Haven't heard of the Johnson City Sessions? One local man is trying to change that

Jonathan Roberts • Oct 14, 2019 at 8:10 AM

Ninety years after they were first recorded, the Johnson City Sessions of 1928-29 are finally getting some recognition — thanks in no small part to East Tennessee State University Appalachian studies professor Ted Olson.

“It seems some historical realignment (of country music) is necessary, and Johnson City plays a central role in some of that,” Olson said.

In order to help catalyze that realignment, Olson, along with the help of other key players, is bringing “Tell it to Me,” a festival celebrating the Johnson City Sessions, to downtown Johnson City this weekend to mark the 90th anniversary of the 1929 recordings.

“I felt as though the outreach hadn’t fully reached very widely in Johnson City, and I felt this was a story that Johnson Citians could be very proud of,” Olson said, citing that as the driving force behind hosting Saturday’s festival.

Earlier this decade, Olson began his quest to bring more attention to the Johnson City Sessions — culminating in 2013 when he and Bear Family Records released an award-winning, four-CD box set titled “The Johnson City Sessions, 1928-29: Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” which also featured an accompanying hardcover book.

“We’re kind of finally connecting the great recordings with the place of Johnson City — that’s kind of the contribution of the box set and the subsequent effort to promote the story,” Olson said. “We’re finally connecting the dots that have always been there.”

Among the most influential songs recorded by Columbia Records during the sessions were Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo-Coo Bird,” Charlie Bowman and His Brothers’ “Roll On Buddy,” Byrd Moore and His Hot Shots’ “Three Men Went A Hunting,” Bill and Belle Reed’s “Old Lady and the Devil,” the Bentley Boys’ “Down On Penny’s Farm” and the Grant Brothers’ “Tell It to Me.”

The best part for Olson though, is finally seeing Johnson City’s place in the annals of country music history — a part long overshadowed by the historic Bristol Sessions, which are often recognized — incorrectly, Olson says — as the birth of country music.

“I think it’s extremely important to create a vital and accurate narrative of the rise of country music and the rise of American music,” Olson said. “There are multiple genres beyond country that have been influenced by the Johnson City Sessions.

“It’s extremely important to tell the story of country music accurately, and Johnson City is a part of that, as are other Appalachian recording sessions that have been overlooked,” he added.

The free event will be filled with music of all genres, and will also have a panel discussion featuring Jim Bowman, Colin Escott, Johnson City Press Yesteryear writer Bob Cox, ETSU old-time music instructor Roy Andrade and Olson.

The panel will be moderated by Kris Truelsen, an alumnus of ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies program and leader of the local old-time band Bill and the Belles. That will begin at the main stage at 11 a.m. in downtown Johnson City.

“If we’re misrepresenting our cultural history, then we don’t fully know who we are,” Olson said.

A kick-off concert event will be held the night before the celebration. The Tim O’Brien Band will perform at the Down Home, 300 W. Main Street, from 8-11 p.m. Tickets for this show are available for $30 each by calling Down Home at (423) 929-9822. This event will also be a record release party for the new album, “Tell It to Me: Revisiting the Johnson City Sessions, 1928-1929.” For more information, contact Olson at 423-439-4379 or olson@etsu.edu. For more information on the festival, visit www.facebook.com/johnsoncitysessions/