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Preserving Appalachian culture is a way of life for Grammy-nominated Ted Olson

Amanda Marsh • Jan 24, 2013 at 1:17 AM

An interpreter isn’t limited by language.

"We think of an interpreter as someone who interprets language, but I see it in a different light," said Ted Olson, a professor of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University.

Olson is devoting his entire career to translating and preserving Appalachian culture. His involvement in countless projects surrounding Appalachian writings and music has led him to three Grammy Award nominations and made him a prominent spokesperson for a culture that’s often misunderstood.

"I’m trying to interpret Appalachia to a larger audience of people who might not understand its complex history," Olson said.

Olson’s academic pursuits have allowed him to publish several works and even appear in documentary films. Last year, Olson released a book of poetry titled "Revelations" in addition to "The Hills Remember: The Complete Short Stories of James Still."

Still is a well-known contributor of Appalachian literature. Olson says his work on these projects is just part of his obligation to serve Appalachia.

"I suspect it’s kind of a calling, even though I may not want to admit it," Olson said with a laugh. "Someone has to speak for Appalachia and, if I’m called to do so, I do it as happily and willingly as possible."

Earlier in his career, Olson published a complete discussion of folk culture surrounding the southern Appalachians called "Blue Ridge Folklife." He also produced a collection of old time music recorded in Bristol, Tenn. and Va. that coincided with two books he co-edited dedicated to understanding The Bristol Sessions of 1927, the so-called "Big Bang of Country Music." The "Bristol Sessions" recordings collection resulted in two Grammy Award nominations.

Most recently, another collection of folk music from the Great Smoky Mountain National Park has gotten Olson a third Grammy nomination for "Best Historical Album." The project originates from recordings that were gathered from the inhabitants of the Smoky Mountains just before they vacated their homes as the park was being established.

"We greatly appreciate that the people at the Grammys like it," said Olson, who worked alongside John Fleenor, media collections manager at ETSU’s Archives of Appalachia, to complete the project.

With a laundry list of accomplishments, Olson is still happy to take on new projects. His latest endeavor is to compile a Johnson City version of the "Bristol Sessions." He says the four-CD set will feature music recorded during 1928-29 in Johnson City and could be released as early as this summer.

"Every project is different and each one is a new opportunity to learn something," Olson said. "You can’t worry what people will think about a project because then it would be silenced."

In addition to his efforts to document Appalachian culture, Olson also plays old style claw hammer banjo, plus the dulcimer and guitar. He often sings traditional songs and ballads as part of formal talks or for entertainment.

Olson is especially excited when his chance to educate others about Appalachian culture is extended beyond a presentation or performance. He designs and teaches several courses at ETSU, such as "Appalachia and War," which will be offered this summer and will focus on the role this region has played in warfare, and "American Folk Music," which has been taught by Olson for several years. During the winter session of classes at ETSU, he taught a new course called "Coal Mining in Appalachia" that focused on the history and misconceptions of the mining industry in this region.

Olson’s immersion and dedication to Appalachian culture proves that you don’t have to be from Appalachia in order to fully appreciate or understand its origins.

"I would say I don’t take much for granted about Appalachia," Olson said. "It’s a necessary outcome of being born and raised elsewhere."

Olson became infatuated with Appalachia after attending both the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and the National Folk Festival as a child living just outside of Washington, D.C. Meeting master musicians and craftspeople inspired a young Olson to learn more about this fascinating culture.

"I kind of followed what felt like was an interesting direction, all the while I wanted to learn about Appalachia," Olson said. "What I do today is an outgrowth of my own curiosity."

Work at a nature center in West Virginia led Olson to a job with the National Park Service in the Blue Ridge Parkway, along with a short stint at the Smoky Mountains National Park. A doctorate from the University of Mississippi eventually brought Olson to ETSU, where he doesn’t regret one single second of the time he’s devoted to each chapter or each recording.

"When people enjoy what they do, then things are much more likely to flow for them," Olson said. "When people don’t do what they love to do, that’s when time seems to be a problem."

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