Reflections On Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music at ETSU
By Jack Tottle | March 27, 2013In 1982 I contacted the new chair of the ETSU music department, Dr. Richard Compton, about the possibility of teaching a beginning guitar class or two on a part-time basis. We talked over my background including my experience as a professional bluegrass musician and author. It was decided that I'd offer classes in beginning guitar (later to be joined by intermediate guitar), individual instruction on guitar and mandolin, a History of Country and Bluegrass Music course and one Bluegrass Band performing ensemble.
Although bluegrass was outside his personal field of interest (he was a classically trained wind instrument player), Dr. Compton recognized bluegrass music as an important element of East Tennessee's (and the entire region's) heritage. He was ready to boldly take the initiative to see whether-despite minimal funding to support it-bluegrass might prove successful at ETSU.
There was no master plan involved. It was more like planting a new kind of tree in an unfamiliar environment. You have no idea if the nutritive elements in the soil will be sufficient, whether predators will destroy it before it can bear fruit, whether it is the beginning of a lovely orchard or whether it's destined to be flattened by bulldozers.
My view at the time was: "You can't force anything to happen. However, why not try to think of everything you can do which could result in a positive outcome for the students? After that, it's out of your hands."
Despite the regional bluegrass connection it soon became evident that quite a number of people, both within and outside the university, were by no means convinced that bluegrass music performance and academic study was appropriate to a four-year university.
Bill Monroe, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and the Stanley Brothers, and their contemporaries who developed the style we now call bluegrass had very little formal education. They came from rural communities looked down on by much of American society as poor, isolated and backward. On the other hand, anyone with an ear for what they were creating was sure to be amazed and delighted by the innovative music they played with such imagination, confidence, taste and flair.
Let me be clear. I've always held in the highest regard the best of our academically trained writers, thinkers, scientists, artists, musicians, musicologists, historians and inventors. Our civilization would not be what it is today without them.
Nevertheless, to reflexively look down on hardworking, tough, talented and intelligent people-just because they do not possess high social status, do not speak with the diction of a television news anchor, and/or are possessed of less material wealth than many educated city-dwellers-always struck me as not only uncharitable and unfair-but actually quite foolish.
There is no question that anyone who has the opportunity for a college education will do well to seize it and focus on the opportunities it affords. The degree opens doors that we might otherwise find closed to us. I would suggest, however, that at the same time we show profound respect for the achievements of those who have succeeded without it.
During the 1980s I heard comments from a few folks in the region to the effect that "Our kids have heard that old bluegrass stuff all their lives-we don't need it in our schools." One radio station executive said: "I wouldn't insult our listeners by playing that stuff for them."
In 1984 Ricky Skaggs had a #1 country hit with Bill Monroe's bluegrass classic song "Uncle Pen." A disc jockey from an important country radio station visiting our History of Bluegrass and Country Music class was asked by a student why his station wasn't playing Skaggs' recording. "Well," said the DJ reluctantly, "it's not felt to be appropriate for our demographic" (meaning, of course that even though it was at the top of the county charts it was "not country enough" or perhaps "too bluegrassy". A few of our students-including Jennifer McCarter (see below)-got a bit red in the face and I sensed they'd like to strangle him!
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For about 10 years I was virtually the only teacher of bluegrass, old time and country music at ETSU. I was also the sole administrator, music director, spokesperson, publicist and events coordinator for the program. However, I was still working as a part-time adjunct faculty member.
One program milestone came in 1988 when I produced a very favorably-reviewed album, "East Tennessee." It was released on Now and Then Records by ETSU's Center For Appalachian Studies and Services. The disc featured ETSU Bluegrass Band members singing and playing their own compositions. It included such present day award-winning professionals as Tim Stafford (Blue Highway), Adam Steffey (The Boxcars) and Barry Bales (Alison Krauss and Union Station) before the bluegrass world outside our region had heard of them.
