A Q&A with David Menconi, editor of American Music: New Roots a New Series from UNC Press

We are delighted to announce the launch of a new book series, American Music: New Roots. Edited by highly regarded journalist, music critic, and author David Menconi, the series will feature books that expand and challenge the way we think about American roots music genres, traditions, scenes, performers, and their ever-expanding contributions. Books in the series will not only bring new perspective on familiar roots traditions like jazz, the blues, country, and folk music but also offer new and more diverse ways to consider where the roots of today’s American music lie, what stories are told about them, and who does the telling.

Typographic logo that says "American Music New Roots" on left with photo of David Menconi standing with arms crossed in front of him on right

In this Q&A, UNC Press acquiring editors Mark Simpson-Vos and Lucas Church talk with David Menconi about the vision for the series and how it’s starting to come together with new books on the horizon.

Q: How did the idea for this series come about?

Menconi: Initially it grew out of the work that Mark and I did together on my last book, the 2020 history of North Carolina popular music, Step It Up and Go. That was a wide-ranging story that crossed many boundaries—stylistic, geographic, cultural, political, you name it—touching on far more than just music. From initial conversations to the finished book took well over a decade, off and on. Over the years we talked a lot about the landscape of book publishing about music. There are lots of great music books out there, but we also had the sense there were plenty of stories that weren’t getting told.

Discovering that we had similar sensibilities and goals, Mark and I decided that it was worthwhile to pursue a series that could accommodate more books like this, about a variety of subjects as told by a diverse cast of writers. We’ve been plotting to make American Music: New Roots happen ever since. 

Q: Talk about the “new roots” idea in particular—is that reflecting an interest in new artists working in roots genres like the blues, or is there something deeper in the way you hope to reflect what is new—or maybe what should be new—in American music?

Menconi: In a way, it’s analogous to how one would try to define “Americana” music now, a big-tent style that has come to encompass everything from traditional roots (country, blues, gospel) to 1990s-vintage college-radio alternative rock and even world music. It seems to be defined at least as much by the demographics of the listening audience as the music itself—what are people of a certain age, sense and sensibility listening to?

This is an eclectic age in which the entirety of recorded music is just a click away and critics and writers to make sense of it all are more important than ever. We’re especially hoping that we can attract authors applying a roots-music mindset to considering styles that haven’t been previously thought of in that way. I really want to get some books going about hip-hop or electronic dance music as roots genres. 

More broadly, we want to promote the idea that “roots music” isn’t fixed in amber. It does seem like a lot of what’s published about this kind of music returns to familiar artists, reinforces familiar stories, or pushes the same debates we’ve been having for years. We’re hoping to change that. 

Q: What makes UNC Press a good partner for this series and the kinds of authors you hope to work with?

Menconi: We’re starting from a good foundation. Books about roots music—especially music tied to the South—have long been a strength of UNC Press. I was also drawn to the fact that UNC Press is one of the nation’s top publishers when it comes to exploring thorny issues like race relations. I envision the series bringing these strands together, with books that place music in context within larger cultural and social frameworks.

A good example in the Press’s current catalog is Burgin Matthews’s Magic City: How the Birmingham Jazz Tradition Shaped the Sound of America. It’s a fascinating story centered on the enormous impact unsung figures like John T. “Fess” Whatley, a Black teacher in Birmingham who trained multiple generations of important musicians in jazz history. People rightly associate Birmingham with the history of segregation and the civil rights movement. They don’t think of it as a cradle of jazz. But you have a figure like Whatley who’s teaching students that will go on to break down those lines of segregation, and he’s encouraging them to see music as integral to their education. Some of his students like Erskine Hawkins and Sun Ra go on to fame as jazz performers. But some surely left Birmingham Industrial High School for other careers. We don’t think about public school teachers as essential to the story of jazz, but we should. 

Suffice to say we’ll be looking for a broad range of subjects, as well as authors.

Q: You’ve had a long career in journalism, you’ve written books of your own, and you also had experience editing a book series. How will authors and readers see the benefits of that experience?

Menconi: After spending more than three decades in newspaper newsrooms, covering music and the industry, you meet a lot of people—and you learn how to spot a good story. I hope to draw on those personal connections, and to draw out the stories worth telling at book-length.

This is the second university-press music series I’ve edited, and I would liken my role to a record-company talent scout. It involves networking, casting a wide net and having conversations about what people are working on. To a large extent, it’s just paying attention, and seeing what makes sense for us to do. 

Q: Can you give us any preview of coming attractions? What can readers look forward to as the series takes off?

Menconi: I mentioned Mathews’s book, and if people are looking for other recent examples, there’s my own Oh, Didn’t They Ramble: Rounder Records and the Transformation of American Roots Music. Both books illustrate what we hope to accomplish with the series. Both are very much about place, and also focus on different behind-the-scenes aspects of how music appears in the culture.

We have more books in the pipeline, most notably what looks to be the definitive biography of the late great folk guitarist Doc Watson, written by Eddie Huffman. That will be out in the fall of 2024.

More books are under contract and in progress. Sam Stephenson, a great writer, is bringing us a fascinating book centered on the relationship of jazz pianist Bill Evans and his longtime partner, Ellaine Schultz. For all the “great man” biographies of jazz legends, there are so many untold stories of the women in their lives. Sam’s book is going to recenter the frame in some exciting ways. We’re also working with Tommy Goldsmith, who has worn many hats as an author, journalist, and musician over the years, on a new take on the bluegrass giants the Stanley Brothers.

Beyond that, plenty more is at the talking stage. We want to broaden our focus beyond Americana quickly, in terms of both subjects and authors. I feel confident we’ll surprise you.