ETSU faculty responds to No Depression article

One of the longstanding traditions of artistic and literary publications is friendly – and at times, not-so-friendly – debates about matters that concern practitioners and connoisseurs of the arts. In the hey day of British literary magazines, it was quite common to see published poets and authors arguing with one another in letters to the editor, or with the editors and publishers themselves. Some devolved into acrimony and ill will, but they never made for dull reading.

We see less of this sort of reasoned debate in a modern culture consumed with name calling and virtue signalling, but here is an example occurring within our bluegrass community that should be of interest to anyone who cares about the future of the music.

Earlier this week, No Depression ran an opinion column by Ted Lehmann entitled Bluegrass Goes To College, But Should It? Ted is a well-known person in the bluegrass world, blogging for some time about the music on his own web site, and sharing photos and videos from festivals all over the country. He and his wife, Irene, are staples at bluegrass events, including the annual World Of Bluegrass convention in Raleigh, and have dedicated their lives in retirement to helping promote the music.

Lehmann’s column asks a number of questions, ones that seem to challenge the notion that studying bluegrass in college is an effective way to learn the music, or prepare for a potential career in the field. In some ways, his questions mirror a culture-wide re-examination of the need for all graduating high schoolers to attend university, an interesting twist as Ted’s pre-bluegrass career was teaching literature at the college level.

Here’s a representative passage from his recurring column…

Do the available opportunities represent real choices for students, or are they more effective marketing as colleges seek to recruit adolescents burning with a fever to succeed in music? Does a college degree function to offer more choices or narrow opportunities? Are young people interested in becoming touring musicians better served by going on the road after high school rather than investing huge amounts of capital and/or assuming massive debt for a highly competitive profession with relatively few high earners? Should those wishing to attend college see these music programs as minors or electives more suited for future avocation and semi-professional performance while they pursue majors in other departments more likely to provide skills that open more, and possibly more lucrative, career options? Are the students being fooled into thinking that a degree in bluegrass or traditional music can provide a satisfactory living for most, or even many, of its graduates? These are a few of the questions student musicians planning to major in music performance and production should be asking themselves.

As you might imagine, Ted’s column has raised the ire of a number of bluegrass educators, including the staff at the largest and most comprehensive bluegrass program, the Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies department at East Tennessee State University. Rather than respond in writing, they created this video as a rebuttal in the form of a discussion among Program Director Dan Boner, Assistant Professor Nate Olson, and Emeritus Professor Jack Tottle, who founded the program at ETSU in 1982.

They have asked us to share their perspective, in which they both defend their program, which they says is the first to offer a four year bachelors degree in bluegrass performance, and the concept of bluegrass in college more generally.

You might be advised to read Ted’s brief essay before watching the response.

Many valuable points raised on all sides. As always, your comments are welcome.

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About the Author

John Lawless

John had served as primary author and editor for The Bluegrass Blog from its launch in 2006 until being folded into Bluegrass Today in September of 2011. He continues in that capacity here, managing a strong team of columnists and correspondents.

  • Mitchell Reynolds

    Why should Ted care? It is the student’s time and money. There are other benefits to a degree, which, frankly, isn’t that expensive at an in-state school. The credential helps professionally, if for no other reason than demonstrating a level of intelligence and commitment to a goal applicable in any career. Would Sarah Jarosz’ songwriting be as fully informed without her education? Aoife O’Donovan’s? Would Cory and Jarrod Walker have the well rounded chops they display in nationally touring bands that aren’t strictly bluegrass if they had not been exposed to a wider world of music?

    Whether traditionalists like it or not, we are entering a new Golden Age of roots music. These fine institutions are a breeding ground for the development of this age. They give an opportunity to network and for young musicians to find their voices without the pressure of earning a living on the road. If the hidebound won’t open their ears and their hearts to this music, they are the ones missing out.

    • Ben Rapp

      What about Gillian Welch? She learned Songwriting at Berklee…so did John Mayer….both Grammy winners.

  • disqus_dRfSMTesUG

    I think Ted raises good questions. Questions that should be considered by anyone thinking about spending the money and time to join one of these programs. I think the answer is “yes,” there is certainly a place for colleges and universities to have bluegrass, old time, celtic, country, and other roots music programs. I can think of no better way for students to get daily, concentrated time in learning and exploring this music with immediate feedback from a number of people, including other students and faculty with real life experience. I think Director Boner and Professors Olson & Tottle do an excellent job discussing this. …and no, I have no association with ETSU or any of the other schools listed.

