Will Johnson City be known for its music scene? Some say it already is

Brandon Paykamian • Updated Mar 26, 2018 at 3:10 PM

While Johnson City’s underground local music scene may not be in the middle of a national spotlight, its eclectic variety of musicians and bands spanning across multiple genres makes it a center of artistic expression in Central Appalachia.

In the past few years, dozens of new bands have emerged in the Tri-Cities, and much of these bands have infused the local scene with new sounds. There has been a particular trend of growth in hard rock and other heavier, underground genres that aren’t traditionally associated with the bluegrass and folk tradition of the region.

In short, the local music culture has become a hodgepodge of different genres.

“I think Johnson City will definitely be known for its scene. In the past couple of years, there has been an awakening – or resurgence, so to speak – of artists trying to break the mold and stray from the path of the norm,” Tyler Smith, vocalist for the alternative group Big Mstr, said. “I can say confidently that this area now has a very eclectic and talented scene of musicians that you really can't just pack into a genre.”

Local musician and singer-songwriter Joey Tucciarone agreed that the diversity of music played by local bands is something that could have future implications in regard to how Johnson City’s musical identity and culture is shaped in the coming years.

“I love the eclecticism of our scene, and the support artists show each other. We’ve got everything here, from various permutations of folk to hip-hop to punk rock, psychedelic and metal,” he said. “Northeast Tennessee as a whole is a fantastic laboratory in which musicians are honoring the local heritage while creating new and unique sounds.”

Some local musicians think the local music scene is kept alive due to a community of musicians who are supported and promoted by venues they often play together at, such as the Hideaway, the Willow Tree Coffeehouse, Capone’s and other stages across the city.

Much like the local food movement, there’s a reverence for locally produced music and art.

“Most of the booking is done by locals in the community, and most of it is volunteer work just for the sake of having an active music community,” Jordan Cashen said of his experience in the local music scene as a promoter. “I know that type of engagement is not unique to Johnson City – it's an essential part of any artistic community – but it's still an important aspect of any local subculture.”

This type of local engagement and enthusiasm is an important part of the city’s punk and metal scene, according to Nerve Endings vocalist Sterlin Hammond.

“Booking for our ‘punk’ community is very old-school. It’s like, you guys come here and play and we'll give you all the money from the door and a place to stay. We make friends, and then they return the favor in their city,” he said. “House venues come and go, but there's a couple left, and that is where you can really introduce like-minded people to another subculture they perhaps didn't know even existed in our area.”

Aiden Shaw, a local promoter and vocalist from Arm the Witness, said he thinks the local music scene has a lot of potential for growth, as long as the local underground music community can continue to network locally with local venues, producers and other Tri-Cities-based artists.

“I've seen a lot of push toward ‘do-it-yourself’ in our community, and I think it's great,” he said. 

The future growth of Johnson City’s music scene could be predicted by taking a look at the growth that’s already been already experienced over the years, according to Willow Tree Coffeehouse owner and operator Teri Dosher.

“When I first opened the Willow Tree, people I knew in the music business told me I was making a mistake – that Johnson City was known as a city that didn't support live music. While it can be harder to get people out here than in other cities, I really feel like that is changing,” she said. “More and more musicians are putting us on their tour stops and more and more people are coming out to listen.

“One of the most important reasons for that I feel is the diversity in our music venues. We each have something special to offer. We don't compete, we just each offer something different.”

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