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ETSU Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies program celebrates more than 35 years

Brandon Paykamian • Mar 31, 2018 at 12:37 AM

When Jack Tottle founded the East Tennessee State University Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies program as its sole instructor in 1982, he couldn’t have imagined that the program would blossom into the successful, world-renowned program that it is today.

At that time, Tottle said there had never really been a comprehensive bluegrass program at a four-year university before. When he reached out to Richard Compton, the former chairman of the music department, the two decided to give the idea a try, because of the cultural significance of bluegrass and old time music in the region.

“It’s amazing how far people have come to study here. Initially, we got students from this area, and then it started to expand,” Tottle said. “It has been exciting to see people from different backgrounds – as far as the Middle East, India and Northern Europe – coming to study here.

“It’s really a testament to the cultural heritage of our area and the music speaking to people from various backgrounds.”

The program held a Bluegrass, Old Time, Celtic and Country Music celebration Friday night at the Millennium Centre, which featured live music from alumni, current students and current and former faculty, as well as a performance from Tim White, the host of the Tim White Bluegrass Show and longtime contributor to the ETSU music program, who performed with his band, Troublesome Hollow.

Other performances included Becky Buller with Tim Stafford and the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band, Amythyst Kiah and Roy Andrade, and Tottle’s performance with Stephanie Cole, Beth Stevens, Tim Stafford, Adam Steffey and Dan Boner, the program’s director.

Since its founding, Tottle said the program has produced dozens of successful old time, bluegrass and country music artists — many of whom have been recognized and nominated for National Bluegrass Association awards and involvement in various Grammy-nominated works.

The program has been producing stars and recording artists since its inception, including Jennifer McCarter, Barry Bales, Kenny Chesney, Hunter Berry, Beth Lawrence, Megan McCormick, Angela Oudean, Adam Steffey and Darrell Webb.

At Friday’s ceremony, special recognition was given to Tottle and White, who Boner said both played a huge part in the growth of the program with their Benny Sims Memorial Scholarship. 

“He (Tim White) and Jack Tottle started the Benny Sims scholarship, and the first award was back in 1998,” he said. “Since that time, we’ve had other donors who have wanted to establish scholarships here at ETSU.”

Over the years, Tottle said he has “felt vindicated” to see that the regional culture is being “appreciated instead of being swept under the rug,” due in part to the growth of the program. 

“Reflecting on the last 35 years, I think one of the things that has been a strength of the program is that we’ve been able to do outreach into the community and get people to support the program,” he said. “People who grew up in this area and who like bluegrass and old time music have supported us a lot.” 

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