Blair Books in Action (or How I was Reminded of my Love for Music) by Artie Sparrow

Carl Perkins transcendent musical moment on stage in Winston-Salem.

Carl Perkins’ transcendent musical moment on stage in Winston-Salem.

Good fiction takes you to places a million miles from the hassles and annoyances of everyday life.  Blair’s new title Long Gone Daddies is good fiction. It’s a tale of a struggling band with a conflicted leader. It talks about Carl Perkins, and that took me to a place from my past.

The Winston-Salem where I grew up was a different place from the Winston-Salem where I currently live. Back then, the streets were paved with golden tobacco leaves. Well, not quite, but there was a lot of money around. One of the things the money was spent on was a big street festival put on every September by the Arts Council, the Carolina Street Scene. Artists and craftsmen from all over would come to sell their wares. (My parents still drink out of wine goblets purchased there 35 years ago.) The festival also brought in internationally renowned musicians. Some I’ll always regret missing (Mose Allison, Muddy Waters). Others I’ll always cherish getting a chance to see (Dizzy Gillespie, Bo Diddley).

Carolina Street Scene Poster courtesy of the MIlton Rhodes Center for the Arts

Carolina Street Scene Poster courtesy of the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts

I vividly remember seeing Carl Perkins in 1983. I don’t remember how much I knew about Perkins at the time. I probably knew his biggest hit, “Blue Suede Shoes,” and that he was the least famous member of the Million Dollar Quartet. I definitely didn’t know the back story, how he was supposed to be bigger than Elvis but things didn’t quite work out. It didn’t matter. What I saw that September day was a transcendent musical moment. I define transcendent as when someone is doing what he does better than anyone on the planet and having a great time doing it, feeding off the energy of the crowd. Long Gone Daddies says this about Carl Perkins: “Carl’s guitar, it could power a train. Carl’s guitar could bring the freight.” For one glorious afternoon, I was lucky enough to be standing next to the tracks as the train went by, feeling its power and gazing in awe at it.

Perkins' blue suede shoes

Perkins’ blue suede shoes

Perkins was a rock-and-roll messiah. Someone who could make you believe in the power of music, no matter how jaded you were. I’ve seen hundreds of live music shows. I’ve forgotten more acts than I remember. But Perkins really stuck with me—what a great guitar player he was, how much stage presence he had, what a great performer he was.

Over the years, music has become less important to me, getting shunted behind other distractions. Long Gone Daddies reminded me of a part of my life I used to really enjoy. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen a transcendent musical moment. I should check the calendar of The Garage (, the local bar where the Drive-By Truckers played all the time before they got famous. Maybe the next big thing is playing there this month.


Batter Up! by Artie Sparrow

Chasing_Moonlight_pbkBaseball’s Opening Day is Sunday, March 31. Back in college, I’d spend Opening Day hanging out in front of the Frank Porter Graham Student Union at UNC. (Truthfully, that’s what I’d do most days I was in college.) I learned a bit about Frank Porter Graham while I was in school there—how he was a progressive far ahead of his time, and how his brief career as a United States senator ended after one of the nastiest election campaigns ever, one in which his opponent printed flyers with the headline, “White People, Wake Up.”

Artie in College

Me in college on the steps of the cafeteria, about 200 feet from the Student Union

It wasn’t until I started working at Blair that I learned about Frank’s brother Doc Graham. Somehow, I managed to avoid ever seeing Field of Dreams, in which the great Burt Lancaster, in his final movie role, portrays Doc Graham, a former baseball player whose entire big-league career totaled half an inning. Chasing Moonlight tells the story of Doc Graham. It’s a great story for spring, when thoughts turn to rebirth. The book is mostly about Graham’s career away from baseball. When his dream of being a major-league ball player didn’t work, he pursued a degree in medicine.  He ended up having a long and productive career as a pediatrician in northern Minnesota, where he left a legacy of being a truly decent person, someone who made the world a better place.

