A! Magazine for the Arts

Dr. William Turner

Dr. William Turner

Podcast mini-series sheds light on cultural impact of Black Appalachian music

October 26, 2021

Dr. Ted Olson, an East Tennessee State University professor of Appalachian Studies and Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies, and Dr. William Turner, a noted scholar on African American communities in Appalachia co-host a six-part podcast series, “Sepia Tones: Exploring Black Appalachian Music,”

The podcasts are available on all popular podcast streaming platforms through the Great Smoky Mountains Association’s “Smoky Mountain Air” podcast.

“Dr. Turner and I agreed to collaborate as co-hosts of ‘Sepia Tones’ because we both thought that Black music, an essential part of Appalachian music, is too often overlooked or misunderstood,” said Olson. “We wanted to encourage more open discussion about the significant roles of Blacks in contributing to the creation of Appalachian music, and we hoped to foster deeper appreciation for the achievements of Black musicians from the region.”

Episode one features Loyal Jones, Sparky Rucker and James Leva. Future episodes feature Dom Flemons, Amythyst Kiah, Jack Tottle, Kathy Bullock and Virgil Wood.

Episode two, titled “Driving (and Fiddling) While Black: Appalachian Music at Home and on the Road,” offers a compelling conversation about past and present experiences of Black performers in rural communities as Olson and Turner welcome Earl White, Larry Kirksey and Kip Lornell.

From seeking musical kinship with other Black artists, to finding a life beyond the coal camps of Kentucky, to documenting and preserving the music of mountain communities, each of the three guests in episode two has followed his own unique journey through the rich musical landscape of rural Appalachia and brings an original, captivating perspective to the conversation.

“What Dr. Olson and I have found, not surprisingly to either of us, is how so many of the icons of country music — Hank Williams, The Carter Family, Bill Monroe and Merle Travis — learned their crafts at the knees of Black artists, relatively unknown musical geniuses like Arnold Shultz, DeFord Bailey, Rufus ‘Tee Tot’ Payne, Lesley Riddle, Howard ‘Louie Bluie’ Armstrong and Linda Martell, among others,” added Turner, who credits Olson among his own music mentors. “Speaking of who’s learned from whom, I have literally become a willing learner in the Dr. Ted Olson school of American string band and country blues music.

“This ETSU professor and raconteur, who plays banjo, harmonica and guitar and sings, knows more about the subject matter of ‘Sepia Tones’ than anybody in the world,” Turner continues.

“Sepia Tones” is funded through the African American Experience in the Smokies project in collaboration with Great Smoky Mountains National Park. It is distributed through GSMA’s existing podcast, “Smoky Mountain Air,” and available through Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher, and most major streaming services.