Jack Tottle, Kenny Chesney receive honorary doctorates from ETSU

Jack Tottle accepts his honorary doctorate from Kenny Chesney and Brian Nolan – photo by Larry Smith, ETSU

This past weekend, the Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies program at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City celebrated its 40th anniversary by awarding honorary doctorates to a pair of major figures, Jack Tottle and Kenny Chesney.

Tottle founded the program in 1982, and has seen it grow from a germ of an idea tucked away in a scarecly-visited corner of the campus, to an internationally-recognized center for the development of young artists in bluegrass, old time, country, and roots music. These days it’s uncommon to find talented young pickers who haven’t either spent time at ETSU, or are intending to do so.

When Jack retired, he handed over the reins to Raymond W. McLain, who has since moved on, with Dan Boner taking over as Director.

At the ceremony, Boner said of the program’s founder…

“Jack’s impact on the music industry goes back even before his time at ETSU. He had already influenced a musical generation with his recordings for Rounder Records and a best-selling mandolin instruction book. He then arrived on campus 40 years ago, making a welcoming place for musicians who were interested in serious and exclusive study of bluegrass, old-time, and country music.”

Also receiving an honorary doctorate on October 22 was country music star Kenny Chesney, who got his start in the early days of BOTCMS in Johnson City. He, of course, went on to a string of country hits and record-setting tours, but loyal to his roots, has consistently thanked ETSU for preparing him for his role in the business.

After receiving his honorary degree, Chesney was called upon to present one to Tottle, saying…

“When I was just beginning to really get serious, Jack Tottle was 10 years into this incredible program that focused on the region’s musical roots. He welcomed me, taught me a lot about songs, being in bands, and what this music is made of. He took a bunch of us kids – several went on to play with Alison Krauss & Union Station – to Russia as part of a cultural exchange, teaching us how music builds a bridge places you can’t imagine.

So, it was my honor to honor Jack this way. He showed an East Tennessee kid the power of what music can do; and for me, it sure did.”

Tottle made a rare trip away from his secluded island home in Hawaii to accept his doctorate.

Since its founding, the Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Studies has gone from a concentration in the Appalachian Studies program, to a minor, to now offering a fully accredited four year degree from the university.

ETSU President Dr. Brian Nolan was pleased to see both men on stage for the presentation.

“It’s wonderful knowing Kenny and Jack wanted to be here for each other. Their friendship and the bond that ETSU creates remains strong after all these years.”

Many congratulations to Jack, and to Kenny, and all involved in building this program to its current position. Best of luck for the next 40 years and beyond!

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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.