Johnson City set to celebrate 90th anniversary of musical milestone

Brandon Paykamian • Sep 12, 2019 at 8:00 PM

When it comes to the development of American bluegrass and country music, the famous Bristol Sessions often immediately come to mind as the most influential recordings. But the Johnson City Sessions also played a significant role in that story, as well.

Immediately following the Bristol Sessions, the Johnson City Sessions of 1928 and 1929 were among the first country and old-time music recordings in American history, often credited with influencing generations of eclectic musicians, including Doc Watson, Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia and many more.

On Thursday, officials and members of the East Tennessee State University community gathered at Fountain Square to announce an upcoming Johnson City Sessions 90th Anniversary festival, commemorating 90 years since the second set of recordings. The festival will take place Oct. 19 from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. in downtown Johnson City.

“What happened in Johnson City was truly magical,” Ted Olson, a professor in the ETSU Department of Appalachian Studies, said ahead of the announcement following a brief performance by the ETSU Old Time Ramblers.

“We’re here in 2019 to celebrate the Johnson City Sessions,” he said. “Many music critics have come around to recognize the Johnson City Sessions as one of the most important location recording sessions of the 1920s and ’30s.”

The Johnson City Sessions were recorded by Columbia Records producer Frank Walker in downtown Johnson City during two separate week-long sessions. After the 1928 sessions sold well, Walker traveled back to Johnson City in late October 1929 for another series of local recordings. Among the iconic tracks featured in the Johnson City Sessions were Clarence Ashley’s “The Coo-Coo Bird,” Charlie Bowman’s “Roll On Buddy,” the Grant Brothers’ “Tell it to Me” and more.

“This is a great story for Tennessee,” Dave Jones of the Tennessee Department of Tourist Development said. “Music is something that brings us all together, and it brought people together here in Johnson City for this spectacular event ... it brought prosperity to a lot of the people.”

Olson, who has also worked as co-producer of a Johnson City Sessions box set, said the upcoming festival will celebrate what he said was once considered a forgotten story in American music.

“It’s forgotten no longer,” he said.

Oct. 19th’s live music lineup, which will begin at noon and continue until 9 p.m. on Main Street, will include several national and local acts, including Martin Walters and the 1920’s Jazz Band, the ETSU All-Star Old Time Band, Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, Hunter Holmes and Corbin Hayslett, Little Nora Brown, the Brother Boys, Bill and the Belles, Amythyst Kiah, Dom Flemons and Willie Watson, as well as a discussion panel about the Sessions at 11 a.m. and Kids’ Stage events set to run from 1 to 4:30 p.m.

For more information on the upcoming festival, visit https://www.facebook.com/johnsoncitysessions, which includes a link to the event webpage.