A! Magazine for the Arts

ETSU alumnus and Grammy award-winner Adam Steffey taking a solo with Jack Tottle- Bristol, Tenn., 2011

ETSU alumnus and Grammy award-winner Adam Steffey taking a solo with Jack Tottle- Bristol, Tenn., 2011

ETSU's Bluegrass, Country & Old-TimeMusic Program

March 27, 2013

Daniel Boner, the current director of the Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music program at East Tennessee State University, has been involved in the program in many ways during the last dozen years. He began as a student in 2000, working toward a bachelor's degree in music and playing in the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band.

"I grew up in New Jersey learning, playing and teaching privately bluegrass music from an early age," Boner says. "The program at ETSU first came to my attention through my high school freshman English teacher, Jim Messore, who attended ETSU in the early days of the program. He knew that I was a bluegrass musician, and he told me all about Jack Tottle's program that boasted alumni such as Alison Krauss' band members and Kenny Chesney. Around my junior year, I applied and was accepted.

"I was an active member of the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band from the very first semester," Boner says. "Being in that band and working closely with Jack Tottle and Raymond McLain was a life changing experience. We performed all across the country at hundreds of prestigious venues, such as the 2003 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. International tours took us to Japan in 2001, NATO headquarters in Brussels, Belgium in 2003, and England and Scotland in 2005.

"Needless to say, textbooks alone cannot provide the type of education one receives through experiences of that nature, and I am eternally grateful to have been at ETSU at the right time. I earned my bachelor's of music in spring 2006, and started as an adjunct instructor for the program that fall. ETSU hired me the next year as assistant director of the program, and I replaced Raymond McLain as program director when he left the university in 2010."

Boner's international travel and musical growth didn't stop with graduation. He says that one of the more noteworthy professional musical experiences he has had in bluegrass music happened in 2003 by working with ETSU's visiting Japanese scholar, Takeharu Kunimoto, who plays bluegrass music on the traditional Japanese shamisen.

"We recorded three albums and performed across the United States and in Japan from 2003 through 2006, sharing bluegrass music with some diverse audiences in our travels," Boner says. "We did not work the same bluegrass festival circuits as most bands do in this country. Instead, we were sponsored by the Parco Theater Company in Japan, which set up a number of major tours featuring a show mixed with Kunimoto's traditional rokyoku storytelling followed by a bluegrass show. It was pretty neat to be a part of that."

Those three albums with Kunimoto are just a few of the more than 50 recordings that Boner has worked on, including his 2007 solo album, "The Gospel Way." He has performed onstage with many bluegrass and Grand Old Opry stars, including Ralph Stanley, Jesse McReynolds, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs and Porter Wagoner.

All of the faculty are practicing musicians in addition to being teachers. Adam Steffey, mandolin instructor, is a five-time Grammy Award winner and seven-time winner of the International Bluegrass Music Association Mandolin Player of the Year. Hunter Berry, fiddle instructor, joined Rhonda Vincent and The Rage in 2002. Before that, he performed with Melvin Goins and Doyle Lawson. Ted Olson has written, edited or co-edited 15 books and produced two documentary albums. Ed Snodderly, songwriting and dobro and guitar instructor, is a Sugar Hill recording artist with the Brother Boys and Jerry Douglas. He is also an actor who played the village idiot in "Oh Brother, Where Art Thou," in addition to successful roles in touring productions. Jane MacMorran, who teaches Celtic music, is the former U.S. National Scottish Fiddling Champion. You can find similar accolades for each of the more than 20 faculty members who mentor students in the program.


Jack Tottle began the program at ETSU in 1982. It has since grown into one of the largest university programs in the country to focus on this style of music. In 2005, ETSU began to offer a minor in bluegrass, old-time and country music. In 2007, they added Celtic music. In 2010, the program admitted its first candidates for a bachelor's degree in the program.

"Our first graduate in fall 2011 was dobroist Brent Burke who was hired by bluegrass veteran Rhonda Vincent and made his debut performance with her on the stage of the Grand Old Opry one week prior to receiving his diploma," says Boner. "To say that he has set the bar very high would be an understatement."

