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Famous Johnson City Sessions to be celebrated in weekend festival

Jennifer Sprouse • Oct 9, 2013 at 5:10 PM

Starting out as a set of old recordings that were virtually forgotten and overshadowed through the years, the Johnson City Sessions of 1928 and 1929 will soon be reintroduced to the region through a weekend celebration.

The 1928 Johnson City Sessions –– a four-day period in October of that year –– recorded a variety of local musicians at 334 E. Main St., in what used to be the Marshall Brothers Lumber Co. building, and the 1929 Sessions were just recently discovered to have been recorded in the Loaves and Fishes white brick building connected to West Main Street Christian Church in downtown Johnson City.

Some of the notable musicians that recorded in the two separate Sessions included Charlie Bowman, Clarence “Tom” Ashley, Clarence Greene and the Roane County Ramblers.

Jointly hosted by East Tennessee State University and the Birthplace of Country Music, the Johnson City Sessions Weekend will be held Oct. 17-20.

“This has gone from being a story that nobody knew anything about to an event that the whole community, in fact the whole region, is embracing as relevant and interesting,” said Ted Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies at ETSU and co-producer of the “Johnson City Sessions 1928-1929: Can you Sing or Play Old-Time Music?” CD box set.

“Personally, having been part of that whole process, (I) couldn’t be more happy that we’re approaching the release of the box set and these wonderful events in Johnson City coming up. It’s nice to see these wonderful recordings made long ago and the fascinating people who made them finally getting their recognition.”

Olson said there will be a free Sessions event hosted at the Carroll Reece Museum at ETSU at 4:30 p.m. Oct. 17, where his colleague, Tony Russell, will give a presentation.

“We’re bringing him to ETSU on Thursday afternoon to talk to student and community members,” he said. “He’ll talk about his experiences ... documenting forgotten figures in country music history and Appalachian history and music history.”

The ETSU Old-Time Pride Band will be present at the museum to perform a selection of songs from the Johnson City Sessions.

At 1 p.m. on WETS-FM 89.5, Olson, Russell and Richard Weize, CEO of Bear Family Records, which produced the box set, will all go on the air to discuss the significance of the recordings, and the ETSU Pride Band will perform songs during the radio program.

Olson said the box set will be officially released Oct. 19 at 7 p.m. at the Down Home, 300 W. Main St.

For $20, participants of the record release party will hear music by Hello Stranger featuring Dale Jett, The Corklickers, The ETSU Blues Band, The ETSU Old-Time Pride Band and the Bowman Family Band, a Birthplace of Country Music news release said.

On Oct. 20, the celebration will continue at the Venue at the King Centre, 300 E. Main St., at 5 p.m., with a Boots, Blues, and BBQ VIP Gala Event.

Olson said 20 or more descendents of musicians who recorded the Sessions in 1928 and 1929 will be attending, and said the gala will be a time for those families to mingle and share stories.

The event is open to the public and refreshments will be served.

The big finale of the Sessions Weekend will conclude that same night at 7 with a taping of the “Mountain Stage with Larry Groce” radio show.

The release said “Mountain Stage” will be held at the Martha Street Culp Auditorium at the D.P. Culp University Center at ETSU, and an edition of the two-hour radio show will be taped for NPR stations nationwide.

Some of the musical acts performing will be Darrell Scott & Tim O’Brien, Sarah Jarosz, Old Man Luedecke, The Deadly Gentlemen and the ETSU Old-Time Pride Band.

Anita DeAngelis, director of the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at ETSU, said ticket sales have really picked up for the event.

She said tickets are $30 in advance, $35 at the door and $25 for ETSU students with a valid student ID. DeAngelis said ticket discounts are also available for groups of 10 or more.

“The music that came from this region is really important to ETSU and even the academic departments in our institution, especially with the Department of Appalachian Studies and with Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies,” she said.

“To be part of a celebration like this is pretty significant for ETSU and our programs. We’re really pleased that the Old-Time Pride Band will be performing on stage with ‘Mountain Stage,’ and we’ll have some national broadcast time as well. That just speaks to the quality of the music that comes out of our academic program.”

The release said a gala event ticket and a “Mountain Stage” ticket can also be purchased in a package for $75.

Leah Ross, executive director of the Birthplace of Country Music, said they’re excited to bring “Mountain Stage” to ETSU, as well as celebrate the Sessions at the various events scheduled throughout the weekend.

“We’re very excited about Saturday night at the Down Home because that’s going to be the official release of the box set and that’s such an iconic venue in Johnson City, so it only seemed natural for us to do that,” Ross said. “I think it’s going to be a great weekend with lots of music and I think it will bring a lot of attention to Johnson City and the role they played in the music of our region.”

Olson said he’s received a lot of emails from people all over the world interested in the Johnson City Sessions and said his first hope for the weekend is that the people participating have a good time and will help celebrate the lost story of Appalachian music and culture.

“My second hope is that the Sessions ... become part of the everyday discussion of the story of ... the roots of country music and bluegrass music. The Johnson City Sessions are a wonderful collection of recordings and the overall story is fascinating,” he said. “It’s in some ways a more complete story of how to make a field recording session in Appalachia in the 20s than even the Bristol Sessions. In other words, our box set probably creates more of a portrait of what happened in Johnson City than is possible to portray for the Bristol Sessions.”

“Even though no superstars were discovered in the Johnson City Sessions, the records made in Johnson City are more varied,” Olson said. “They represent ... different types of music. There’s a wider range of instrumentalists here and different types of musicians here in Johnson City than in Bristol. This story certainly deserves to be talked about in pretty much the same light as being ... very important (in) understanding Appalachian music and the roots of country and bluegrass music. I hope the story will continue to attract new listeners and a new generation of music fans.”

The news release said tickets for the box set release party can be purchased online only at www.BirthplaceofCountryMusic.org. For more information, call 573-1927.

VIP and “Mountain Stage” package tickets are also being sold online at http://www.etsu.edu/martin.

Individual gala tickets can be purchased by calling 439-8587, and the deadline to purchase tickets for the gala event is Friday at 4 p.m.

According to Olson, copies of the Sessions box set can be purchased at Nelson Fine Art Center, in Bristol at the Birthplace of Country Music and at online retailers.

For more information, visit http://www.BirthplaceofCountryMusic.org.

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