MECC alive with the sound of mountain music

Mike Still • Jul 26, 2019 at 10:00 PM

BIG STONE GAP — Computer labs, art rooms, staff lounges and lecture rooms at Mountain Empire Community College’s Goodloe Center turned into rehearsal studios over the past five days.

The 15th annual Mountain Music School filled those rooms with 121 students from age 10 to 80, as experienced musicians from Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina shared their love of Appalachian music and instruments.

Program director and MECC Director of Library Services Mike Gilley said the Mountain Music School became an attraction for music enthusiasts across the region under prior director Sue Ella Boatright as they honed their skills and shared the area’s musical culture.

Before her death, Boatright steered the school into its current workshop format. Gilley took the reins six years ago, and the school continues as one of MECC’s popular mountain culture events.

Gilley said the school fits well with his degree and interest in music ethnology, as he also oversees the college’s Appalachian cultural archives.

A tour through Friday’s workshops showed students and instructors intent on polishing skills before the school’s closing concert that afternoon. Even with those last-minute preparations, instructors and participants found plenty of time to talk shop and enjoy playing music.

Butch Ross of Chattanooga worked with the school’s dulcimer workshop, as students Ann Marrs, Abigail Morgan and her grandfather Oran Morgan, both from Florida, practiced a few tunes.

Ross said that even with the dulcimer’s Appalachian traditional links, the instrument adapts to a wide range of musical styles. He recalled playing at a festival with nationally acclaimed dulcimer player Ted Yoder, who can be seen on YouTube with his family and pet raccoon playing music of the Eagles, the Beatles, Tears for Fears, Broadway shows, classical works, religious standards, gospel, folk and several other genres.

“Ted and I played Journey’s ‘Don’t Stop Believing,’ and he brought out two huge mullet wigs that we wore,” Ross said. “We went to town on that song.”

Oran Morgan is in his third year attending the Mountain Music School.

“I first came here playing the autoharp, and this is my third year trying to improve,” Morgan said with a grin. “(Abigail) plays some of the songs better than I do, and I have a degree in music.”

As Gilley showed the various workshops — banjo, autoharp, guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass, vocals — each class had a mix of children and adults of all age ranges playing and learning together. Many of the instructors are regulars in country, bluegrass and folk bands across the region.

Banjo instructor Kelley Breiding comes from Crumpler, N.C., but she has been a regular at MECC’s fall Home Craft Days and found herself teaching at the Mountain Music School. Student Mackenzie Mackie from Bryan, Ohio, discovered his interest in the banjo after attending Dr. Ralph Stanley’s annual festival.

Banjo instructor Tyler Hughes, when not working as a Big Stone Gap town council member and a Realtor, can be found performing at events in the region. Big Stone Gap native Rhodyjane Meadows, now a Roan Mountain resident, laughed and enjoyed two new colors of lipstick that a student gave her.

“Yesterday, they gave me some pickle relish,” Meadows said with a laugh.

Richard Phillips retired from MECC as its dean of instructional technology a few years ago, but he was teaching guitar students Friday on the finer points of chord changes. Chris Rose, another regular in the region’s traditional music scene, enjoyed a guitar joke when he realized the last name of one of his students, Nathan Fender.

“Can I come over there and stand by you so I can say I had my picture taken with a real Fender?” Rose asked.

Grady Woods, who has attended the school several times, had to take this summer off because of a shoulder injury. He still enjoyed watching his three triplet granddaughters at this summer’s school.

“One plays the doghouse bass, one plays the fiddle and mandolin and the other plays the guitar and banjo,” Woods said. “The best part is how you can come here every year, enjoy it and learn something new.”

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