Johnson City's music scene: from bluegrass to singer-songwriters

Hannah Swayze • Mar 30, 2019 at 9:59 PM

Johnson CIty’s music scene is just a small cog in the machine that is East Tennessee's experience with music.

Given the proximity to Bristol, the birthplace of country music, the area is rife with musicians and songwriters who have experienced the culture of Appalachian music.

But Johnson City has its own musical past of note. In October of 1928 and 1929, producer Frank Walker of Columbia Records placed an advertisement in the newspaper that read, “Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” bringing in musicians from different genres of music to record.

The Johnson City Sessions are not all well known as the neighboring Bristol Sessions, which discovered well known Appalachian musicians such as The Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers.

Nevertheless, the roots of those Appalachian songs are still evident today, according to local musician, songwriter and musical venue owner Ed Snodderly.

Snodderly runs The Down Home, a music venue in Johnson City. Its reputation spills out past city lines and into the larger region.

The Down Home, 300 W. Main St., opened in 1976. Snodderly, said the original intent was to create a place where audiences could come and actually listen to the music.

The Down Home regularly has live music in a variety of genres on its wooden stage. Since its opening, Snodderly said he’s seen music in Johnson City go through changes. Sometimes it thrives, sometimes it’s stagnant.

A variety of music floats through the streets today. Audiences can find a metal band at The Hideaway one night, an old-time group at The Down Home another night and a ska band in The Willow Tree Music Room and Coffeehouse another. Wellington’s Restaurant even has the JC Jazz Jam every Thursday night at 8 and an annual Jazz Festival. However, the prominent style is bluegrass and old-time music.

Some of the underrepresented artists in the area, Snodderly said, are songwriters. Last month, the Tennessee Tourism Association hosted an open mic contest at The Down Home. Snodderly said they had a huge turnout and the sign-up list filled up within a few hours.

“Singer-songwriter (music) is somewhat prominent. I don't know where they're playing, but they’re there,” said Snodderly.

Throughout all of that, Snodderly said that the struggle has always been and continues to be getting people out to see artists they’re not familiar with.

He said while Johnson City isn’t exactly Nashville or Austin, Texas, there are still musicians out there making music. Audiences need to come out and support them The musicians and their art can be found beyond the music venue and can be found for those who look for it.

“I think for anything to be improved ... the general public (should) just continue to be supportive,” said Snodderly.