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Volume 26, Number 4 — April 2019

High Note: Morrell Music Celebrates 50 Years

The Sullivan East High School bluegrass band performs Saturday during a free workshop at Morrell Music in Bristol, Tenn. (Photo by Andre Teague|Bristol Herald Courier)
The Sullivan East High School bluegrass band performs Saturday during a free workshop at Morrell Music in Bristol, Tenn. (Photo by Andre Teague|Bristol Herald Courier)

...of Selling Instruments, Teaching to Play Them


*** This story appeared in the Bristol (Va.) Herald Courier on Sunday, March 14.***

BRISTOL, Tenn. Joe Morrell picked a good year to open a music store when he christened Morrell Music's original East State Street location in downtown Bristol.

It was 1960, the Beatles and Elvis were at the top of the charts, and just about everyone was interested in folk music, said Morrell's son, Curtis Morrell, the current store owner.

"You had a lot of good artists coming up then," Curtis Morrell said Saturday, the 50th anniversary of the opening of his father's store. "It was a really good time to get into music."

Morrell Music has moved twice since opening in that original location, going to a two-story West State Street storefront in 1965 and then in November to an even bigger state-of-the-art spot right behind that location.

In the time the store has been open, it has opened branches in Johnson City and Kingsport, Tenn., published a series of instructional booklets for various instruments, and sold instruments and equipment to 500 retailers across the country.

But with all of those accomplishments, it's the store's music lessons that Curtis Morrell said he's the most proud of, and something he and his father, who died three years ago, decided to specialize in.

The store's four instructors teach music to between 100 and 125 students a week, and an unlimited number of folks who stop by the store's latest venture, its Global Education Corp. Web site, to get a quick music lesson via the Internet.

While none of the students have gone on to become music superstars like the ones featured in the product advertisements hanging from the store's walls, their teachers have moved on to do great things for their community.

Jack Tottle, who spent three or four years teaching at Morrell's store, later founded East Tennessee State University's bluegrass, old time and country music program. The program was the first attempt by any university to offering a four-year degree in those forms of music, and since 1982 it has spurred the careers of several musicians including Jennifer McCarter, whose first album had two top-five country hits.

The program also taught Rachel Renee Johnson, who taught music at Curtis Morrell's shop for four years, Curtis Morrell said. Johnson went on to found the Sullivan East High School bluegrass band, a group of students who provided a special concert at the store Saturday to mark its anniversary.

They were followed by Rachel and the Boys, featuring Johnson along with Adam Steffey from the Boxcars and Allison Krauss' Union Station, Jason Burleson from Blue Highway, and Clay Hess and Jacob Eller of Sierra Hull.

Saturday's performances were the first in a series of events Curtis Morrell plans to offer to celebrate his store's anniversary. He's also going to run a series of free guitar and drum clinics, and hopes to visit local schools to teach students about music and to drop off free instruments.

"It's just all part of giving back [and saying thank you] for 50 years of business," he said, describing the region his store serves as being "just a hotbed of music."