Also in 1988 ETSU alumna and former Bluegrass Band member Jennifer McCarter-singing with her younger twin sisters as The McCarters-scored #4 and #5 on the country charts respectively with "Timeless and True Love" and "The Gift," both cuts from their very first Warner Brothers album. On a later return visit to ETSU, the McCarters spoke to our History of Bluegrass and Country Music class and went to lunch afterwards with a few of our top students.
One of those students-later to become a country music superstar-was a sophomore named Kenny Chesney, who had learned his first guitar chords in our beginning guitar class. "If the McCarters can do it," Kenny remembers thinking at the time, "just maybe I could do it too."
Kenny Chesney was also an ETSU Bluegrass Band member when we toured Soviet Russia in 1990 for the Moscow Folk Arts Festival. It was just before communism collapsed there. Kenny and the rest of us gained numerous insights during that tour regarding the facts that a great many Russians are wonderful people when you meet them face to face and the old communist system was just a terrible waste of resources, human and otherwise.
Perhaps our most unforgettable lesson came after several of us-along with our delightful college-age woman Russian guide and translator-had been wandering the streets of Moscow on foot doing some sightseeing. By early afternoon everyone was getting tired and hungry. I thought, "Why don't we go to a nice hotel and get a really good meal?"
At the hotel we heard, "You can't eat here because you're not staying at the hotel." Then we heard, "OK you're visiting Moscow for the Folk Arts Festival. You can eat, but," [as we started to enter the dining room] "it will cost you $50 a piece." In 1990s money that was even more outrageous than it would be today. We left.
Our group discovered, to our amazement that the streets of the capital of one of the world's most powerful nations contained practically no restaurants. The thousands upon thousands of office workers in the surrounding buildings ate in their own workplace cafeterias, which were closed to the public.
By now our group was getting really exhausted, pale and shaky with hunger. Finally our translator remembered a couple of little cafés not too far away that might possibly serve food. By that point we were almost ready to eat shoe leather.
The first café had a sign in the window that said, "No tables available." "Ask them when they'll have a table," I instructed our translator. She came back and reported, "they say they won't have any tables available." "Never?" I asked in amazement. "That's what they say," she replied.
It had started feeling a little bit like Alice In Wonderland by this time. We tried the other café and got the exact same response.
"Tell them," I said to the translator, "that if they don't let us in and serve us food they are going to have eight Americans who are here at the invitation the Moscow Folk Arts Festival passed out from hunger on the sidewalk in front of their café and that they are going to have to explain that to their bosses."
Suddenly the café without tables was ready to serve us. As we entered, we were so fixated on getting some food that it took a few minutes for us to realize that the place was only about a third full.
"What in the world is going on?" I said a bit sharply. "Why did they say they have no tables when they do?" Our sweet young translator looked at me as though I must be really stupid. She smiled and said-almost as if she were speaking to a young child-"They don't want to work, of course!"
Sometimes the real world is the best teacher. It all made perfect sense. The government owns everything; the employees get paid the same whether the café is busy or not. No tipping is allowed; that would be too much like capitalism. Thus, no incentive to work. Multiply the effect of this philosophy across an entire country in every kind of work situation and no wonder the Soviet Russian economy was falling apart.
Those of us who get annoyed with the inefficiencies and inequities in our own system-with both private enterprise and government playing major roles-could benefit from first hand experience with systems elsewhere in the world. Many of them make ours, by comparison, look like a model of fairness and efficiency.
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Returning to the history of the ETSU Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music program: In 1993 my position was upgraded to that of full-time tenure track faculty. Seven years later the extremely able and prodigiously hardworking Raymond McLain filled a newly approved second tenure track position as the program's assistant director. The same year the program moved from ETSU's Music Department to a new home in the Center For Appalachian Studies and Services. (The program is now part of the recently created Department of Appalachian Studies.) Enrollments, which had been growing ever faster since the mid 1990s, began to accelerate even more in the 2000s.