So when you’re watching games or just pondering life, remember Moonlight Graham. Sometimes, things don’t work out the way you want, but there’s almost always another path you can take

The Book That Smacked Me Upside the Head | A Blog Post by Artie Sparrow, Office Manager at Blair

Artie and Psychotic ReactionsMy friend Phil Morrison gave me a copy of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung for Christmas one year when I was in college. Twenty-five years later, it’s the most dog-eared book I own. It’s a posthumously released anthology of writing by the legendary music critic Lester Bangs.

The important thing about Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung isn’t the musicians and songs Bangs writes about (even though it’s reassuring to know I’m not the only one who cringes whenever I hear “Carolina in My Mind”), but the life lessons he imparts while doing so:
Psychotic Reactions
Be honest,
Be kind,
Merely puking on yourself is not going to change anything,
It’s ok to change your mind about something,
Don’t be afraid to take chances and risk looking foolish,
Always be receptive to new things and experiences.

A particularly eloquent rant refuting the nihilism of Richard Hell got me through the angst-filled early 1990s, when I was an underemployed, love-struck, self-destructive hipster doofus. It’s too lengthy to reproduce in its entirety, but the salient point is this:  “There are glints of beauty and bedrock joy that come shining through from time to precious time to remind anybody who cares to see that there is something higher and larger than ourselves. And I’m not talking about your putrefying gods, I am talking about a sense of wonder about life itself and the feeling that there is some redemptive factor that you must at least search for until you drop dead of natural causes” (from page 267 of the original paperback edition).

Artie at Home

Note: Behind Artie is Phil Morrison’s first movie, Tater Tomater.

I don’t think Bangs intended to provide life lessons. I think he just wanted to get paid and have fun, which is another life lesson he almost subliminally imparted.

On a practical level, the book did change my life by indirectly showing me the easiest way to remove shrink-wrap from CDs. Its review of the Peter Guralnick book Lost Highway exposed me to the music of songwriter James Talley, who showed me how to open his CD when I bought one from him after a show. The trick is to slide your fingernail down the hinge where the case opens.

Thanks, Lester, and thank you, Phil.

Happy Birthday, NASCAR! | A Blog Post by Artie Sparrow

Did you know NASCAR was officially incorporated on this date in 1948? Celebrating this milestone is a great excuse to pick up a copy of Jerry Bledsoe’s World’s Number One, Flat-Out, All-Time, Great Stock Car Racing Book. According to Car and Driver magazine, it’s “the finest book on any kind of motor racing.”

Mostly it’s just really entertaining, even if you’re not a big fan of auto racing. Bledsoe is a master storyteller (infamous in our office as a great guy to get talking), and this is a perfect subject for him: colorful characters who operate on the fringes of the law.

Ever wonder what really happened in the old Richard Pryor movie Greased Lightning? Or why Tom Wolfe called Junior Johnson the “Last American Hero”? Read this book to find out and to discover several other memorable tales of men who lived and sometimes died on the edge.


Fall hiking with Artie, Touring the Western North Carolina Backroads, and The Best Hikes of Pisgah National Forest

As the summer heat subsides and autumn’s leaves change to fiery red and warm gold, it’s harder and harder to stay in the office. So last week Blair’s order and customer service guru Artie Sparrow took a quick detour to the N.C. mountains–with the help of Carolyn Sakowski’s Touring the Western North Carolina Backroads and Goldsmith, Hamrick & Hamrick’s The Best Hikes of Pisgah National Forest. If you get the hiking itch, Artie has some suggestions for you.


The leaves were turning and my mind was drifting west to the North Carolina mountains for their spectacular fall foliage. I checked with my boss, first to confirm that I had some vacation time left, but more importantly, to ask for suggestions on where to go. Sometimes it’s quite convenient working for Carolyn Sakowski, the author of Touring the Western North Carolina Backroads.

I told her that I wanted to do a few miles of hiking in the Linville Gorge area, and Carolyn suggested the Table Rock Tour from her book. I decided to try it when I read that Table Rock was the inspiration for the mountain in Jules Verne’s Master of the World.

I set off early on a Wednesday, joined by my dog Tigger, who always enjoys a walk in the woods. The tour starts at N.C. 181, just north of Morganton. It’s a road you’d expect to see on an episode of Top Gear: scenic, uncrowded, and curvy; a perfect place to test the capabilities of a high-performance car. My Scion isn’t high performance and in general I hate driving, but I wouldn’t mind it so much if more roads were like N.C. 181.

