For almost thirty years, East Tennessee State University has been known for its efforts to promote and preserve traditional Appalachian music. Under the initial supervision of Jack Tottle, then Raymond McLain, and now current program director Daniel Boner, the original but limited instrumental instruction and band classes have grown into one of the largest university-sanctioned music programs in the country to focus on this style of music.
In the spring of 2006, the Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music program at ETSU further expanded from providing several traditional music courses to an academic minor in the subject. Since that time, the program has been approved to grant the first official four-year Bachelor of Arts degree in Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies.
Supported by the Tennessee Board of Regents and the Tennessee Higher Education Committee, this unique program has grown exponentially in a very short time. According to Boner, the number of students who have decided to declare the major in its short existence is “astonishing,” with enrollments greatly exceeding initial predictions and expectations. As of October 2011, 61 students have declared the Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies major, a number which surpasses estimates projected for the major’s fifth year.
This program is overseen by an all-star list of faculty members, including multi-award-winning artists such as Adam Steffey and Hunter Berry, who conduct over 240 individual lessons weekly. 28 bands, in which students can polish their performance skills, also meet regularly for credit.
All bands are required to perform a minimum of two times per semester, and many of these bands perform at large events on regional, national, and international stages. In past years, program bands have been invited to perform at the Smithsonian National Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, and in tours of nine foreign countries. In fact, this last summer three groups from ETSU performed in Europe: the Bluegrass Pride Band in Germany, the Old Time Pride Band in the Czech Republic, and the Celtic Band in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Scholarships specific to the program are presented yearly. Recently, the ACMA/Leon Kiser Memorial Scholarship was established to provide one year of in-state tuition to a BGOTCMS major or minor. Last year’s recipient, Dwayne Anderson, currently plays bass for Darin and Brooke Aldridge. The latest recipient is yet to be announced.
Students may also apply for Public Performance Scholarships which waive the additional cost of out-of-state tuition.
Many program students also perform in East Tennessee, or with traveling bands. Some of them have begun releasing their own albums, a number of which were recorded in the ETSU Recording Lab, engineered by Recording Lab Manager Ben Bateson. Recent products of the recording lab include solo projects by students Trae McMaken and Haley Stiltner, while the ETSU Celtic Band finished their album A Carrying Stream this past summer. The program director is also eager for more projects to be released in the near future, with a compilation of student-written material expected shortly.