Ted Olson stands in front of one of the buildings used to record the music of local artists in the late 20s. (Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Holding on to the only CD box set of the 1928 and 1929 Johnson City Sessions currently in the United States, Ted Olson, said the historic collection of recordings — some of which are rumored to have inspired a folk revival generation with the unique sounds of Southern, white, mountain music — will soon be ready for purchase.
First announcing the box sets arrival in early April at the unveiling of a Tennessee Historic Marker for the 1928 Johnson City Sessions on the corner of East Main Street and Colonial Way, Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies, at East Tennessee State University, said the sets will include a 12-by-12 inch book with photographs of Johnson City from the past and present, some borrowed photos from family albums never before seen, as well as four CDs of the two Sessions.
“All of that was finalized in early April and now the book is published and the box set is awaiting official release in early October,” he said. “It feels wonderful to have it and, of course, the cover features an image of looking down East Main Street from Fountain Square — a photo taken probably in the ’30s — just after the time of the Johnson City Sessions. It includes a discography ... a bibliography and full lyrics of all the songs performed in Johnson City, so people can sing along.”
The 1928 Sessions were recorded at 334 E. Main St,, in what used to be the Marshall Brother Lumber Co. building, and, according to Olson, 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.
“Everybody’s heard of the Bristol Sessions. Even around the world, they’re internationally known,” Olson said. “The Bristol Sessions produced Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family. Very few people really know about the Johnson City Sessions. They were kind of in the shadow of the Bristol Sessions from the beginning.”
Olson said both Sessions were recorded by Frank Walker of Columbia Records just before the Great Depression.
“They never really had a chance to sell as widely as they probably should have because the second part of the Johnson City Sessions were produced immediately before the Great Depression started, so the record industry ... caved in,” he said.
Olson said compared to the Bristol Sessions in 1927, both of the Johnson City Sessions are just as strong in quality, but have a different sound.
“There’s more diversity of music, I would say, in Johnson City,” he said. “Anyone who likes Appalachia, would like to know the unique music captured in Johnson City in 1928 and ’29 because it’s truly an interesting and varied collection of recordings.”
A “Johnson City Sessions Weekend” is scheduled for Oct. 17-20 and will feature numerous activities in which the public can participate.
On Oct. 17, Olson said a reception and Sessions discussion will be held at the Reece Museum at ETSU from 4:30-6 p.m., where his colleague, Tony Russell, will speak on his research into old-time music and his collaboration with Olson and Bear Family Records, which produced the box sets.
Olson, Russell and Richad Weize, CEO of Bear Family Records, also will make press appearances on Oct. 18.
“At 1 o’ clock Saturday (Oct. 19) ... there will be our group talking and being interviewed by Dave Carter for the ‘Studio One’ radio program on WETS-FM 89.5. People can listen to that. In addition to being interviewed, we’ll have music,” he said.
Also that day, a special box set release party is scheduled to take place at the Down Home, 300 W. Main St., at 7 p.m., where participants can purchase their own box set, as well as listen to four musical groups perform.
A VIP Gala has been scheduled at the Venue in the Kings Center in downtown Johnson City, where participants can mingle and talk with family members of the original Sessions’ musicians from 5-6 p.m., followed by a live radio show performance of “Mountain Stage” from West Virginia Public Radio at ETSU’s Martha Street Culp Auditorium from 7-10 p.m.
Anita DeAngelis, director of the Mary B. Martin School of the Arts at ETSU, said the university is one of the sponsors of the “Mountain Stage” concert.
“ ‘Mountain Stage’ has worked with (the) Birthplace of Country Music for quite awhile to perform in Bristol, but because they wanted to celebrate the 85th anniversary of the Johnson City recording sessions. It made a lot of sense to have the ... performance here in Johnson City,” DeAngelis said. “The lineup is really great. Tim O’Brien, Darrell Scott are the headliners and then Sarah Jarosz, Old Man Luedecke and the Deadly Gentlemen are all performing. Larry Groce is the host of ‘Mountain Stage’ and this year happens to be their 30th anniversary, so we’re celebrating lots of anniversaries.”
ETSU’s Old Time Pride Band is also scheduled to perform at the scheduled events on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
“We’re super excited to be involved in this. ETSU has a long history in the bluegrass, old-time and country music areas and so to be able to participate in an event that’s celebrating the anniversary of the Johnson City Sessions ... it’s pretty important,” DeAngelis said.
Leah Ross, executive director of the Birthplace of Country Music, said they’ve hosted the “Mountain Stage” for about 10 years at the Paramount Theater in Bristol, but said the Johnson City location was perfect for this particular project.
“A couple of years ago we did the release of the box sets of the 1927 Session that happened in Bristol and when they came to us about the release of the box sets for Johnson City, we had been wanting to take ‘Mountain Stage’ to ETSU because of the ETSU Appalachian Studies program,” Ross said. “It seemed like a perfect tie in to showcase what they were doing with their music program at ETSU and ... to release this. Our mission at the Birthplace of Country Music is to tell the music of our region and our region really goes way beyond Bristol.”
This Friday, Olson will be at Music on the Square in Jonesborough at 7 p.m. to promote the Johnson City Sessions box set, with the help of musical group, Barefoot Movement.
“They’ll be ... performing ... some selections from the Johnson City Sessions, as well as their regular repertoire of music,” he said. “I’ll be showing them this box set. They can see the book, the CDs, the cover and I will basically tell them the story of the project, how it came to be, and I’ll also tell them about the October events.”
According to a Washington County Economic Development Council news release, tickets for the “Mountain Stage” event are $30 in advance and $35 at the door. A ticket combination, including a ticket for Mountain Stage and the VIP Gala, can be purchased for $75. Individual VIP Gala tickets go on sale Oct. 6.
To purchase either Mountain Stage or VIP Gala tickets, call 439-8587 or visit www.etsu.edu/martin.
Tickets for the Down Home box set release party are $20. For more information on the release party or those wanting to pre-order a box set, can call the Birthplace of Country Music at 573-1927.
According to the release, box sets can also be pre-ordered by calling Nelson Fine Art at 926-2931.