Photo courtesy of UNC’s
Southern Folklife Collection
One gem from Bill Smith's donated Cat's Cradle T-shirt archive
head chef Bill Smith
came to Chapel Hill in 1969 to attend UNC, where he quickly fell in love with the music scene. He marveled at how, then as now, you could catch a great concert any night of the week. A few years after arriving, Smith joined Marcia Wilson at the helm of Cat’s Cradle when her two original partners split.
Smith’s culinary yen eventually won out over his passion for the music business, but being a stockholder emeritus had perks. For one, it earned him free admission to the Cradle in perpetuity. It was a great deal, to be sure, but he made a point of always buying a T-shirt to support the bands he saw. After three decades, he had a lot of shirts.
Recently, as he surveyed his mountain of Hanes and Fruit of the Loom, Smith imagined them in a setting where they could really flourish. It’s not you
, he was saying, it’s me
. Convinced that his trove amounted to more than a stack of well-worn souvenirs, Smith found his way to Steve Weiss, curator of UNC’s Southern Folklife Collection
. Weiss, who was busy working on Lard Have Mercy! 30 Years of Southern Culture on the Skids
, needed no convincing that the T-shirts had a story to tell.
As a result, the shirts—more than 300 in all, some perhaps still tinged with remnants of Crook’s Corner’s shrimp and grits—will soon share space with 78-inch discs of indigenous singers, reel-to-reel tape recordings of the voices of former slaves and the lightning-emblazoned recliner pictured on the cover of S.C.O.T.S.’ Plastic Seat Sweat
Situated in the stately Wilson Library, just a few floors above a display case containing Chang and Eng Bunker’s silverware, the Southern Folklife Collection is a repository for sounds, images, photographs, art and ephemera of impressive breadth. You can find definitive literary studies on Ozark folk songs, a lush four-volume set of the Child Ballads
, books about singing cowboys and musical mountaineers, even an original copy of Bishop Percy's Folio Manuscript: Loose and Humorous Songs
. And now, you can view a tour shirt by L.A. neo-rockabilly band Three Bad Jacks
, declaring in bold black letters, “STAY GREASY.”
When the archive was initiated in 1989, Weiss, along with a few others, decided to focus on documenting the local music scene, specifically rock culture. Most of the rock-related stuff consists of promotional materials, flyers, posters and the like, but the addition of the T-shirts to the archive, which attracts scholars, musicologists and the odd film director (Scorsese availed himself for his blues docs), brings a human element that a pile of CDs and cassettes could only partially suggest.
Smith was gratified to know that his collection would be maintained, although he admits that some of the shirts were hard to let go. “I had all the Mergefest things,” he says. “I had a Flat Duo Jets thing, which was Dexter [Romweber’s] first band. I had lots of Melvins, lots of Sonic Youth, and a few odd things, like a Lee Harvey Keitel hand-printed one.” But truth be told, while the shirts bring back memories of great bygone shows, Smith’s decision to donate them was both an act of generosity and a practical consideration. “For one thing,” he says, “I’ve sort of outgrown them, shall we say.”
Now that Smith has raided his archive twice (he sold a bunch of more traditional rock promo materials in 1984), what remains is pretty scanty. “But there are some photos that I think might have some promise,” he says, “in shoeboxes and closets. I’m gonna check when I get a minute.”