(left to right) Tammie McCarroll-Burroughs and James T. "Tom" McCarroll are descendants of Fiddlin' Jim McCarroll, who recorded with his band the Roane County Ramblers in 1928 and 1929 in Johnson City. (Lee Talbert/ Johnson City Press)
“He was one of the grandest fiddlers that ever was,” James T. “Tom” McCarroll said of his father, Fiddlin’ Jim McCarroll, who recorded with his band, the Roane County Ramblers, in the 1928 and 1929 Johnson City Sessions.
Kicking off the Johnson City Sessions Weekend Thursday afternoon was a presentation and musical entertainment at the Carroll Reece Museum at East Tennessee State University that discussed the Sessions recordings with descendents of the musicians, students, faculty, staff and the public.
Before the festivities, though, McCarroll, along with his daughter Tammie McCarroll-Burroughs, both of Lenoir City, played a few songs with the ETSU Old Time Pride Band, whose members had learned several songs from the original Sessions in Johnson City to play at the event and throughout the weekend.
McCarroll-Burroughs said she was first notified about the box set project through an email from Ted Olson, professor of Appalachian Studies at ETSU, who was working with his co-collaborator and co-author Tony Russell to track down stories and photographs of the recording artists from both Sessions.
“He was asking if we had any pictures to contribute and (said) we would be a part of it (the box set),” she said. “I happily grabbed up everything I had. Unfortunately, we didn’t have a lot of photo documentation, but I passed on what I had willingly ... because I wanted to make sure that my family heritage continued. It means a lot.”
The McCarrolls, both musicians since age 4, said music was always a big part of their childhood.
“It’s just been part of my upbringing,” McCarroll-Burroughs said. “I started playing when I was 4. I played mandolin first and I started playing guitar full-time by the time I was 6. We would go down to granddaddy’s on Friday and Saturday nights and there would be a house full and everybody would be pickin’.”
She said Thursday’s event at the Reece Museum would be the only Sessions Weekend event they would be able to take part in, but said seeing the completed box set was emotional for her.
“Just seeing the box set brought me to tears,” McCarroll-Burroughs said. “I was honored to help contribute the pictures for it and I just think it’s great that not only my heritage, but everybody that participated in the Sessions are honored and remembered.”
Russell, a native of England, gave a lecture and presentation on his career, as well as the challenges of doing research on a project like the Sessions.
In the talk, he discussed in length the importance of the Johnson City Sessions and the significance of the music that originated from the recordings in both 1928 and 1929.
Prior to his lecture, Russell said he thought it was great that people in the region are starting to see the Sessions recordings as part of Johnson City’s cultural history.
“It hasn’t always been that way,” he said. “Often people have not been particularly keen to acknowledge this kind of history. It’s associated with bad old days, with poor folks, with old times, hard times, but I think we’ve gotten past all of that now and we can look at it and say this was important music made by interesting people.”
Russell said when he and Olson started the research on the musicians from the Sessions, they relied on gathering information from family members still in the area and said while took a lot of information from the families during the process, the co-collaborators also feel like they are also giving something back.
“The people get to have an occasion where they can come and people are talking about their ancestors, playing the music, validating it and I ... know, from some of the people that have helped us and have already seen the box set, they are absolutely delighted,” he said. “This was something that was just part of their family history and now it’s part of ... international history.”
Another person excited to kickoff the Sessions Weekend on Thursday was Olson, who had worked a long time on the Sessions box set with Russell and Richard Weize, CEO of Bear Family Records, the record label that compiled and made CDs from the recordings for the box set.
“I feel a great deal of pride that we’re here now (at the Sessions Weekend and box set release),” he said. “Months and months of work went into the preparation of the box set. People can now take a copy with them, listen to the wonderful recordings — 100 in all — from the Johnson City Sessions 1928-29. People can read the book and learn about the musicians, learn about the larger story that was involved with the Johnson City Sessions. It’s all in there.”
“It’s a time to acknowledge what has been done back in the ’20s and the effort to bring them out now. My hope is that the people come to see the Johnson City Sessions ... in the same breath as the Bristol Sessions and the other great early recording sessions from Appalachia,” Olson said.