Kristin Benson at ETSU

We have posted a number of time of late about the recent change at the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston to allow students of traditional fretted stringed instruments to pursue a music education at their institution. While this does not involve a “bluegrass course of study,” Berklee has added a number of clinics and labs that teach students who are not primarily bluegrass players the basics of the style, while serious banjo and mandolin players with a bluegrass background are welcomed to use their instruments to study at Berklee.

There is, however, a music program which offers a four year degree program that focuses on bluegrass music. It is the Bluegrass & Country Music Program at East Tennessee State University in Johnson City, TN. The program was launched in 1982, but without an expectation that it would evolve into a full time program. Under the direction of Jack Tottle, this program has become quite popular, bringing serious young musicians to ETSU from all over the United States. The list of celebrated alumni includes well know bluegrassers like Tim Stafford, Adam Steffey, Barry Bales and Warren Amberson and Kelly Green of Acoustic Endeavors, plus country superstar Kenny Chesney, who got his start at ETSU.

After so many years nurturing this program, Tottle is moving towards retirement, and is only teaching during the fall semesters. A full time, adjunct professor will be hired for the spring terms through 2008, and the position for 2006 has been given to Kristin Scott Benson, current banjo player with Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Time.

She will coach 5 student bands, teach 11 individual lessons, and teach 3 guitar classes, as well as a weekly seminar that covers a wide array of topics. Since starting a few weeks ago, Kristin has been delighted with her experiences teaching at ETSU.

“I’m continually impressed with the program and its students. In all my experience as a musician, I’ve never encountered people who are more eager to learn. The curriculum is extensive and about 200 students are enrolled. I teach Monday through Thursday, so I stay in Johnson City during the week and come home to Nashville on Thursday nights. Of course, I’m still able to play full-time with Larry Cordle. Raymond McLain, Director of the program, has taught at the university for over five years and continues to tour as part of a duet with Mike Stevens.”

Kristin had previously worked with The Larry Stephenson Band while she was in college, and is married to former IIIrd Tyme Out and current John Cowan Band mandolinist Wayne Benson.

“Teaching these young, enthusiastic students, who haven’t become jaded by the business, has been a wonderful experience. They have rejuvenated my own interest in music, reminding me what it felt like before music was the way I made a living. Wayne and I are thankful for the opportunity and the longer I’m there, the more impressed I am with Raymond, the students, and the program, as a whole.”

Interested potential students can find more information about the Bluegrass & Country Music Program at ETSU, and the various scholarships that are available, on the college’s web site.

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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.