Bluegrass Goes To College

Photo by Tim Black

Denison University: Bluegrass & American Roots Program

Granville, Ohio

Established in 2010, Denison University’s Bluegrass and American Roots Program is one of an increasing number of university programs focusing on the study and performance of bluegrass, blues, old-time, and other traditional American music. Since 2018, the Denison program has been under the direction of Adam Schlenker, Denison’s Coordinator of Bluegrass Studies.

Originally focused on bluegrass music in an ensemble setting, the program is stretching its educational legs and expanding its artistic focus. Under Schlenker’s guidance, the program is expanding into American Roots music, bringing students into a wholistic relationship with the music, its history, its performance, and the students’ individual and ensemble artistic advancement. 

Adam Schlenker. Photo by Toril Sivertsen Tormoen
Adam Schlenker. Photo by Toril Sivertsen Tormoen

Schlenker, a long-time teacher and performing musician, stresses the importance of developing musicians in an ensemble. “I came in with the intent of keeping things centered around the bluegrass ensemble approach because there’s so much music that leads in and leads out of that,” he explains. “We combine classroom discussion with performance, growing this program not in any way to diminish its bluegrass components but to have students understand bluegrass and related music in a greater musical context.” Performance is not simple rote reproduction. Over the span of their coursework students “…break [the music] down and understand where the pieces came from. Only then can they put the music back together, better understand the original directions of [the] artists, and claim the music as their own,” says Adam. 

To help students understand the wide nature of the music, Adam describes one of his first-day exercises: “I play 10 or 12 pieces of music and ask students to write in their journals—daily journaling is part of the course requirement—whether they consider that recording as ‘bluegrass.’ Then, at the end of the semester we revisit those initial impressions, which opens a wider discussion on ‘the nature of bluegrass,’ whether anything other than a five-piece band constitutes ‘a bluegrass band,’ and how the music of the various bands—Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and Reno and Smiley, among many others, colors the music.”   

Additional coursework covers the history of bluegrass (which explores the kinds of music that influenced the genre “more from the point of view of a musician than a historian; my main goal in the history class is to get students to hear music they’ve never heard before and associate names and time frames with it,” notes Adam) and practical courses on songwriting. Considerable time is also spent on tune analysis, where tunes are de-constructed to reveal what Adam calls a “fencepost melody.” “It’s the core melody that ideally floats to the top of any recording,” Adam explains. “For example, take Bill Keith’s version of ‘Cherokee Shuffle’ on his Beating Around the Bush album. Even though all the instruments take a solo, they keep the melody true throughout. That is what I ask of students: to listen to multiple recordings, find that fencepost melody, and learn how to play that. And then,” he laughs, “to create their own arrangement.”  

Of course, practical studies involve playing in an ensemble (and listening to others in the ensemble) and developing and playing solos in front of an audience. “Every member of the ensemble has to improvise at least one solo during our student concerts,” Adam states. He spreads the expectation—and stress—of performance to all students democratically. “If we had a situation where only certain folks got to solo, that’s not giving others a chance to learn. The student concerts normally occur in a performance hall that can hold as many as 1200 people, most of whom come from the local community.” Additionally, during a standard semester, students configured in both small and large ensembles typically perform as many as 10 times around the region for a variety of events, building performance expertise. 

Another venue for student involvement is the annual Denison Bluegrass Festival. It provides both front and back-stage hands-on experience for students as well as interaction with bands like Sister Sadie, Larry Sparks & The Lonesome Ramblers, or Missy Raines & The New Hip (to cite a few recent headliners). Workshops—an integral part of the Festival—enable students to interact with individual performers in small groups for focused learning (on banjo, fiddle, guitar, bass, vocals, and songwriting) or at seminars (such as Tom Ewing talking about his time with Bill Monroe). On occasion, artists like Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Edgar Meyer, Aoife O’Donovan, or David Grier may be found on campus as “visiting artists,” conducting master classes and performing. 

Searching for additional musical opportunities for Denison, Adam notes, “We’ve also just partnered with the Ohiolina Festival (www.ohiolina.com), which occurs over the third weekend in September. Some of the artists they bring in will be coming over to Denison for workshops and master classes, and the students will perform at the festival all three days.”  

