulfilled their scientific obligations and maintained meticulous records that are useful today in our analysis of global warming. And during the first year of his Arctic sojourn, Greely also achieved his personal objective: Two of his men established Farthest North. Then the expedition settled in to await resupply ships that never arrived.

What befell the Greely Expedition is what doomed many of the Arctic and Antarctic voyages of the 19th and early 20th centuries: extreme privation. Without resupply, the expedition had to abandon their camp and head south, first by boat, then by sled and finally on foot, hoping to link up with relief ships headed in their direction. They were constantly impeded by ice — mountains of ice, jagged blocks of broken ice, icebergs, massive ice floes, ice in every possible configuration — making forward progress almost impossible, and denying the explorers sustenance and subjecting them to the unforgiving elements.

Relying on Greely’s notebooks and the personal dairies of expedition members, Levy writes in measured, almost journalistic prose, describing the quirks of personality and the details of the inevitable conflicts that arose when the expedition’s men were confined in life-threatening conditions. Greely was able to mediate most of these squabbles, but when rations grew short and shelter increasingly insubstantial, the conflicts grew more intense: “Pavy grew incensed, and when he started yelling at Whisler, the dutiful military man drew and leveled his pistol at Pavy to show there would be no more talk.” Disagreements between Greely and the Expedition’s doctor were a constant source of unease, and the growing tension among the starving men eventually led to the execution of Pvt. Charles Henry, who had confessed to stealing food, which he continued to do after numerous warnings.

In 1882, the relief ship Neptune was blocked by ice and forced to abandon its mission, leaving much-needed supplies in Newfoundland, thousands of miles south of the expedition. The Proteus attempted a rescue in 1883 but was crushed by pack ice and sank. The expedition would surely have perished but for Greely’s dutiful wife, Henrietta, who had political and journalist connections. She lobbied constantly for her husband’s rescue, and much of the book is given over to her unrelenting efforts. She had to contend with a Washington bureaucracy that was painfully slow to act. There were boards of inquiry and much finger-pointing concerning failed relief efforts. But Henrietta’s persistence yielded results, and a third rescue mission was finally mounted, despite Secretary of War Robert Todd Lincoln’s reluctance to waste resources on “dead men.”

By the time Greely and six of his surviving crew were located on the barren shores of Cape Sabine, they were hours from death. “Greely is that you?” a rescuer asked. “Yes — seven of us left — here we are, dying like men,” Greely replied. “Did what I came to do — beat the record,” meaning he’d obtained Farthest North.

Readers are left to decide if the suffering was worth it. The survivors may have thought so when they were received as heroes. Celebrated and roundly lauded in the press, honored with a parade, promoted in grade and awarded medals, they basked in the limelight. But not long after they had settled into their new lives, rumors of cannibalism materialized. Greely and the other survivors denied any knowledge of such an outrage, but a medical examination of at least one of the corpses revealed that flesh had been removed from the bones with a cutting implement.

It may be that our general lack of knowledge of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition is the result of these lingering accusations — after all, we’ve never forgiven the Donner Party — and only in recent years have books on Greely’s Arctic adventure seen publication. Three of these books, Ghosts of Cape Sabine, Frozen in Time and Abandoned, have helped raise awareness among readers of popular histories, and a PBS American Experience documentary, “The Greely Expedition,” has attracted attention, but we live in a moment when yesterday’s news is ancient history and the majority of Americans can’t tell you where the Grand Canyon is located.

A plethora of recent books detailing other desperate Arctic and Antarctic expeditions have come to constitute a “desperate polar rescue” subgenre. The Endurance: Shackleton’s Legendary Antarctic Expedition, a beautifully written history of a 1914 attempt to reach the South Pole, has received much critical attention, and the lifeboat Shackleton used to navigate the stormy waters from Antarctica to the Falkland Islands has toured museums around the country. But Shackleton’s Expedition had a happy outcome; every member of the Endurance crew survived. Nineteen of Greely’s command died in order to achieve the most ephemeral of objectives.

If you have a grim fascination with self-inflicted suffering in inhospitable environs, you can always revel in TV’s Life Below Zero, Ultimate Survival Alaska, Dual Survival, Naked and Afraid, or, this reviewer’s favorite series title, Dude, You’re Screwed. There’s no denying that the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition suffered unimaginable horrors — and there was no “tapping out” when they found themselves trapped in the Arctic. How silly and shallow reality TV programs seem when compared to the real reality of the Greely Expedition. OH

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.

January Poem 2020

Musings on Fitness

Do I dare to eat a peach?

  – T.S. Eliot

Calculating carbs and calories,

logging laps in the pool, miles on the bike,

my walks in the woods.

Examining family photos,

genetic code for metabolism that screwed up

our capacity to eat ice cream with impunity.

Questioning the processing of wheat,

golden staff of life,

meant to sustain, not kill us.

Thinking about endless revolutions

on a stationary bike, or the treadmill,

going nowhere but into looser pants, if I’m lucky.

Thousands of folks doing the same, spinning

away, all over the nation. What if we spent

that same energy raking leaves for those

too old to scratch the dirt themselves?

Or building something — a giant calorie-burning

skyscraper, or tap-dancing or waltzing

to make ourselves smile?

Sometimes I am jealous, of my grandparents,

never thin, never fat, farmers

who ate eggs, bacon, and biscuits with molasses,

and never once logged their work in the fields.

I miss their apple pie, MaMa’s light yellow pound cake.

Most of all, I miss not fretting about it.

  Laura Lomax