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Bridging the generation gap: Local music teacher, student reunite at Down Home

Jessica Fischer • May 3, 2013 at 12:01 PM

When Ron Short helped get Mountain Empire Community College’s annual

week-long Mountain Music School up and running more than a decade ago, he did so

in hopes of preserving an important aspect of local culture for future


"I was concerned about the state of old-time music because there seemed to be

not only no players, but just no interest from young people," said Short, a

Dickenson County, Va., native who spent three decades traveling the world with

his Roadside Theatre company before settling back down in Southwest Virginia and

working with MECC to expand its old-time music program. "That has changed so

much. ... Right now, there’s more young people playing old-time music than

old-timers playing old-time music. For me, it’s exciting to see. I may be one of

the old-timers, but I want to be a part of that. I want to acknowledge that both

these groups come from the same tradition. We’re home-grown. It seems to me when

you’re talking about stuff that’s home-grown — you’ve got home-grown tomatoes

and home-grown music and home cooking — it’s always the best."

On Friday, May 3, Short and his Possum Playboys band will share the stage at

Johnson City’s storied Down Home with one of Short’s former Mountain Music

School students, banjo player Tyler Hughes. Show time is 8 p.m., and tickets are

$12 at the door.

Hughes, now a sophomore in East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old

Time and Country Music Studies Program, will be performing with his own group,

the Empty Bottle String Band, made up of fellow pickers from ETSU — Stephanie

Jeter on autoharp, Kristal Harman on guitar, Alex Moore on bass and Ryan

Nickerson on fiddle.

"We’re trying to be as strictly a reincarnation of a 1930s old-time string

band as possible," he said. "We’re focused a lot on dance music and really,

really early country music — nothing that would be recognizable as country

today, of course. We like to cover songs of all the predecessors of old-time

music, such as the Carter Family, the Blue Sky Boys.

"It’s a way to really get in connection with your heritage in a very

interesting way, something that doesn’t just involve sitting down and reading a

book on the early settlers of Appalachia. It’s the best way to go back in time

without a time machine."

Hughes — the first freshman ever to be invited to play banjo with one of

ETSU’s Pride bands — is now passing his love of old-time music on to the next

generation, both as an instructor at the Mountain Music School, where he began

taking classes as a 12-year-old, and through his involvement with the Crooked

Road project Wise County JAMS, or Junior Appalachian Musicians.

"It’s an after-school based program that teaches students in Wise County

old-time fiddle, banjo and guitar music," he said. "We’ve been going into the

schools at the beginning of each semester and putting together a small concert

just to really get their interest piqued a little bit in the music and to try

and rally some sign-ups, then I’ve been able to go back to the after-school

programs once they’re established and do a little workshop with students and sit

in on a banjo class or two. It’s been really interesting to think that it wasn’t

that long ago that I was on the other side of things."

As for Short, he couldn’t be any more proud of his former student, whose

success he attributes to Hughes’ passion for the music and a willingness to work

hard and pay his dues.

"The last time I saw him playing, I was just so impressed with how much he

has learned and what a good player he is at this stage in his musical career,"

Short said. "Reflecting on my own life, I wish I had been that good when I was

his age. ... If you stated it simply, he’s paid his dues and he’s continuing


Audiences will hear a little bit of everything at tonight’s show, Short said,

from the Empty Bottles’ straight-ahead style of string band music to the

Playboys’ "funky chicken plucking, pig rutting, mud-rolling country music — with


Joining Short in the Possum Playboys are Ben Mays on bass; Aaron Davis on

guitar, vocals and bass; Lisa Davis on rubboard, percussion and vocals; and Gary

McGonagill on drums and vocals.

Last year, the group released "Rooster Named Jack," an EP of six original

tunes, and a music video for Short’s song "Mullins Girls."

"I don’t have a bass boat and I don’t play golf, but I’ve got a band. If I

have a vice, this is it," Short said. "The Possum Playboys is my sort of dream

that I can play any kind of music that I want to, music that I love. I don’t

have to worry that I’m not going to suit somebody. I’m free because I’m not

driven by an idea that I’m going to be famous, I’m not driven by the idea that

I’m going to be rich from playing this music. I am driven to play the music

because I love it."

For more information about the Possum Playboys, find them on Facebook at

www.facebook.com/possumbebop4u. To learn more about the Empty Bottle String

Band, check out their Facebook page at


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