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Book review: Daniel Coston's North Carolina Musicians

McFarland; Release date: July 22, 2013

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About halfway through North Carolina Musicians, the new book by Charlotte photographer Daniel Coston, the author describes a night at the Comet Grill in late 2011. It's just after Christmas, and patrons "shuffle out of the cold" to see local blues guitarist Lenny Federal. The scene — with eager concertgoers cramming two floors — is set succinctly and colorfully, communicating the love these people have for Federal's music, holding him up as an example of what makes this state's music so compelling. Like Coston's best frames, the passage is intimate and immediate.

Sadly, this is but one page hidden among 197 others filled with rambling anecdotes and interviews that lack insightful questions. Sadder still, Coston's arresting images are printed cheaply onto thin stock, ruining the crisp contrast that makes his work so expressive. Coston has spent the better part of two decades photographing some of North Carolina's most famous musical exports — Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Superchunk, The Avett Brothers — and his frames capture better than most the energy that fuels the state's various scenes. North Carolina Musicians does both his art and his subjects a disservice.

For years, Coston has enjoyed incredible access to famous musicians: There's a photo here of The Avett Brothers writing a song in their kitchen, a close-up of Ben Folds sitting at his North Carolina Music Hall of Fame induction beside his eighth grade music teacher. Coston catalogs many of these moments, but does so in minimal detail, coming across as just some dude bragging about his cherry gig.

His interviews — which waste sources such as Caitlin Cary (Whiskeytown) and Dom Flemons (Carolina Chocolate Drops) on banal queries ("Do you enjoy playing live?") — don't help. Nor do the frequent, encyclopedia-style history lessons, most of which are already recorded in other sources; he credits some of them in his acknowledgements. It's clear that Coston has valuable perspective on music in this state. Maybe his next book will actually make use of it.

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