NPR's Mountain Stage records historic Johnson City Sessions episode at ETSU

Tony Casey • Nov 8, 2013 at 10:38 AM

When the “ON THE AIR” sign lit up in bright red Sunday night at the D.P. Culp Center on East Tennessee State University’s campus, it was showtime.

National Public Radio’s Mountain Stage with Larry Groce recorded its 803rd episode Sunday night at ETSU while paying tribute to the Johnson City Sessions, which were being released in a special box set over the course of the weekend.

Wayne Winkler, director of WETS, the Tri-Cities’ public radio station, spoke of the magnitude of musical history in the region to kick things off.

“We have a wonderful tradition of music in the Tri-Cities region,” Winkler said. “A big chunk of American music history is in this area.”

Winkler was referencing Charlie Bowman, a fiddler whose songs made up a great portion of the 1928-29 sessions, which were recorded less than a mile from ETSU’s campus. Bowman’s family was represented through its descendants and honored in front of the packed crowd, as they had been all weekend long. They were also honored by having ETSU’s Old Time Pride Band play some of Bowman’s music for the audience.

The band played just as you might imagine, in an old-time fashion, behind a single microphone. The group is made up of members from the Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies program at ETSU, the only one of its kind at a four-year college, and was highlighted for its uniqueness by Groce throughout the night.

Mountain Stage is a program based out of Charleston, W.Va., and is put on with the help of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and with the help of The Birthplace of Country Music and ETSU, was able to bring its show on the road. Mountain Stage had graced the area in the past by visiting Bristol, but never Johnson City. But that doesn’t mean it hasn’t been a staple for local music lovers. Winkler said he looked back and said WETS had been playing the program since January 1987.

Crowd participation, especially in the form of applause, fueled the production.

Producer Adam Harris said clapping is what makes Mountain Stage special.

“Your reaction is what makes Mountain Stage unique,“ Harris said.

The episode is slated to air on around 140 NPR stations on the first weekend of December.

The crowd had many chances to clap with the internationally known talent performing from the stage.

Old Man Luedecke was the first performer, and he brought his special style all the way from Nova Scotia. He especially drew applause with his banjo and “yodeling” songs. He was happy to be a part of the production for the first time, and was impressed by the crowd.

“I’ve traveled a lot farther to play for a lot fewer people before,“ he said.

After Old Man Luedecke, it was The Deadly Gentlemen, then the Old Time Pride Band that took the stage, with world-class musicians Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott and Sarah Jarosz set to follow.

Earlier in the night, there was a VIP Gala on the second floor of the King Centre in downtown Johnson City, where guests were treated with an performance from another ETSU band, Gone Fishing, and songs from the Old Time Pride Band with members of the Bowman family, all while enjoying tasty foods and drinks.

Johnson City Press columnist Bob Cox, who served as a historian and representative of sessions’ families, was caught off guard and honored for his work in the project.

“I’m speechless, and I’m never speechless,” Cox said. He said the Johnson City Sessions box set is a treasure for music lovers, and should be treated as such.

“Garner the gold in this box set,” Cox said.

He and Mayor Ralph Van Brocklin shared historical information about the area in between performances.

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