By Brad Rich
Years ago, Bland Simpson was talking to a friend from Chapel Hill, and she told him a fish story.
Seems she had been surf fishing at Cape Hatteras, and had hooked one of those giant bluefish for which the Outer Banks are so famous.
“She said she had a cassette tape of ‘King Mackerel and the Blues are Running’ in a Walkman on her hip, and when one of those blues struck, it made her jerk, and the butt of the rod hit the Walkman and it fell off her hip and tape popped out,” Simpson said recently, as he and fellow Coastal Cohorts Jim Wann and Don Dixon began to cast their eyes toward two performances of “King Mack” at Carteret Community College on April 17 and 18.
“She said, ‘Bland, it was either save the tape or catch the blue,’” Simpson recalled. “She said she chose the fish. And I said that was a good thing, because that was something real.”
But to countless residents of coastal North Carolina, “King Mackerel and the Blues are Running” is just as real, just as fine, as a landing a big fish. It’s a funny, frilly musical, sure, full of good times and good tunes and tall tales, but a full 30 years after its debut in 1985, it has deep meaning and has taken on the patina of not just nostalgia, but lore.
Chances are good that those who first saw it in 1985 have brought their children to see it in the intervening years, and chances are pretty good that this time around, there will be grandchildren of those original 1985 attendees in the room.
People obviously feel a real connection to the show, which was written and first performed during a coastal building boom and focuses in part on efforts to save the mythical hurricane-damaged “Corncake Inlet Inn” from the “Greedhead” developers.
But the musical also has songs about joy-riding and getting cars swallowed up by the ocean; about dancing the inimitable shag; about shrimp and the other coastal food delicacies; about the Outer Banks brogue; about summer loves and love letters; about fishing trips gone right and wrong; and of course, about hurricanes. In short, for those who love the coast, it’s about life and memories, both real and romanticized. And for those who love the coast from afar, or who have lived there and left, it’s about memories, and sometimes about dreams.
It’s still like that for Simpson, too, and, he says, for fellow performers Wann, a legendary writer of hit musicals, such as “Pump Boys and Dinettes,” and Dixon, a pop-rock wizard who is a successful solo artist and a producer with credits that include R.E.M.
“If we’d been at it eight shows a week for those 30 years, it would be a different thing,” said Simpson, a UNC-Chapel Hill professor and a pianist in the Red Clay Ramblers, a Tony Award-winning N.C.-based string band. “But we haven’t. Some years we might do it only once or twice. So when we do get together for it, it’s a great time, a great reunion, for all three of us. And we all have such great memories of doing it all over the coast, in Elizabeth City and Manteo and Wilmington and of course, Carteret County.
They’ve also performed it in New York, and in a lot of places between here and there. Seldom has it gotten less than a rave review, and many if not most reviewers have mentioned not just the music and the performance, but the conservation ethic that underpins it all.
That’s why it’s coming back here, or course. The Carteret shows will benefit the N.C. Coastal Federation, the environmental group for which Simpson serves as a board of directors’ member, and the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island.
Karen Amspacher, director of the museum, said the show is a natural fit for a facility that celebrates all of the things the show encompasses, from clean water and fishing to the coastal way of life.
“It’s a light-hearted look at a very serious subject,” she said. “It touches on all of the things that are so important to us, that we who live here and those who visit us cherish. It’s much more than a fundraiser.”
It is, she said, both a celebration and a kind of rallying cry, a call-to-figurative arms that urges and inspires those who love the coast to stay involved in protecting and preserving it. In a time when increased development, as it has for a long time, threatens the natural splendor and way of life of down east Carteret County, it’s a reminder to be vigilant, and a reminder that there are countless souls who still place great value on not just the crowded ocean beaches of summertime, but also on the silent and hidden marshes and patches of maritime forest that are equally treasured parts of the fragile coastal ecosystem.
“We’re very proud to be a part of this for the seventh or eighth time,” Amspacher said. “They (Dixon, Wann and Simpson) are such great people and it’s such a great show. We’re always pleased that they do it as a fundraiser for us and for the coastal federation, but we would want to do it whether we got any money for it or not. It’s become so much more than just a fundraiser or even a great show. It’s part of our culture now, part of the coastal tradition.”
Todd Miller, founder and executive director of the coastal federation, agreed with Amspacher.
“It really strikes a chord with the people who support us, and touches on all the things that we enjoy and that are important to people who live at the coast and come here to visit,” he said. “It has an enduring message. It’s like folk music. It stays relevant, and it’s meaningful.”
It’s enduring, Miller said, in part because the pressures on the coast and its way of life endure, too. Development that threatens water quality hastens and slows, but it never stops. And despite rules intended to lessen development’s impact, it continues to take its toll.
“The show is important as a fundraiser, but it’s also important because it’s like a shot-in-the-arm that helps keep up the enthusiasm of our members and supporters for all the things we do as an organization,” he said. “Plus, it’s just so much fun. We have a serious message, but it’s important not to be so serious all the time.”
Simpson, a native of Elizabeth City who married a down east Carteret woman, understands the importance the show has and its lure to generations of folks along the coast.
“It’s really sweet for all three of us to be a part of something that a large number of people have come to identify with the coast,” he said. “It says something not just about the songs, but also about the sensibilities of the people who hear them. And of course it’s important and meaningful for us to still be involved with two great organizations that do so much for the coast.”
He hears often of people who have been coming to see “King Mack” for years, who have worn out cassette versions and CDs. Given the subject matter, it’s not so surprising, but it wasn’t supposed to be this way.
In fact, Simpson and Wann had set about to write the songs for The Embers, the legendary beach music band.
A lawyer from Sanford, who was good friends with that band, got in touch with them and asked if they’d write a musical. So they started the process, writing a half-dozen or so songs and many stories, but the Embers never really committed to the rigors of doing a musical.
“But we really liked it, so we took it ourselves,” Simpson recalled. “That’s when we invited Don to come in and help.”
The rest, of course, is history. Simpson said he’s run into Bobby Tomlinson, drummer for The Embers, a few times, and they’ve had some laughs about it. He also recalls a time when he saw another band doing the songs on the boardwalk at Virginia Beach.
The show includes a Bingo game, in which, well – no spoiler here – but suffice to say that some of the listeners were new to the show, or to be honest, didn’t even know it was a show. They got a bit upset until they were told they were “in” the show.
Simpson sad he and others knew from the beginning that they’d come up with some good songs, but concedes he would not have guessed it would have proven so enduringly popular, or culturally significant.
“That’s the kind of thing a musician hopes for, but never really expects,” he said. “We’re happy that people still appreciate it and want to hear it, and that it has appealed to people of all ages and from all walks of life. We’re looking forward to doing it again in Carteret County.”