Johnson City: The Music Scene
Down Home, The Acoustic Coffeehouse, Blue Plum Festival and more
By ANGELA WAMPLER | A! MAGAZINE FOR THE ARTS | May 31, 2011Down Home
300 W. Main St., Johnson City, Tenn.
423-929-9822 • www.DownHome.com
The Down Home has been a mecca for fans of Americana music since 1976. The eclectic "listening room" emphasizes music, rather than socializing. Recent concerts featured the ETSU Bluegrass Band as well as Robin and Linda Williams and Their Fine Group. Annually the Down Home presents the Little Chicago Blues Festival and a performance showcasing Nashville singer/songwriters.
The Acoustic Coffeehouse
415 W. Walnut St., Johnson City, Tenn.
423-434-9872 • www.AcousticCoffeehouse.net
The Acoustic Coffeehouse opened in 2003 as part of a project to renovate an old building on Walnut Street near East Tennessee State University. The project now includes an adjacent building which is used as an all-purpose venue called Next Door.
The Coffeehouse focuses on the art of relaxation. The eclectic space is filled with mismatched tables and chairs, a cozy couch against a wall and a bookcase crammed with CDs by various artists. Visitors quietly chat while the espresso machine brews and music fills the air.
"My background as a musician had a lot to do with the way the Coffeehouse got set up," explains Jim Benelisha. "I've played the cello and guitar since the age of 10, so I was aware how difficult it is for aspiring performers to find venues that allow inexperienced entertainers, people who are not used to getting in front of people, to perform. We intended to create a relaxed atmosphere for musicians, and the result is a very relaxed atmosphere for everyone. People frequently tell me that they think of the place as their living room, and it has the feel of a type of 'free zone' where it's easy to meet and talk with people that you might not spend time with otherwise."
"One thing we didn't anticipate was how many musicians — either solo acts, small groups or bands — are touring at any given time and are looking for venues to perform in. Our schedule is booked up several months in advance because of this demand," Jim continues. "We have a wide variety of performers, from singer/songwriters to honky-tonk bands to rock bands. Although it is the 'Acoustic' Coffeehouse, we do allow electric music."
Jim has played cello in the Johnson City Symphony Orchestra for more than 30 years, and with several different ensembles for weddings and other special occasions. He plays quite often at the Coffeehouse, sitting in with touring acts. He says, "I let them know beforehand that I'm available to play the cello, and many of them take me up on it. I'm able to play by ear and 'wing it' if necessary. There are also a few local performers that I play with regularly at the Coffeehouse: Marshall Ballew, Mal Cooper, The Butcher Covers, Charlie Ray, and Cole Akin."
Jim concludes, "One of our hopes in starting the Coffeehouse was that it would help bring about more of an Asheville-like atmosphere in Johnson City. We thought, because we are so close, it was inevitable that some of their arts and music-oriented businesses would do well here, and we wanted to help make that happen. We can't take credit for the arts scene that has developed in Johnson City, but it is gratifying to see that it has finally happened. The transformation that we have seen in the last 30 years is pretty remarkable — from a fairly sterile arts environment to a vibrant one."
The Coffeehouse had a smoke-free, family-friendly atmosphere years before the no-smoking law was passed in Tennessee and offers an open mic set-up for aspiring and local musicians on Mondays from 7-10 p.m. Performances are booked for the remainder of the week at 8 p.m. and 10 p.m., and sometimes at 10 p.m. on Mondays. In addition, the Coffeehouse is now booking week-day (lunch hour) acoustic sets for one or two performers.
Coffeehouse performances this month will feature classically trained musicians, including Adelle Cotton (formerly O Mello Cello Tree), an acoustic folk duo with smoky vocals and lyrical songwriting; and Christopher Bell, who plays acoustic, folk and indie music. Also performing will be Cross Creek Bluegrass, Ian Parker, Kryss Dula & Friends, Union Specific, A Fragile Tomorrow, Martha's Trouble, Folk by Association, The Fledgelings, and more.
The Galaxy Lounge
216 E. Main St., Johnson City, Tenn. 37604
423-232-0975 • www.galaxyloungejc.com
This event space can be used for art exhibitions; poetry readings; performances of music, dance, theater, and storytelling; meetings and fundraisers; seminars, workshops, and more. The Lounge recently hosted the kick-off event for "The View From Here: An Interactive Art Show."
Blue Plum Festival
Main & Roan Streets, Johnson City, Tenn.
Bring your own lawn chair to enjoy the Blue Plum Festival, a free outdoor art and music festival spanning seven city blocks in downtown Johnson City. Sunday events have been added to the 2011 schedule, and festival organizers expect record crowds of more than 80,000 people.
Music is the heart of the festival. Specializing in Americana, Blue Plum has featured regional and national artists such as Doc Watson, Nickel Creek, Sam Bush, the everybodyfields, The Subdudes, the Drew Emmitt Band and Goose Creek Symphony. This year's eclectic sound will range from traditional bluegrass to hardcore punk-rock, from blues to country, ska to jazz.
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Super Chikan will perform during the Blue Plum Festival in Johnson City.
Amanda Shaw will perform during the festival.