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Bluegrass Department Turns 40

IN 1982, LEGENDARY BLUEGRASS MUSICIAN JACK TOTTLE set out to accomplish something that had never been attempted at any other four-year university.

What Tottle did: Initiate what is today the Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies Department at East Tennessee State University.

GETTING STARTED

When Tottle pitched the idea of starting a bluegrass program, many education officials across the United States dismissed the notion. Such musical styles were simply not appropriate for university-level study, they said.

Tottle and others persevered nevertheless.

Bluegrass program founder Jack Tottle plays the mandolin.

Bluegrass program founder Jack Tottle plays the mandolin.

Photo by Ron Campbell

In the early 1980s, university officials realized that there was a profound education gap when it came to students and their understanding of country and bluegrass music.

One student asked: “Oh, did Hank Williams, Jr.’s daddy play music, too?”

As a result, the department launched what became a popular course titled “History of Country Music.”

MOVING FORWARD

As ETSU professors moved to educate students and the community about the history and cultures surrounding country and bluegrass music, graduates of the program were performing well – an important reality that helped elevate the status of the program.

In the 1980s and 1990s, writers mentioned ETSU alumni in a range of publications, including the "New York Times" and "Chronicle of Higher Education."

Warner Brothers Records signed alumna Jennifer McCarter and her twin sisters. Between 1987 and 1990, they enjoyed considerable fame with three songs on their first album showing up on the national Billboard Country Music charts. They appeared on Dolly Parton’s television show and toured as an opening act for Kenny Rogers.

The 1980s ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band performs.

The 1980s ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band performs.

Photo by Ron Campbell

ELEVATED STATUS

Only a few years after the program was formed, ETSU students began appearing at a range of prestigious venues. ETSU bands performed at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Folklife Festival, and NATO’s headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, among many other locations.

Graduates, including star Kenny Chesney, have captured major awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association, the Academy of Country Music, and the Country Music Association.

ETSU Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies Director Dan Boner introduces student performers.

ETSU Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies Director Dan Boner introduces student performers.

Photo by Larry Smith

CELEBRATORY CONCERT

In October 2022, the department held a concert celebrating the anniversary at the ETSU Martin Center for the Arts. The festivities featured a reunion of alumni bands from the 1980s, 1990s, and early 2000s, along with current ETSU faculty and students. Some of the performers included former program director Raymond McLain, J.P. and Leona Mathes, Becky Buller, current program director Dan Boner, artist-in-residence and mandolinist Mike Compton, Roy Andrade, Beth Lawrence, and the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band.

Two big names – Tottle and Chesney – received honorary doctorates.

Jack Tottle shakes Dr. Brian Noland’s hand after receiving his honorary doctorate degree, as ETSU alumnus Kenny Chesney applauds.

Jack Tottle shakes Dr. Brian Noland’s hand after receiving his honorary doctorate degree, as ETSU alumnus Kenny Chesney applauds.

Photo by Larry Smith

“It cannot be overstated the influence ETSU has had on American music over these past 40 years,” said Boner. “ETSU students and alumni have impacted the music world, performing on the largest international stages and garnering hundreds of industry awards.”

Chesney, one of the most well-known names in country music and a 1990 graduate of ETSU, accepted the honor from ETSU President Dr. Brian Noland.

To learn more about the department, visit etsu.edu/bluegrass.

O.J. Early is a Marketing and Communications Specialist in ETSU’s Office of University Marketing and Communications.