ETSU faculty, musicians instrumental in bringing Johnson City Sessions anniversary celebration to fruition

Published 8:35 am Friday, October 11, 2019

JOHNSON CITY — A number of East Tennessee State University faculty and musicians, along with several community organizations, have been instrumental in organizing and bringing to fruition an upcoming celebration of Appalachian music.

“Tell It to Me,” the Johnson City Sessions 90th Anniversary Celebration, is coming to downtown Johnson City on Saturday, Oct. 19, from 11 a.m.-10 p.m.

The Johnson City Sessions were historically significant recordings of Appalachian music made in Johnson City by Columbia Records during 1928 and 1929. Among the 100 performances were the earliest commercial releases of several country and old-time music standards that strongly influenced musicians not only in those genres, but also folk, bluegrass, rock, Americana and others. Some of the songs included Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo-Coo Bird,” Charlie Bowman and His Brothers’ “Roll On Buddy,” Byrd Moore and His Hot Shots’ “Three Men Went A Hunting,” Bill and Belle Reed’s “Old Lady and the Devil,” the Bentley Boys’ “Down On Penny’s Farm” and the Grant Brothers’ “Tell It to Me.”

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The complete recordings from these sessions were compiled in the award-winning four-CD boxed set titled “The Johnson City Sessions, 1928-1929: Can You Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” Dr. Ted Olson, professor and American roots music instructor in the ETSU Department of Appalachian Studies, co-produced the boxed set and co-authored the accompanying book, all of which were published by the German company Bear Family Records.

Olson and others played key roles in planning the Oct. 19 celebration, which will be held on Main Street in downtown Johnson City. This free public event features old-time and Americana music acts on the main stage, kid-friendly music and square dancing at a children’s stage, a record fair, talks by guest speakers and more.

The day begins with a Johnson City Sessions panel discussion on the main stage at 11 a.m. featuring Jim Bowman, Colin Escott, Bob Cox, ETSU old-time music instructor Roy Andrade and Olson. The panel will be moderated by Kris Truelsen, an alumnus of ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies program and leader of the local old-time band Bill and the Belles.

The music will kick off on the main stage at noon with Martin Walters and the 1920s Jazz Band. Walters, a Grammy Award-winning producer and engineer, is a lecturer of Jazz Studies in the ETSU Department of Music.

The day continues with performances by several acts, many of which have ties to ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies, including the ETSU All-Star Old-Time Band, Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, Hunter Holmes and Corbin Hayslett, Little Nora Brown, the Brother Boys, and Bill and the Belles. ETSU alumna and Johnson City-based singer and multi-instrumentalist Amythyst Kiah will take the stage at 7 p.m., followed by Grammy Award-winner Dom Flemons at 8 p.m. and folksinger Willie Watson at 9 p.m.

Performers on the Kids Stage between noon-5 p.m. include Rockingham Road, the ETSU Old-Time Band, Addie Keene and the Caldwell Sisters.

A kick-off concert event will be held the night before the celebration. The Tim O’Brien Band will perform at the Down Home, 300 W. Main St., from 8-11 p.m. Tickets for this show are available for $30 each by calling Down Home at 423-929-9822. This event will also be a record release party for the new album, “Tell It to Me: Revisiting the Johnson City Sessions, 1928-1929.”

The “Tell It to Me” celebration is sponsored by the Johnson City Sesquicentennial Commission, Johnson City Convention and Visitors Bureau, Tennessee Department of Tourist Development, Downtown Marketing Association, Johnson City Press, Bear Family Records and ETSU’s Center for Appalachian Studies and Services.

For more information, contact Olson at 423-439-4379 or