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Take a musical step back in time with Big Lon

Suzi McKee • Aug 27, 2018 at 4:30 PM

After graduating from the University of Tennessee with a degree in finance, Lonnie Salyer never dreamed his life would take a musical turn - one that would impact not only his life but the lives of future generations in the Tri-Cities.

Lonnie had always liked music and after participating in Leadership Kingsport in 2011, the seed was planted for making a concentrated effort to give back to the community in which Lonnie had grown up. The Dobyns-Bennett High School grad had collected a variety of things as he grew up: sports cards and Beatles and Rolling Stones music to name a few. But his thirst for the historical aspect of music and recording studios in the area started Lonnie on a journey that has brought him to a new chapter in his life.

“About three years ago, I was looking on eBay for a CD of Sticks McGhee who was a blues guy from here in Kingsport,” Lonnie began, “and I ran across a 78-rpm record that was listed from Kingsport Records. I knew about Trail Records here in town because a distant cousin owned it but learning about another recording studio really stirred my interest.”

With this one find, Lonnie set about to begin research to learn as much as possible about the history of early music in this area.

Two of the first things he learned was that between 1946 and the early 1980s, there were about 18 recording labels and studios between Rogersville and Big Stone Gap, Virginia. “Most of these records, companies and artists have very little documentation on them,” Lonnie continued, “so my mission is to discover the musical heritage of our area one dusty old record at a time.”

Lonnie’s musical step back in time is driven by a passion for preserving the history of the music industry in the Tri-Cities. He’s become somewhat of an expert and continually searches in flea markets, antique stores and old record shops for labels and artists from this area. He currently owns two 78-rpm records that are the only known copies in the world, but he stresses that he values the historical preservation more than the monetary value of his collection.

Because of the growing interest in his work, Lonnie has created a Facebook page called, “Big Lon’s Crateful Dig.” It’s a play on words, he explains, because record collectors go “crate digging” looking for elusive labels and artists.

“I just thought it was a catchy title and as more information about my passion spreads, my following continues to grow,” he added. Lonnie uses the Facebook page to gather information from people in the Tri-Cities and beyond who have intimate knowledge of a band, a band member, or a record that is found in someone’s attic.

Lonnie was invited to join the founders of The Ernest Tube, a business in Bristol with a sister facility in Cleveland, Ohio, for their Open House during Rhythm and Roots last year. Lonnie played some of the local records that he’s collected and received a lot of attention from the crowd in attendance. Kris Truelsen, Director of Radio Bristol, was impressed with Lonnie’s knowledge and collection of local recordings and invited him to do a live radio show that has evolved into “Diggin’ with Big Lon.” Broadcast from The Birthplace Of Country Music Museum on WBCM 100.1 FM, Lonnie’s show features local, original, vintage records from the 45 and 78 rpm format.

“The show is featured on Thursdays at 5 p.m. and is streamed to 130 countries around the world. You can also listen to it at listenradiobristol.org or with a smart phone app. The coolest part is they let me play what I want - soul, garage rock, country, bluegrass, gospel, all local records,” Lonnie continued.

In addition to the radio show, “Big Lon” plays a live 45 rpm show at Elderbrew in Bristol from 7 to 9 p.m., the last Thursday of each month. With exposure on the web and contact from an ETSU Appalachian Studies Program professor, Lonnie has begun working with a record company in Germany to assist them with the compilation of a historical collection that will be released soon.

“It’s really come full circle. I have avid music fans from all around the world contacting me about artists and records from the Tri-Cities and surrounding locales. I’m a brand ambassador, if you will, for Appalachian musical culture.” The local community has recognized his passion as well. Lonnie has been a guest blogger for the Birthplace of Country Music Museum and was recently named to the board of directors of the Kingsport-based Appalachian Cultural Music Association and Mountain Music Museum.

“I have a passion for what I do,” Lonnie explained, “I’m not just a collector; I want to know the story behind the band, the record, and how the recording came into existence.”

And what will become of the hard work that Lonnie Salyer has devoted to the musical heritage of our area once he’s finished with it? “I want to leave my work to a local museum or archive so that future generations can learn more about the important role our area played in the music industry of America,” Lonnie said.

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