    – Lenny Nichols

  • Herbie Beasley

    Man, there must be a rift brewing in BG music today…Professors getting offended because someone’s questioned the validity of going into college loan debt to become a bluegrass player/industry flack, people getting defensive because not all BG fans like all variations of the genre the same (and those traditionalists among us getting beat up for not “liking” and supporting progressive BG music ardently enough, for some reason) or wanting maybe more than 1 BG music channel available to get at more than just the progressive stuff that seems to be playing as much or more than the traditional stuff today…Hope it survives. Personally, I’m offended that 1) nowhere was UNC’s fledgling BG program mentioned in any of this, and 2) People thinking UNC means Univ of Northern Colorado, when it plainly represents the Univ of North Carolina – Chapel Hill. lol

    • Dan Eubanks

      After watching the response I don’t think you could say that any of the professors were particularly put out, they just discussed their program and the philosophy behind it. The problem comes in with the term “fooled”, which obviously casts aspersions on these programs and their intent, and any caring, committed educator worth their salt will be ready to intellectually defend themselves against a rhetorical attack such as that.

    • Ted Lehmann
  • Dan Eubanks

    Sorry for the long post here, this is my fb post in response to the nd article and questions raised, which for the most part I think are appropriate and deserve some answers or at least some informed opinion.

    This is a discussion that can be applied to any fine arts degree program, and has been for a long time as I’m sure the author, (who I believe to be a good, caring, person by the way) knows very well. My response is multifaceted as my feelings about my own degree pursuit and experience are, and I don’t know if I can adequately reflect it here, but I will try, because I think this discussion is critical to our cultural history and future. I’m going to try to avoid a defense of arts education banzai style rumination here, but I am heavily invested so I can’t promise anything.
    First, let’s talk nuts and bolts. No, degrees in bluegrass, jazz, art history, English lit, etc, are not sexy money makers, and they can cost a fair amount. They are not for everyone, in fact, they shouldn’t be for anyone but the most passionate, committed, invested, people for which NOTHING else will do. Is this something that 18 year olds fresh out of high school know for sure? Maybe not, but in some cases, (my own) it absolutely is. I can say for sure that had I not gone through the intensive work it took to earn my Master’s in Jazz Studies, I would not be as viable a candidate for any job as a musician as I believe I am. It wasn’t easy, and yes, I am still paying off loans, but I make more than I ever would have because of my education. Music school teaches you how music works and how to apply it to your discipline, and even multiple disciplines or styles for that matter. You come out the other side of any reputable program with a deep understanding of the principles of music that I’m sorry to say, you just can’t have straight out of high school. So, unless you are an absolute prodigy, you are not ready for road work in most cases at age 18. Exceptions are obviously always in play. There are many paths to a working road band, but in today’s market, having more tools at your disposal and the networking (I can’t stress that enough) that is provided by the programs mentioned in the ND article is indispensable.
    What no music program or educator that I have ever run across does is guarantee you a job upon graduation. If they do, you should run in the opposite direction, that is not how this industry works. What they will do, if you go about it in the right spirit, is help you to become a more complete musician, and by extension, a more complete and informed person, which will always be valuable to a prospective employer in any aspect of the music business. It is not for everyone, and you certainly can have a career without following this particular path, but I have to push back on anyone without specific experience in the field that dismisses higher music education as a viable path to a career, or insinuates that these dedicated, caring professionals that are part of these programs are somehow misleading vulnerable young people with false promises.

    I am not in any way affiliated with any program mentioned in this article to be clear.

  • David Moultrup

    Ted truly stirred up a hornet’s nest with this column. It’s a useful discussion to be had. There are so many layers. Does society benefit from a more educated population? Does the faculty/institution benefit from having students? Does the student benefit in terms of earning potential? Or in terms of self development? Does the art form (bluegrass) benefit from a more educated community? Or does it become more homogenized and faceless?

    There is no argument that bluegrass music, for performers, is an extremely precarious economic perch to be sitting on. There is also no argument that overall the bluegrass universe has a very fragile food chain. There are, of course, the rare exceptions to that.

    The cost of post high school education is a huge social problem right now. Not just for the students who are saddled with the debt upon leaving, but for everyone. Young people can’t afford to buy cars, houses, etc., with the enormous weight of student debt hanging on their shoulders. It creates ripple effects for everyone.

    All of these questions, eventually, demand a level of political awareness and response. A more educated community is necessary to truly address the vast implications these probems pose. There is a strain of anti-political sentiment in the bluegrass community. As if it’s possible to live in the world, pick fiddle tunes, and not have to deal with politics.

    Count me in the crowd with our resident bluegrass philosopher Ron Thomason, and not to mention Hazel Dickens, who look at bluegrass as being a fundamentally political expression. We need to be thinking broadly to truly understand the big picture.

  • Danny Stewart

    As a parent of an 18 year old son, who had the Fever, ETSU was the best place on Earth to be. I never met Jack Tottlle myself, but I had his Bluegrass Mandolin book when I was kid in 1979, 13 years old.
    I tell young kids all through out the country to get there if they can. This is a great topic.
    ETSU helped make my son a better musician in every sense. Keep up the great work. Danny Jr, now plays with the US Navy Band, Country Current.
    The Navy band is now waiting on another ETSU graduate to come out of boot camp to play banjo, Haley Stintner.
    Just another great story of an ETSU graduates. Thanks Dan Boner, Raymond McClain , Jack Tottle and all the others for changing these kids lives and getting them to know how this music is played correctly and teaching the history of the pioneers.
    Hats off to all of you.