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Bluegrass, Old Time, Country, Celtic survive and thrive for 35

Becky Campbell • Dec 17, 2017 at 12:39 AM

Johnson City is immersed in the heritage of bluegrass music, and the first educational program of its kind — which was started with just a few classes 35 years ago this year — is keeping that tradition alive and growing.

When Daniel Boner arrived at East Tennessee State University for the fall 2000 semester, he was a fresh-faced South Jersey boy majoring in music with a minor in the Bluegrass program. He had been encouraged by a high school English teacher to look at the ETSU program, which by then had produced professionals like Barry Bales, Tim Stafford and Kenny Chesney.

“I went on the website in the late ’90s and (program founder) Jack Tottle actually had a great website for the time. It was very informative,” said Boner, now director of Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies in ETSU’s Department of Appalachian Studies. “That’s one thing Jack was always great about — helping people understand the scope and the importance of this music in higher education. To see that Jack Tottle had created a place here with that importance and seriousness and understanding the context of the music, it’s a place I wanted to be.”

When Boner first contacted the ETSU music department, he was told, “‘You can’t major in bluegrass.’

“Well, I helped change that a few years later.”

And as the department has grown, he’s made it a mission to be student-focused to help them be the best they can be.

“I knew I wanted to be a teacher and after I graduated, I was very fortunate to be hired here right away,” he said. The bluegrass minor had just been implemented, but Boner started working on developing the program into a full major.

The minor “was so successful right off the bat that it was time to quickly create a major. We were kind of in a race to do that because we felt other people at other institutions might want to do that ahead of us,” Boner said. “We worked really hard, and we created the Bachelor of Arts in Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies.”

Other educational institutions were offering music degrees with an emphasis in bluegrass, but ETSU has the distinction of having the first major in the field.

Students at those other institutions had to take a standard classical music degree, “and then they could tag on some bluegrass to it. We didn’t want that,” Boner said. “We wanted a specific degree where the history students were studying was American bluegrass, old time, Celtic, country ... all the folk music surrounding bluegrass.”

35 years earlier

ETSU started its bluegrass music program in 1982 after conversations between Tottle and then-music department chairman Richard Compton. Tottle was able to get three courses in the catalog: a guitar class, a bluegrass band class and a history of country music and bluegrass class. It was a meager offering, but those few classes attracted students.

Each semester, the program grew to the point that 10 years ago it became a full-fledged degree program. More than 50 students have received their bachelor’s degree in the program — including four on Saturday for fall graduation —  and many graduates have gone on to find fame in the music industry.

Compton, according to Tottle, said that because bluegrass music had a lot to do with the type of culture East Tennessee had, it might be a good idea to see if offering a few courses received any response.

“I had no idea if we’d get people who just wanted to learn to play an instrument, or wanted to form a band. But these were all people who played well and one of them — Jennifer McCarter —  actually ended up getting a contract in Nashville and had her songs from her first album go well up the charts,” Tottle said recently.

“We were very lucky. The first bluegrass band we offered, we had a good banjo player, a good guitar player and singer, bass player and I played mandolin. It was very fortuitous and we got the band to go on television and play at the Carter Fold and things like that.”

McCarter’s success “brought great credit to the university. That’s when they started thinking, ‘Well, gosh, maybe we should pay more attention to this bluegrass country music idea,’” Tottle said.

“Little by little over time, it increased in terms of the number of students who were interested,” he said. “It became more than I could teach. Looking back, it seems to me to be finding that model of seeing if you can find someone who can do something and just let them do it, it can pay off. A lot of things grow from the ground up organically if you let them,” and ETSU’s bluegrass program is an example, he said.

But as the program grew, it became clear that the music department wasn't the right fit. Eventually, the program was adopted by Appalachian Studies and found a home in the Brooks Gym building.

Program success

The program has a high-tech recording studio where students have created numerous recordings and CDs — one single hit. But even though the program has seen great success with students attending and graduates making a name for themselves, Boner said there is more to do and he wants the program to grow. 

Last year, ETSU’s Bluegrass Pride Band enjoyed national success with its new single, “Did You Hear Me Say Goodbye” on Now and Then Records.

The band debuted the song during a concert on Facebook Live, which reached more than 22,000 people. The song went on to hit the No. 12 spot on the Bluegrass Today chart for the week of Nov. 11. It was written by band member Max Etling of Plymouth, Minnesota, and his father, B. Etling.

“This is the first time, that I’m aware of, where a university bluegrass band has made the national airplay charts,” Boner said. “We are proud to see the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band listed on the chart among ETSU alumni Tim Stafford and Shawn Lane of Blue Highway, Colby Laney of Volume 5, and faculty member Adam Steffey.

“The song reflects on a subject to which anyone who has ever lost a family member or friend can relate,” he said. “The lyrics are honest and thoughtful. I’m glad to see our students presenting original material of such high quality.”

In November, the single ‘Sam Jocelyn’s Ghost’ made its way in to the charts at 17 on Bluegrass Today’s billboard. The song was written by student Holly McInyre about about a popular legend in her home town of Wilmington, North Carolina. According to the tale, and the song, when Sam Jocelyn died in 1810, his body was recovered from the river where he had fallen in, and given a proper burial. But before long, Sam appears to his best friend, Alex Hosler, and complains that he had been buried alive.

So Alex digs up the body, and finds the coffin sides covered with blood, and Sam’s fingers rubbed raw and bleeding.

Hearing the Bluegrass, Old Time and Country bands play is pretty easy around the Tri-Cities: they perform regularly throughout the year. End of semester concerts are held at The Down Home in Johnson City in December and May. Boner can be seen touring with the Becky Buller Band. Boner plays guitar for Buller, who is also a graduate of ETSU. Her band also includes Ned Luberecki on banjo, Nate Lee on mandolin and Daniel Hardin on bass. The band’s recent single, Calamity Jane, which also features Rhonda Vincent, recently hit No. 1 on the Bluegrass Today chart.

Moving forward

“We have some ideas about new curriculum,” Boner said. “I think to grow further, we’re going to be offering new curriculum in the areas of engineering, business and more detailed programming in old time music, Celtic music and country music. There are some longer term goals I can’t discuss.”

But he does talk about the program’s wandering days: “We’re also looking at new space,” he said. “We outgrow everywhere that we end up, so we’ve been in discussion about some new initiatives to find a permanent home for our program that serves all our needs from a facilities standpoint.”

But some things won’t change.

“Basically we want to continue recruiting the best students we can,” he said, “and help them be the best they can. And there’s no limitations on students accepted into the program. They come from all backgrounds and a wide range of ages.” 

 For more information on the program, visit https://www.etsu.edu/cas/das/bluegrass/ or call 423-439-7072. 

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