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

May 3rd, 2013 11:39 am by Jessica Fischer

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

Ron Short, far left, and his band The Possum Playboys, will reunite with a former student Tyler Hughes at the Down Home in Johnson City.

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 To learn more about the Empty Bottle String
Band, check out their Facebook page at

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