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A Rabbit Hole Investigation: Does Gladys Knight live in North Carolina?
In which I use my journalism training to determine whether the Midnight Train to Georgia now leaves from Asheville.
I feel like I know a great many things about North Carolina, and yet I was caught completely flat-footed by this tweet:
I am fully aware of “Midnight Train to Georgia,” where Gladys Knight sings about following her man back to his home. Which is in Georgia. The state of Georgia. Where, she sings, they are going to live. Georgia. I know she once lent her name to a chicken and waffles place in Atlanta that featured a menu item called the Midnight Train: Southern fried jumbo chicken wings with a waffle. (UPDATE: Her name is no longer on the restaurant.) My brain, for years, was conditioned to think that Gladys Knight was a Georgian. So when a reporter tweeted that she lived outside of Asheville, I was not the only one caught off guard.
Before we go on, I have to acknowledge that this is going to be one of those contrived internet situations where we all, for some reason, “discover” something that has been public knowledge for years, and yet treat like it just happened yesterday. For example, people “discovered” Dionne Warwick’s wonderful Twitter account a few months ago, even though she, technically, joined Twitter in October 2012. Every so often, someone will “discover” my bud Tim Burke’s video showing Sinclair TV anchors in local markets all across the country being forced to read the exact same script in a promo. Tim made the video three years ago. If you follow former Charlotte Hornets star Rex Chapman on Twitter, you are aware of this phenomenon. Rex has recently been an aggregator and amplifier of political videos and statements. But he was once and continues to be a guy who tweets out funny and uplifting clips as well, and those videos feel like they’re new, even though some of them were first uploaded a while ago. This is the meme-industrial complex that we all encounter online now, where old things go viral again for no real, discernible reason (like this Hugo the Hornet gif!). All you know is that, suddenly, a lot of people are talking about something all over again and most times, nobody can really figure out why.
So, all that being said, Gladys Knight! A North Carolinian! Who knew?!
But does she, like, live live here?
I was ready to add Gladys Knight to the list of people you didn’t realize were North Carolinians (André the Giant usually holds the top spot on that list). But first I had to be a mood-killing JOURNALIST who says haughty stuff like “trust but verify.” And, just like any award-winning reporter, I started off by asking Google:
Okay! Promising start. Although, you can’t fully trust Google featured snippets. Ask Caillou.
In this case, though, the article’s not wrong about the house. Knight got married to William McDowell in 2001 and, six years later, records show they bought a 20-acre farm in Fairview, just southeast of Asheville. Recently, McDowell has been posting pictures of the place on Instagram, and it looks just lovely there.
Every so often, Knight shows up at concerts and sporting events in Asheville. Last week, she was photographed getting her COVID-19 vaccine in nearby Haywood County to set a good example for others. “I’m concerned about everybody,” she said in a statement. “I’m a people person. I love people, and if not for people I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.”
She’d been living in Las Vegas for a while, but sold a home there in 2018 for $720,000 (the realtor said it was a hard sell since it had a recording studio in the basement). According to property records, she still owns a house on a golf course in Henderson, Nevada, and her website says her business headquarters remains in Las Vegas. But news articles keep saying that Gladys Knight lives in North Carolina now. So, which is it?
Going back to the old school
For this part, I called up the mayor of Canton, North Carolina, a quaint little town with a large paper mill where Knight got her COVID-19 shot last week. “I did, in the last week, get a lot of texts, tweets, and tags on social media about it,” says Zeb Smathers. One friend in Durham sent him a link to a story about it with the eyes emoji.
It’s Smathers’s understanding that Knight and McDowell still spend a lot of time in Las Vegas, and a quick scan of McDowell’s Instagram account shows a lot of pictures from both places. But one thing in particular is a strong pull toward North Carolina: The old high school in McDowell’s hometown of Canton. From 1930 until 1966, Reynolds High School was the only African-American high school in North Carolina west of Asheville, and it closed after Haywood County integrated its schools. In 2015, Knight and McDowell bought the school at auction, and two years later, announced a plan to renovate it and turn it into a community center. It was an effort to create a spark in Gibsontown, one of the only historically Black neighborhoods in a city and a county that’s about 96 percent white.
Since then, the project has come along slowly. Some renovations have been completed, and a playground and basketball court have gone in. But Smathers says the East Haywood County Community Center has the potential to be a game changer for the whole city. And the project seems to have grounded a singer that, at 76, still has a full schedule and was constantly touring in a pre-COVID world. "I know this is where we are supposed to be," Knight said during an event in front of the school in 2017.
But, as much as these things matter, I still don’t know whether Gladys Knight now calls herself a North Carolinian. “Gladys is part of our community,” Smathers says, although he says she and her husband maintain a fairly quiet presence in the area. “They live 20 minutes away in Buncombe County,” he says. “I don’t run into them at the grocery store.” On the community center’s website, a press release from 2017 referred to their ranch in Fairview this way: “It’s where their family members gather for special reunions and events and where the couple feel most at home in their lives these days, even amidst Gladys’ constant touring schedule.”
Since everybody’s playing coy, I figured I’d just ask Gladys Knight directly:
The Empress of Soul did not slide into my DMs. I put in a more formal request to talk about her status as a North Carolinian with her publicist, who said that she was very busy with a lot of projects happening, and that I should try back in May. So, God willing, we’ll talk more in three months. Until then, I’ll be wondering if she established her North Carolina residency in a trade that sent Ric Flair to Atlanta.