Testing Tradition from the ETSU Bluegrass Band

Testing Tradition - ETSU Bluegrass Band

We’ve written many times about the bluegrass music program at East Tennessee State University, and their fine work turning out educated, capable young artists for the bluegrass farm teams. They are among the very few institutions where a talented young musician can earn a bachelors degree…

ETSU believes that they can best prepare these future bluegrass pros by putting them into as many real-world situations as possible during their time at the school. In that spirit, Daniel Boner, Director of Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies, set out to produce a project of all-original music, written and performed by the students in the program.

Now, more than two years later, they have released Testing Tradition, a 12-track CD recorded at the school’s studio, featuring more than 30 students in the program performing a variety of roles. The album is thoroughly professional, in both concept and execution, and speaks quite well for the discipline and thoroughness of the faculty in the Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies department.

Testing Tradition points to promising careers for a number of impressive young artists, several of whom have since graduated and are now working with touring bluegrass bands.

  • Brent Burke (first graduate with the B.A. In Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies) – dobroist for Rhonda Vincent and the Rage
  • Colby Laney – guitarist for Larry Stephenson Band
  • Dwayne Anderson – bassist for Darrin and Brooke Aldridge
  • Haley Stiltner – banjoist for Next Best Thing
  • Jared Hensley – guitarist for Darrell Webb Band
  • Jesse Gregory – recently released solo project produced by Randy Kohrs featuring Alison Krauss
  • Leah Needham – recent dobroist for Mark Newton’s Stillhouse Band
  • Ryan Moyers – mandolinist for Clay Hess Band
  • Seth Patton – recent banjoist for Alecia Nugent
  • Tensel Sandker – bassist for Next Best Thing
  • Zach Carter – recent banjoist for the Roys
  • Zach Mongan – recent banjoist with Dixie Bee Liners

We had a chance to discuss this project recently with Dan Boner, who explained how his role as producer differed somewhat from that role’s more typical function.

“My job was to establish a vision for the project and facilitate the creative process among students. We wanted the album to feature all original material, written, arranged and performed by students, collecting as much information as possible during pre-production and encouraging everyone in the program to submit original songs and instrumentals. There were instances where someone would submit a song that seemed ‘almost’ ready, and they were referred to Ed Snodderly, our songwriting instructor, to edit and rewrite as necessary.

The students and I worked together on arrangements and instrumentation which directly influenced the personnel selection. One great thing is that we have such talented instructors who can help students work up instrumental solos. I could easily send them to Hunter Berry, Brandon Green, Colleen Trenwith, or any of our 20+ instructors to work on their music before we went into the studio. And so many of them were already great improvisational musicians who could easily make a change on-the-spot during a session with little preparation.”

Much of the music on the CD would pass muster regardless of the age or experience level of the participants. Standouts include John Goad’s SmithHaven, and Kathryn Brickey’s God’s Work Is Never Done, two songs from quite different perspectives with each demonstrating a firm grasp of its subject.

SmithHaven is a Civil War song, with Goad (both as writer and lead vocalist) imagining the town itself and the ground on which it sits recalling the battle that destroyed the lives of the residents of the east Tennessee community in 1865.

Bluegrass Today readers already know that John Goad is a practiced writer of prose from his many CD reviews, but he has a knack for verse as well. The chorus of SmithHaven ends with a powerful line that speaks well of the songwriter’s gift for imagery.

When the rebel foes fought the old blue coats
did the cannonballs keep time?

As the title suggests, God’s Work Is Never Done, is a Gospel number and Brickey sings it with passion and precision. Harmony vocals are ably provided by Jesse Gregory and Ryan Moyers.

Five of the songs are contributions from Joshua Argo, as either writer or co-writer. He also provides vocals and fiddle on several tracks, and possess a strong tenor voice which brings to mind the early recordings of Mark Newton with Knoxville Grass and The Virginia Squires.

The various rhythm sections, solos, and vocalists (both lead and harmony) are strong throughout, and Boner stressed that the albums primary purpose was to help develop them all from where they started.

“It is important to emphasize that our program exists for students to learn about these musical art forms, the culture, and to develop their own musical skills. Everyone comes into the program with particular strengths that we build on. Students might see themselves as band leaders, side-musicians, songwriters, promoters, and others as future scholars of the music. Testing Tradition is a way to showcase the diversity of our students and styles. Of course, these are only 31 of our 200+ students, and the album focuses mostly on bluegrass, rather than old-time, Celtic, or country music.

Students also learn the art of recording and working with producers and engineers in the ETSU Recording Lab. Ben Bateson, the recording lab manager, is such a great teacher for our students because, as an accomplished banjo player and multi-instrumentalist, he can help students understand what they should be listening for during tracking and mixing. It is refreshing to work with an engineer who knows exactly what fiddles, banjos, and mandolins are supposed to sound like.

This project is definitely a collaborative effort by students and faculty. I can hear the influence of our teachers in every track, yet these sounds are distilled through students’ personal skills and tastes.

Testing Tradition is a fine example of what our program has to offer.”

The CD is available from CD Baby, and downloads from Amazon or iTunes.

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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.