Bluegrass Raleigh

Bluegrass goes to college at East Tennessee State

East Tennessee State offers degree in Bluegrass music

East Tennessee State University leads country with music program.
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East Tennessee State University leads country with music program.

Room 306 in Brooks Memorial Hall looks like a pretty standard college classroom, until you notice the acoustic enhancements.

Look up and you’ll see canvas baffles hanging from the ceiling. And you might also notice the canvas-covered rectangles between windows on the walls and in corners, to break up standing waves.

Acoustics aren’t so much of a concern elsewhere in East Tennessee State University’s Appalachian Studies department. But sonics are very important in the rooms given over to the department’s Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Program, the oldest established program of its kind at any four-year institution in the nation.

When the International Bluegrass Music Association’s World of Bluegrass opens its annual festivities in Raleigh this week, the East Tennessee bluegrass program will be well-represented – with students, faculty and alumni playing on stages all over town. But before that, the East Tennessee classrooms are where the hard work of practice and learning take place.

A recent harmony-singing class found a half-dozen students breaking down vocal arrangements for “Boil Them Cabbage Down,” an old folk song from the days of slavery, and the Carter Family spiritual “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?”

“Want to do it in G or E?” instructor Brandon Green asked, tuning a guitar. “I’ll let you pick … E? Well, OK, although I like G better because E is harder to play – for a nonguitarist.”

Green added, “A lot of this is not getting you awesome at all the parts so much as just familiarizing you with them. Some people can do all the different parts great – but not many, and that’s not the point of exercises like this.”

He began to strum, walking around the room and conducting with nods to each group – lead, tenor, baritone – as he played “Circle.”

There’s a better home awaiting

In the sky, Lord, in the sky …

After a few verses, Green stopped playing to let the students continue singing a cappella. Despite his earlier caveat, it did sound pretty awesome.

Banjo and bass

One of the student singers was Jamie McDermott, an Arizona native with D, B, G, D and G tattooed on his right knuckles – tuning for a banjo. At 34, McDermott is at least a decade older than most of his ETSU classmates. His path to get here was circuitous.

“I was a geologist, so I upgraded – figured there was a banjo fortune out there,” he said, then laughed. “Mostly, I just didn’t want to work for big oil. The only offers I was getting were from Exxon and BP.”

As he spoke, McDermott packed up his notebooks and gear. He’d brought his bass to class because he was headed to Bristol for a gig afterward with a band so new, it didn’t yet have a name.

That’s typical. There are about 40 student bands in the program, and just about every student is in more than one, often playing multiple instruments.

“I’ve actually been playing a lot more bass than banjo lately,” McDermott said, looking down at his knuckles. “So I might need to get ‘G’ and ‘E’ tattooed on my other hand.”

A big presence

It’s not unusual for East Tennessee’s bluegrass program to be at the center of things during IBMA in Raleigh. Among the nine East Tennessee alumni and faculty nominated for 2015 IBMA Awards is Adam Steffey, up for mandolinist of the year – an award he’s won 11 times.

There’s also Becky Buller, who is nominated in seven different categories. When she plays her “Bluegrass Ramble” club showcases Wednesday night, Buller’s band will include her fellow nominee Dan Boner, also an East Tennessee graduate who is now chairman of the bluegrass department.

Elsewhere onstage throughout the week, you’ll see East Tennessee people in groups including Alison Krauss’ Union Station, Blue Highway, Earls of Leicester, Grascals and Volume Five. And the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band will play Friday afternoon on the Wide Open Bluegrass street festival’s Youth Stage.

East Tennessee wasn’t the first school in the nation to offer bluegrass classes, but it was the first to offer a four-year baccalaureate degree with exclusive study of bluegrass, starting in 2010. The program dates back to 1982, when journeyman mandolinist Jack Tottle was passing through the Tennessee Triangle of Johnson City, Bristol and Kingsport and thought it looked like just the place for an academic bluegrass program.

“Jack saw all the music and history in this area and asked the university if they’d let him teach some classes,” said Ron Roach, chairman of East Tennessee’s Appalachian Studies department. “That’s how it started, and it’s grown from there.”

Academics, too

Early on, East Tennessee’s bluegrass program was just a few classes in the music department. But it steadily grew, with classes such as History of Bluegrass alongside hands-on instruction.

By 2006, it had enough heft to become a minor and move from the music department to Appalachian Studies, finally becoming its own major in 2010. It’s an academic degree, not a vocational program, so students have to take the same core classes as anyone in the university’s college of arts and sciences.

“It’s not just the music, it’s academics as well, which surprises a lot of people,” said Roach. “There are times the students wish it was just the music.”

There are about 80 full-time bluegrass majors at East Tennessee, some from as far away as Iran. Students in other majors take bluegrass classes, too, “and a lot more people come around to learn how to play,” said Roach.

“Years ago, we had a guy quit a medical practice in New Delhi, India, to come here and learn mandolin,” Boner said.

While students come from far and wide, a lot more are from nearby. One is Colton Powers, a 20-year-old junior from Kingsport, 25 miles up the road. Based on his choice of T-shirt – heavy-metal band AC/DC’s “Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap” – banjo is not what you’d expect him to be playing.

“I didn’t grow up on bluegrass and really only started listening when I began actively playing it,” Powers said. “That was about five years ago at Christmas, when my grandparents gave me a ‘canjo’ as a gag gift – a stick with dulcimer frets, one string and a spam can on the end. My dad saw me taking an interest, trying to remember old songs I’d heard him play, and he surprised me with a banjo one day. I was not good at first, it took a while. But I practiced six-plus hours a day until I’d get it.”

Teaching and playing

East Tennessee’s bluegrass program is spread out among three different buildings on campus, with classrooms, practice spaces and a recording lab. Student bluegrass bands are a familiar sight at area gatherings, including the campus farmers market.

“I’d encourage you to sign up and play there,” professor Lee Bidgood told his History of Bluegrass class. “It’s not paid, but – free food!”

The department’s main hub is the third floor of Brooks, where photo murals depicting various students and alumni line the walls. Look hard and one face you’ll find is the biggest mainstream country star of the past decade.

“Kenny Chesney came in one day and asked Jack Tottle to give him some guitar lessons,” said Boner, the bluegrass department chairman. “He went on to discover the musical community on campus, and he was in some early bands. There are some old, old videos of him playing that will probably never be seen by the public. But I’ve heard him say his goal in music was to create a show he would’ve wanted to go to. Seems like he succeeded.”

Chesney is obviously a commercial outlier, but a fair amount of other East Tennessee bluegrass alumni have gone on to have solid careers in the bluegrass world. Some of those alumni also wind up coming back to Johnson City to work with the program as teachers.

“We try to give an idea of what’s out there, to be realistic,” Boner said. “There are only so many people who can play for Rhonda Vincent or Doyle Lawson at a time, where you’re earning a living just from playing. Otherwise, musicians have to wear many hats. A lot of our faculty members are a good example.”

One of those multitasking faculty members is Steffey. He teaches mandolin at East Tennessee State and is also developing a new class on the business of bluegrass.

“You can learn a lot about life sitting knee to knee with Adam Steffey taking mandolin lessons,” said Boner. “He dropped out of school to join Alison Krauss & Union Station, went back and got a degree later, and now he teaches here. One student was so nervous about his first lesson, and Adam noticed he needed new strings. So that first lesson was Adam changing his strings and showing him how to do it. It was almost biblical, like washing the feet.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi