Johnson City Sessions festival highlights 'groundbreaking' music

Jonathan Roberts • Oct 19, 2019 at 10:00 PM

When it comes to Johnson City music history, the Bowman family is royalty.

“We’re proud of our heritage,” Jim Bowman, whose great uncle, Charlie Bowman, is in the Old-Time Fiddlers Hall of Fame, said of a legacy that began in Johnson City almost a century ago during the Johnson City Sessions of 1928-29.

During the sessions, the elder Bowman — and several of his siblings — recorded numerous records, launching the family into music history and cementing them as icons in the history of Johnson City. And on Saturday, that history was brought to the forefront during the sessions’ 90th anniversary festival Saturday.

Jim Bowman was part of a panel discussion the impact of the Johnson City Sessions, and it was hard not to notice him smiling as the voices of his family from almost a century ago echoed through downtown.

“Music has been in our family for generations and generations,” Bowman said. “I have sons that continue the music tradition — it’s just a Bowman thing. You can’t get two Bowmans together without having some kind of instrument.”

The festival was the culmination of a years-long effort by East Tennessee State University professor Ted Olson to shine a spotlight on the Johnson City Sessions, which are often overshadowed by the Bristol Sessions from a couple years earlier.

“This has always been here, these records have always been in people’s collections, but until recently the dots were not connected and the story of the Johnson City Sessions was not really told,” Olson said. “It’s just wonderful to see that people have started to focus on those records, listen to them, study them.

“It’s just very moving for me to witness this,” Olson added.

Ed Snodderly, a local musician who owns the Down Home venue in Johnson City, said the festival was an important piece in recognizing Johnson City’s music history.

“It’s very good that we’re honoring the 90th anniversary, and it’s good to recognize that we’ve been making music in the area for a very long time,” Snodderly said. “Anytime we can gather for the celebration of music, it’s a positive thing.”

Bowman, meanwhile, hopes the festival helped to bring more attention to Johnson City’s place in the annals of music history — especially as it pertains to old-time country and bluegrass.

“This was a hub of some really ground-breaking music back in the ’20s and ’30s,” Bowman said. “We revel in the fact that East Tennessee has turned out many, many musicians — and that started in the ’20s.”