Our first stop was Hawksbill Mountain. We added some bonus material to the hike by missing the turnoff to the summit. After an hour or so of huffing and puffing we made it to the top, and were treated to spectacular views that were well worth the effort. (Even though I suspect Carolyn suggested that hike as a way of encouraging me to quit smoking).

After Hawksbill we took a slight detour to hike the Spence Ridge Trail at Linville Gorge. I used Blair’s Best Hikes of Pisgah National Forest for that. It’s a book I picked up a decade ago after getting lost on the Max Patch trail. It came in handy when I was trying to decide when to turn around. With the trail description I was able to figure out how close I was to the river at the bottom of the gorge.

Spence Ridge Waterfall

Some call Linville Gorge the Grand Canyon of the East. It’s not, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The Canyon is much bigger. It takes 11 hours or more to hike from the rim to the bottom and back. The Park Service strongly discourages people from attempting that in one day. You can do the same thing at the Gorge in a couple of hours. The similarity is that both are marvels of nature, places where you can recharge your spirit and just soak up what a majestic and wonderful world we live in. The bottom of the Gorge is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen, and Tigger enjoyed a refreshing dip in the pool of water.

We made it out of the Gorge just before sundown. (Just like the Grand Canyon, getting out of the Gorge is much more difficult than going down in it.). We decided to leave the mysteries of Table Rock for another trip. All in all it couldn’t have been a better day. Thanks Carolyn.

The mountain on the left is Table Rock, known as Great Eyrie in Verne’s Master of the World.

It’s travel season–where are YOU going?

Travel North CarolinaIt finally looks like this year’s unbelievably cold and snowy winter is melting into glorious spring.  The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and blossoms seem to have sprung up overnight. And with that gorgeous spring weather comes spring fever–we’re all itching to hit the beach!

Luckily we’ve got an advantage–earlier this year we published the fourth edition of Travel North Carolina: Going Native in the Old North State. Written by longtime N.C. residents, the book spans travel hot spots from the coast to the mountains, calling out great places to expore, hike, eat, shop, and more. And with history lessons about some legendary places, the book really covers it all.

I asked Artie Sparrow, a colleague and one of the authors of this edition, if he could recommend a great vacation spot in North Carolina this summer. This is what he had to say:


When I went to the Outer Banks to research Travel North Carolina, I knew that I had to stop at the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station. I’ve been fascinated by the surfmen who manned the station ever since reading about them in Ben Dixon MacNeill’s The Hatterasman. The surfmen did what their name implies: They went out into the surf in rowboats and rescued passengers and sailors from ships that foundered off the North Carolina coast. They were true heroes.

The waters off Hatteras Island are known as the graveyard of the Atlantic for a reason. It’s where the Labrador Current from Canada meets the Gulf Stream from Mexico, creating very turbulent seas. There are constantly shifting shoals that have imperiled mariners since ships began traveling the East Coast. More than 1,000 ships have sunk off Hatteras since records began in 1526.

Naturally, most of the rescues took place when conditions were less than ideal. The surfmen went out into the sea no matter how rough the weather was. Captain Patrick Etheridge’s legendary retort to a reluctant surfman became their motto: “The book says we’ve got to go out. It doesn’t say a damn thing about coming back.”

The Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station, located on Highway 12 in Rodanthe, preserves the legacy of these brave men. Visitors can tour the 1874 Station and the larger facilities that were built in 1911. In the summer, active-duty Coast Guard personnel perform the beach apparatus drill, demonstrating the techniques used to rescue sailors from sinking ships.  


1874 Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station
The 1874 Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station
1911 Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station
The 1911 Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station


Fascinating, isn’t it? Even as a N.C. native, I didn’t know the station existed! After hearing Artie’s explanation, how can I not visit it this summer? And if you think the Chicamacomico Life-Saving Station is interesting, you should check out Ray McAllister’s Hatteras Island: Keeper of the Outer Banks. It’s everything you’ve ever wanted to know about the most legendary part of the Outer Banks.

So now it’s your turn–tell us where you are going this summer. Are you visiting your favorite spot in North Carolina, or will you explore a new destination further away from home?