In 1982 when Jack Tottle initiated the program, no four-year university had attempted anything like it. Tottle had worked throughout the years with artists such as Bela Fleck, Mark Schatz and Pat Enright and had written books and instructional materials for bluegrass instruments. "He approached the administration about offering a bluegrass band class, individual lessons and a history of country music course. The university agreed, and it has existed ever since," says Boner.

"I think the early days were pretty rough for Jack," Boner says. "Not because of him, but because of the obstacles he faced at every turn. Some colleagues at the university saw the offering of bluegrass in higher education as some type of novelty that was sort of fun as an extra curricular activity. Others were even vehemently opposed, believing strongly that these musical styles were altogether inappropriate for university level study. It is because of Jack's great determination and vision that the program grew in spite of those who wanted to see it go away.

"Jack determined that the best way to teach bluegrass music, even at the university, should be reflective of the ways in which the music had been passed down for generations before. He felt strongly that "classicalizing' bluegrass music would not earn the program any respect from students and bluegrass professionals. This is not to say that he wanted the program to be easy. Jack was as demanding of intellectual thought and hard work as any good professor on campus," Boner says.

The program is still demanding. In addition to core requirements, the bachelor's degree requires 45 credit hours of courses such as bluegrass and country music theory, seminars, bluegrass history and contemporary survey, recording technology, band, individual or vocal instruction and Capstone recording or band leadership. Each student is required to perform and to attend performances as well. There are 77 students working toward bachelor's degrees in the program, 60 to 70 with a minor concentration and a large number of non-degree students who simply want to benefit from the classes.

"We are teaching 245 individual instruction lessons per week this semester," Boner says. "In total I believe we have a head count of approximately 200 students who are registered for our courses."

In addition to individual instruction, ETSU now has 41 bands. New students audition and are placed in band classes. "Each band performs on at least two occasions per semester at any of the eight performances hosted by our program," Boner says. "But these eight performances are just a small portion of the shows we perform. Bands that have the ability to work up longer sets may perform in more than a dozen performances during a semester. We do between 80 and 100 shows annually at venues ranging from local senior centers to the Carter Family Fold, Rhythm and Roots, the governor's mansion, performing arts centers in other states, bluegrass festivals and even multi-week international performance tours.

"Maintaining a heavy performing schedule is important to our program and students in many ways. We are able to generate substantial revenue for the program through performance fees. This money supports our operating expenses with a portion reserved for student performance scholarships. Each student earns a $90 scholarship for each performance they do for our program beyond their mandatory requirements. Students who participate in these service activities for ETSU must dedicate a great deal of time away from part-time jobs, and this scholarship can help make a difference from them."

Paul Leech, who supervises three country music bands, takes groups to play at The Acoustic Coffeehouse twice a month on the first and third Thursday. They will also perform at The Down Home April 31 and May 1. Leech says that some of his students work at the coffeehouse and that's what inspired him to start taking students to that venue. "Ed Snodderly at The Down Home is also a faculty member and, of course, Down Home is well established as a hot spot for roots music." Leech says that students may originally be placed in a band; but all the faculty work with the students to make sure they are in a band that meets their needs. "There's a lot of communication," Leech says.

Appalachian Studies

Students in the Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music program are under the auspices of the department of Appalachian studies now, rather than the department of music.

"There can be some obvious and fundamental differences in the ways that various styles of music are experienced and exchanged," Boner says. "By 1999, it was evident that after 17 years in ETSU's department of music, our program would need to operate under new administration in order to grow and thrive." Initially, the program moved to The Center for Appalachian Studies and Services under the direction of Dr. Jean Haskill; and the program gained momentum. It stayed in the center until 2008. Then the university created a new academic department of Appalachian studies in order to offer the bachelor's degree.

One of the initial struggles the program had was to overcome the stereotype that bluegrass music was old-fashioned, blue-collar entertainment. The folks in the program worked diligently to help educate faculty, staff and the community about the importance of their music. It was not long after the program's beginning that ETSU alumni were mentioned in publications as varied as Bluegrass Unlimited, Sing Out, Acoustic Guitar, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the U. S. Congressional Record, and the New York Times. Then alumni began to show up on the national music scene and students began performing at prestigious venues, such as the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C.

