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UNC's ConvergeNC tests Southern boundaries 

If you're building your own music festival, pay attention for the possibility of happy accidents.

This Friday's show at Cat's Cradle, for instance, pairs the bluegrass energizers of Mipso with Chris Eldridge, the guitarist of the Grammy-nominated, old-time-updating Punch Brothers. The gig is the middle portion of UNC-Chapel Hill's ConvergeNC Southern Music Festival, now in its second year. But it didn't start out that way.

"We had accidentally double-booked our Cat's Cradle show for the same day," explains Mipso's Jacob Sharp, chuckling. Libby Rodenbough, the group's fiddler and one of the festival's co-directors, hadn't given them the date. "It caused momentary chaos, but then we figured out a way to incorporate it."

Like the Mipso show itself, ConvergeNC's Southern emphasis was happenstance. When co-director Gabe Chess began mulling the idea, he wasn't yet grounded in notions of regional culture. That aim came after he reached out to Bill Ferris, a director at UNC's Center for the Study of the American South. The professor latched onto the idea, hooking him up with Rodenbough and pushing the pair in a direction they were happy to pursue.

"There's all kinds of people who lay claim to that identity in different ways," Chess says. "Let's give a voice to all of those different claims and ways of being Southern and sounding Southern."

The center oversees the festival, but the planning and execution are left almost entirely to the students, who favor bands that push the boundaries of what it means to make "Southern music." Last year's debut stretched from the slow-cooked rap of Kaze to the humid rock of Turchi, from the thorny spiritual questions of Hiss Golden Messenger to the folk-pop splashes of Mipso. This year pushes even further afield. The laid-back funk of Floating Action isn't without its twang, but the band's inspirations span the globe; the percolating indie pop of T0W3RS has folk foundations, but there's a lot wound into their Internet-age patchwork.

"We try not to take it upon ourselves to define anything," Rodenbough explains. "We're not attempting to represent all of Southern music or to pin down a comprehensive image of Southern music today. We're just trying to get people talking about it."

The festival's scope has expanded, too. In addition to a free outdoor concert on Saturday, there will be ticketed events at Morehead Planetarium and Cat's Cradle, spreading ConvergeNC's imprint on and off campus. A panel discussion on Saturday featuring Alice Gerrard and Hiss Golden Messenger's Mike Taylor galvanizes the weekend's academic intent.

While the programming is impressive, sustaining it presents a hurdle. Chess is a junior, and Rodenbough graduates in May. Whoever takes over will encounter stout challenges, especially in acquiring funding. ConvergeNC gets by on a combination of sponsorships and grants buttressed by support from university organizations such as the Carolina Union Activities Board and the Student Congress.

"The funding is still a bit of a mystery," Chess admits. "We've been able to do it, but we are always thinking, 'How is this going to be a more stable, long-term thing?'"

This year, he and Rodenbough invited interested underclassmen to meetings, hoping one of them will take charge. Ferris trusts someone will carry the festival forward.

"They have great vision and passion for the music," Ferris says of ConvergeNC's current leaders. "We're in good hands, and there are great students that will come in each year that will follow in their footsteps."

This article appeared in print with the headline "Survive or advance"

along with Winston Salem's Phuzz Phest perks up
  • ConvergeNC runs April 3–5 in Chapel Hill

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