For many students who have taken classes in Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies at East Tennessee State University over the past decade or so, taking a band class or instrumental lesson with Colleen Trenwith was a highlight of their time at ETSU. Trenwith, who was recognized in the wider bluegrass world for her years playing fiddle with New Zealand’s Hamilton County Bluegrass Band, had become known in more recent years as a kind and giving teacher who went out of her way to work with and help those who were lucky enough to become her students.
Trenwith, 74, passed away January 24, 2021, at her home in New Zealand, after a short battle with pancreatic cancer. She had retired from ETSU just last May, at which time she had returned to her native New Zealand to spend time with her family. Since they have shared news of her passing, former students and colleagues have taken to social media to share memories of Trenwith, all with the common theme of a woman whose generosity, honesty, and compassion will be remembered as much as her musical prowess.
Trenwith originally trained as a classical violinist, but easily switched to the bluegrass style upon joining the group that would become the Hamilton County Bluegrass Band in the late 1960s. The group as a whole worked to emulate the classic bluegrass style of such groups as Flatt and Scruggs, but Trenwith in particular was a Kenny Baker aficionado who became acclaimed for her ability to perform in Baker’s style.
The Hamilton County Bluegrass Band quickly became a sensation in New Zealand after being hired as the backing band for The Country Touch, a weekly music television program. After several years and several successful albums, the group embarked on national tours, as well as tours of Australia. The band visited the US for the first time in 1971, making appearances at several festivals, including Bean Blossom, and the Grand Ole Opry, where they were warmly received by fans and fellow musicians.
Trenwith came to east Tennessee in 2007 with the intent of studying in ETSU’s Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies program, but soon also became an instructor there. She eventually taught a wide range of courses within the Appalachian Studies department, including fiddle instruction, bluegrass and country student bands, artistic seminars, and American Roots Music. She earned an undergraduate degree from the university in 2015, which she then followed with a graduate certificate in Appalachian Studies in 2019.
Trenwith’s family has announced that they will hold a private family funeral this week, with a public celebration of life to be held in the near future. They ask that anyone wishing to honor Trenwith’s memory offer donations to the Cancer Society or to Hospice in lieu of flowers.
Rest in peace, Colleen Trenwith.