After more than three decades, there is no doubt that it is a true living art form. The prestige and respect with which the music is regarded far from its original birthplace helped many residents of the region look on bluegrass and country music in a new and more positive light.

Leech says, "One of the things that Appalachia is known for is the music that comes from the region. So it makes sense to me that we're part of the Appalachian studies department. Music really changed people's perception of the region, because this is such a wonderful musical tradition. It changes the way people see this region because of the positive and challenging music. It's a lot more challenging than it gets credit for. When people see how challenging and how rewarding the music is, it helps change some of the negative stereotypes people have about the region."
The Celtic music portion of the program also fits into the Appalachian studies program. "If you dig deep into the roots of old-time and other forms of traditional music," MacMorran says, "we find a link to the music of Scotland and Ireland. One of our goals is to educate well-rounded students in their knowledge of the music they play. This makes Celtic music a good fit in our program and in Appalachian studies. We are excited about the future of Celtic music at ETSU."


Students come from all over the globe to study with Boner and his colleagues. "Many from the Tri-Cities area and neighboring states have had the advantage of learning these styles of music where it originated," Boner says. "Others have attended festivals and concerts in their respective areas of the country and played in communities of music lovers. We have had international students from Norway, Sweden, India, several from Japan, Scotland, Canada and New Zealand.

"Our first-ever Iranian student, Erfan Rezauatbakhest Rezai, started this past January. He is a traditional country music lover and decided to come to ETSU to study the music where it began. Erfan has shared with me that the Iranian government does not allow American country music to be performed in his country, and that coming to ETSU has changed his life in ways that many of us cannot possibly understand. It is humbling that this program, conceived by Jack Tottle and nurtured by countless individuals over the past 31 years, has impacted so many lives in powerful ways.

"To Jack's credit, the program attracted talented musicians from the area who soon went on to make names for themselves in the music business," Boner says. "Tim Stafford, Adam Steffey and Barry Bales worked together with Alison Krauss and Union Station. All were Jack's students at ETSU. Beth Stevens, Jennifer McCarter, Becky Buller, Hunter Berry, Darrell Webb, Beth Lawrence and dozens more sought out Jack and the program. A young man approached Jack one day in his office about learning to play guitar. That student, Kenny Chesney, is now one of country music's most celebrated artists."

The students in this program work hard and have demanding performance schedules, and they also record. The Celtic band recorded an album, "A Carrying Stream," in 2011. The ETSU Bluegrass Band released "Testing Tradition" which features 12 original songs written and performed by the students. "Track twelve on the album was co-written by Norwegian bluegrass student, Signe Salvesen," says Boner, who produced the album. "Such wide geographic and cultural separation creates a vast difference of influences among the student artists."

"Orient Express," a video documentary of the ETSU Bluegrass Band's initial Japan tour, is the first commercially available DVD focusing on the bluegrass and country music scene in a foreign country. The U.S. government's Voice of America shot footage of the ETSU band's appearance at the A. P. Carter Family Fold, interviewed the students and then produced a special which they overdubbed in Mandarin Chinese for distribution in Asia.

The student bands have also performed across the world. The Celtic band played in Scotland and Ireland. Other bands have played in Belgium, Russia, Germany, the Czech Republic, Japan, England and across the United States.
Even with all the travel, performances and recordings, Leech says his favorite part of working with the students is their spirit of cooperation. "For a bunch of youngsters, I'm really appreciative of how supportive and non-competitive they are, especially in music which is a really competitive reality. They cooperate and approach it in a positive way, making sure everyone gets a chance to do their own thing - equally."

MacMorran says her favorite part is watching the students grow. "I love the end of semester performances and seeing and hearing the progress the students have made since the last time I heard them. It is great to see them gain confidence in their abilities and gain poise in performance settings."

Boner says the most rewarding parts of the program are "the people, the music, the relationships and the sharing of knowledge and experiences. The knowing that there is finally a place in higher education where these musical styles can be studied and celebrated; the realization that all varieties of art and music, no matter how different in meter, rhythm, melody, harmony, lyricism or educational approach are valuable and important beyond measure to those who love them; these are the reasons why I love bluegrass, old-time and county music studies at East Tennessee State University."

Jack Tottle's legacy is thriving at ETSU.

Jack Tottle is performing on the Big Island of Hawaii