Gospel bluegrass focus starting at ETSU

East Tennessee State University in Johnson City has offered a degree program in Bluegrass, Old Time, Celtic, and Country Music Studies for several years now. For maybe two decades before granting the degree, the program existed as a study focus at the university, and trained many top artists who have gone on to notable careers in our music.

And now a bluegrass Gospel program is in its infancy at the school. Brandon Green, a lecturer on the faculty who also teaches banjo and other instruments to individual students, has been named the Coordinator of Community Outreach and Gospel Music, to both explore the interest of current students in learning more about roots Gospel styles, and to take that music out into local churches and gatherings.

Green says that they have launched a new class this semester in the program, called Gospel Music Heritage, offering 3 credit hours to students.

“We study the history of Gospel music in the United States – black Gospel, southern Gospel, and mountain styles – covering the roots of bluegrass Gospel. There is also a new shape note singing class.

I met with the Arts & Sciences dean, and he is in favor of us doing something with Gospel music. We’ve had different Gospel bands in the program, but this year it’s become a lot more focused. We are taking the The East Tennessee State University Bluegrass Gospel Band, also known as The Zion Ramblers, to SPBGMA this week to enter the band competition.”

Though he has played many types of bluegrass professionally, Brandon’s personal faith has led him to direct his efforts especially if not exclusively to Gospel music, and he knows that there are many potential ETSU students who feel the same way. He attended the National Quartet Convention last year, and found many groups and associations at the event interested in the idea of seeing ETSU expand its Gospel instruction.

If you’ll be at SPBGMA this weekend, be on the lookout for The Zion Ramblers. They consist of Wes Bruner on banjo, Hank Veenstra on fiddle, Cooper Marona on guitar, Collin Daily on mandolin, and Green on bass. They come from all over the country. Wes and Cooper are from North Carolina, while Collin comes from Indiana, and Hank from Washington state.

“Right now, we just have one Gospel band, but have had as many as four in a semester. This group is focused on bluegrass, but I can see things expanding to have several groups doing southern or black Gospel as well. I can see this group being booked every weekend, and am hoping to get them booked on some festivals.”

If things go well and there is sufficient student interest, Green foresees Gospel becoming a fifth leg of the program, along with Bluegrass, Old-Time, Celtic, and Country music.

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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.