Students were arriving from across the U. S. and from various foreign countries to study bluegrass and old time music at ETSU. Concurrently our students were offered opportunities to play repeatedly in Japan, as well as in Scotland, England, Canada, at the National Folklife Festival in Washington DC, and at NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium.
In 2006 after more than two decades at ETSU I retired. Raymond McLain then directed the program until 2010 when he accepted an offer to direct the Morehead State University Traditional Music Program in Morehead, Kentucky. Since that time Dan Boner has headed the program with similar dedication and energy.
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Looking back, I'm so glad that, amid all the other activities, I was able to make time for two art projects which continue to be displayed at ETSU. Neither of these were universally popular ideas at the time, but have, I believe, come to be viewed quite positively.
The first, ALL In the Family II dedicated around 2002, is a mural painted by Marianne DiNapoli Mylet. It is based on a print by Willard Gayhart, called ALL In the Family I, which I commissioned privately. The concept was to recognize and applaud various African-American musicians-and one Hawaiian-whose important contributions to bluegrass and country music are still not as widely appreciated, as they deserve to be. Among a number of examples we see exceptional black artists like Bessie Smith, Arnold Schultz, Louis Armstrong, Arthur Crudup, etc., juxtaposed with the major country, old time or bluegrass artists they inspired, influenced or collaborated with — respectively Bob Wills, Bill Monroe Jimmie Rodgers and Elvis Presley.
The second art project is a series of 10 large photomurals, which hang in the corridor outside the Bluegrass Suite in Brooks Memorial Hall called, collectively, The Walls Of Time. Designed in collaboration with the late Sam Mays, hundreds of photos portray the first generation of musical pioneers whose work underpins today's bluegrass music as well as tomorrow's. Intermingled with these are pictures of ETSU bluegrass students and faculty dating from the inception of the program in 1982. The idea is that everyone who plays bluegrass music, at whatever skill level, is an integral part of a great American musical movement, which is vastly larger than any one of us.
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I'm profoundly grateful for the opportunities I've had at ETSU. Many people have played crucial roles the program's success, some briefly, others over extended periods of time. Foremost among those who deserve credit include Dr. Paul Stanton, Dr. Roy Nicks, Dr. Wayne Andrews, Dr. Bert Bach, Dr. Wilsie Bishop, Dr. Roberta Herrin, Dr. Gordon Anderson, Dr. Don Johnson, Dr. Jean Haskell, Dr. Mike Woodruff, Dr. Rebecca Pyle, Dr. James Stafford, Dr. Wayne Bailey, Dr. Norma Meyers, , Dr. Rick Churchill, Larry Smith, Jim Sledge, Jennifer Hill, John Fleenor, Karen Sullivan, Tisha Harrison, Jim Hunter, Karlota Contreras-Koterbay and each of the present and past faculty members of the Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Program as well as the staff of the Center For Appalachian Studies and Services. Working with ETSU students over the years has been a challenging and enriching experience for which I'm likewise thankful. Special appreciation goes to ETSU Bluegrass Band alumnus Tim Stafford-a wonderful musician, singer and songwriter-for his unwavering support, generosity with his time, and for sharing reliably excellent ideas about learning bluegrass, teaching, and suggestions regarding the structure of the program at ETSU.
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Currently I'm fortunate to live on the lovely Big Island of Hawaii and to perform with three friends who have caught the serious bluegrass bug over the last few years. I now have the time and inspiration to write new songs and tunes, usually at least two or three every week. My musical friends happily soak up the new music like sponges. Much of what we perform-as the band Bluegrass Jack-is drawn from these newly written tunes.
Other joys of Hawaii include fresh tropical fruit from my wife Lin's trees, lots of good weather, watching the annual whale migration, and occasionally hosting old friends and family from the U. S. mainland. I highly recommend that everyone plan to live long enough to retire!
Panel from the "Walls of Time" photomural series. Those pictured include Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Don Reno, the Osborne Brothers, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Patsy Stoneman, Jim and Jesse McReynolds, etc.