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UNC's ConvergeNC Southern music festival focuses on more than roots

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It's a cold day in late March, but two-dozen University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill undergrads are gathering excitedly at the Bell Tower Amphitheater, a humble slope of winter-dry grass that funnels toward Kenan Stadium's main entrance.

Some wear absurdly summer-ready outfits—khaki shorts, scuba goggles, big sunglasses. Others ride skateboards, toss Frisbees or simply sprint. One even cavorts by in a full lion costume.

They've gathered for the promotional video shoot for ConvergeNC, a new one-day Southern music fest scheduled for this very field on Saturday, April 6. Organizers Gabe Chess and Libby Rodenbough stand at the top of the unlikely venue, wedged between the football stadium and the futuristic Genome Science Building. With excited sweeps of the hand, they indicate where the stage, band tent and food trucks will sit. They are pleased with their classmates' energy.

"We're going to present to you one possible answer to the question, 'What is Southern music?'" says Rodenbough. While headlining string band Mipso, a band of Tar Heel students in which she plays fiddle, may be a stylistic shoe-in, the lineup comes populated with curveballs. From Some Army's inward psychedelic rock and the hip-hop of hardworking area stalwart and UNC alumnus Kaze, ConvergeNC casts a purposefully wide net.

"lt's not meant to be a comprehensive answer," Rodenbough admits, "but it is one shot that we're throwing out there this year—and we're hoping to start a conversation."

For Chess, the initial idea had little to do with Southern identity. The goal was simply to bring more live music to the UNC campus and strengthen the intersection between the student population and the greater Triangle music community. But a theme allowed the pair to give ConvergeNC focus while balancing student music with that of the community around the school. The plan is based on a blueprint from when Bill Ferris, the associate director of the Center for the Study of the American South, tried to start a much larger festival.

"It was going to be more blues, I think, based on his interest," says Chess. It never happened, as it was too big for the college to take on. They used that model as a springboard, even if their chosen musicians are easier to tie together geographically than traditionally or historically.

"I don't think we want to come to our audience here—our UNC and Triangle audience—as an authority," says Rodenbough. "We don't want to impose a vision of Southern music on anybody."

She, Chess and the other members of their purposefully small planning committee grew up in the modern South, a place where academic culture and regional tradition aren't necessarily linked. Chess, for instance, was raised in Asheville by Northern transplant parents, while Greensboro native Rodenbough has played classical violin most of her life. It wasn't until a recent summer she spent in a Chicago conservatory that she shifted her focus to fiddling.

"Everybody was treating me like I was this precious resource because I was a Southerner, and everybody there was trying to learn clawhammer banjo and old-time fiddle. They wanted me to teach them, and I didn't know anything," she confesses. "All I knew was classical music."

ConvergeNC committee member Clay Sutton may have the most direct claim to these types of Southern traditions; his father is a clogger and square-dance caller from Marshall, N.C. The clean-cut and cheerful freshman says he grew up with traditional music, though it hasn't consistently appealed to him.

"I'm one of those of people who gravitated away from it growing up," he says, "because it was different from what my friends were doing in school and I was into sports." His excitement in joining ConvergeNC seems to stem less from obeisance to tradition and more from following in his dad's footsteps—the elder Sutton, Clay says, is always joining festival committees.

For Michael Taylor, whose Hiss Golden Messenger will perform at ConvergeNC, definitions of the South and its tradition are dodgy at best.

"I don't know if there is a way to put your arms around Southern music, but it certainly has something to do with living here and understanding the good and important things that a place like North Carolina has to offer," he says. His new LP, Haw, represents a search for those things, whether they be familial, like with the Suttons, or more detached and philosophical, as with UNC's Southern Folklife Collection. "I moved here because the things that I love come from the South. I knew that if I had any hope of starting to understand the things that I love, I need to live near where they came from."

Taylor's personal journey through Southern music has received significant accolades—one recent Hiss Golden Messenger laurel comes from fan David Bowie. Ferris, who is only peripherally involved with ConvergeNC, has yet to listen to Hiss Golden Messenger or the other bands on the lineup.

"Because the students are developing this, the performers are going to be artists that they feel will draw their fellow students, and it's not necessarily the kind of artists that I would have in my class. They will be more contemporary and probably less traditional," Ferris deduces. "But once the festival is in place, I think it will grow and evolve in good ways and be more inclusive."

Rodenbough and Chess would rather continue the dialogue they aim to start Saturday. And they want the festival to become larger and to effectively draw both UNC students and local residents. Pointing at the nearby Kenan Stadium, Rodenbough reckons that, if these groups are equally drawn to on-campus sports, why can't they be drawn to on-campus music?

"We were trying to book people we thought would apply to both demographics," she says. "It's really important to us ... not to have anyone feel like they're out of place there."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Area accents."

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