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Mountain music traditions live on in Wise County

Steve Igo • Apr 3, 2013 at 10:59 AM

Mountain Empire Community College has been striking a chord when it comes to keeping the region’s rich musical traditions alive, beginning decades ago with a what is now one of the region’s most vibrant and popular arts and crafts festivals.

"In a way it started with our Home Craft Days Festival because when the college opened there was a commitment to promote our cultural heritage to showcase our traditions and crafts," said MECC Dean of Workforce Development Sue Ella Boatwright-Wells.

"And actually our music classes, and we now have the evening program, started pretty much with a banjo class by Hobart Crabtree. When he started he would have, at the end the semester, his students to bring in a snack or covered dish, and they would have an end-of-semester jam."

A well-known popular local traditional musician and fixture at the "Trail of the Lonesome Pine" outdoor drama, the late Crabtree started something "that sort of grew and grew over the years, so now we have multiple classes, and they all participate in the end-of-semester jam," Boatwright-Wells said.

Crabtree’s simple, single banjo class has also grown into MECC’s traditional music program launched in 2011. Classes currently lead to a career studies certificate, but Boatwright-Wells said hopes are high the program will eventually develop into a two-year associate’s degree program.

"We had, for years, traditional music classes in fiddle and guitar, and we’ve added a few things to it," she said. Class offerings now include recording systems services, shape-note singing, old-time string band, Appalachian dulcimer, clawhammer banjo, fiddle, mandolin, upright bass, traditional music and musicians of central Appalachia, and even a coordinated internship where applicable.

The classes aren’t just informal jam sessions that happen to be in a college setting, or learning how to play an instrument. They include history, regional musicians, influences and performance with emphasize on old time styles found in the central Appalachians.

The recording segment introduces the principles of recording systems and system designs, provides a student with theoretical and practical site locations, includes the study of sound studio design and construction, and covers production costs and retail distribution as well.

The traditional music program is also an outgrowth of the college’s highly popular summer Mountain Music School of the last several years.

The ninth Mountain Music School is slated for July 22-26. Boatwright-Wells said last year’s enrollment of 96 adults and youth reflects not only local and regional interest in traditional music, but across the country.

"For our Music School we have always had a lot of people from out of the area, well out of state really, to come spend the week. I’m thinking 40 percent are from elsewhere," she said. The Mountain Music School has proven popular with kids, and that is paying dividends for the college programs in later years, she said.

"What we are seeing is a lot of the kids who have been in the Music School getting to be in middle school and high school and are still interested in the music, so some of those are coming into our evening classes and enrolling in the program. And some of those then go on to study at a higher level, too," Boatwright-Wells said.

"And, we have kids who have formed their own bands coming out of Music School still in middle or high school, and they are in those classes. Our program is for anybody interested in traditional music or wanting to pursue a career in music, and maybe transfer into a four-year program like [East Tennessee State University]. And a lot of people are interested in the recording aspect of it, so it’s really something to put together a program for people interested in traditional music."

While the traditional music program is still in its infancy, "hopefully if this goes OK we will, in a few years, have an associate’s degree program in place to transfer easily into a four-year program," she said.

If the end-of-semester jams are any indication, a degree program might grow out of the certificate quite quickly. Boatwright-Wells said the jam sessions "usually have 200 or 300 people. It’s something all the classes look forward to."

The larger payoff is to the heritage of the region, she added.

"I think we’re beginning to see, with all the things going on in the regional in addition to what we are doing, that I’m not too concerned like we were at one time what will happen to our musical heritage," she said, "because we are seeing kids getting interested and a lot of venues popping up for our musicians to play, and hopefully this will mean our musical traditions will be around to share for generations and generations to come."

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