For a sample of recent student concerts or performances from previous Bluegrass Festivals, search out Denison University Bluegrass Band on YouTube. For a video of Denison University Bluegrass Ensemble’s recent tribute concert to the music of Tony Rice, access https://youtu.be/7VPuunsd93k.

Part of a total university experience, Denison’s program also attracts students who have come to university to study other subjects. It’s not unusual to have an economics major, a pre-MBA, an art major, or even a classical music major select an introductory bluegrass course as one of their electives out of curiosity. 

“I started playing this music the summer I turned eight, and I’ve never looked back,” recalls Adam. “I’m constantly engaged.” Students interested in a bluegrass program and looking for an immersive experience that introduces them to all aspects of the music should put Denison University on the list for consideration and hang on: Adam has big plans for his program.   

For more information about Denison University’s Bluegrass/American Roots music program, go to www.denison.edu. For more information about Adam’s other teaching opportunities, go to www.5thfretproductions.com.

East Tennessee State University: Bluegrass, Old-Time, Celtic and Country Music Studies

Johnson City, Tennessee

Written By Derek Halsey

I live in the beautiful mountains of western North Carolina, less than hour from the wonderful Bluegrass, Old-Time, Celtic and Country Music Studies program at East Tennessee State University (ETSU) located in Johnson City, TN. As a result, I have witnessed firsthand the wonderful injection of talent that academic program has put into the music world.

Eventually, current students and graduates of this unique part of ETSU’s Department of Appalachian Studies have found their way into the music scenes of the region, nationwide and in the bluegrass world specifically with many IBMA Award winners on the list.

One excellent example that I witnessed first-hand was the rise of guitarist and vocalist Joe Cicero. I first met a young teenage Cicero when he was hanging out with friends of mine at the VFW Campground during MerleFest. Hailing from Pennsylvania and obviously talented, Cicero eventually decided to enroll in the ETSU Bluegrass, Old-Time, Celtic and Country Music Studies program. Soon he joined the Fireside Collective, a band that has become a national touring act, releasing their Mountain Home Music label album debut last year with Elements. 

Then, in April of this year, Cicero found himself surrounded by an all-star band on the new single “On The Lonesome Breeze,” recorded as a part of the Jon Weisberger-produced Bluegrass At The Crossroads series. On the cut, Cicero plays with Wayne Benson, Sammy Shelor, Travis Book, John Cloyd Miller and Carly Arrowood. It marks yet another impressive rise for an ETSU alumnus.

Alexis Hamilton-Mele  //  Photo by Derek Halsey
Alexis Hamilton-Mele  //  Photo by Derek Halsey

The ETSU Bluegrass, Old-Time, Celtic and Country Music Studies program was created in the early 1980s by Jack Tottle, who is also know for being a member of the 1970s band Tasty Licks with a very young Bela Fleck. Creating a college-level program centered on American roots music was not an easy task. But over the years, with the help of academic-minded musicians like former Assistant Director Raymond McLain and various students, teachers and mentors, it has become the impressive full-fledged program that it is today.

Some of the alumni of the program includes country music superstar Kenny Chesney, Becky Buller, Barry Bales, Beth Lawrence and current artist-on-the-rise Amythyst Kiah. The roster of instructors and mentors over the years has included at various times Tim Stafford, Adam Steffey, Wyatt Rice, Hunter Berry and more. 

Currently, the program is being run by Director Dan Boner, a former ETSU student, recording artist and touring musician. Earlier this year, Boner produced a new single by the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band called “When The Water Goes Down.” Playing on the cut are students Adam Miller, Katelynn Lowe, Jacob Metz and Justin Alexander along with special guests Becky Buller and Tim Stafford.

In May, recording artist and ETSU instructor Wyatt Rice won the ETSU College of Arts & Sciences 2021 Adjunct Faculty Award. At the same time, Rice’s ETSU Spacegrass Unit released a video of their version of Bill Emerson’s “Cowboys and Indians.” The track features Tray Wellington on banjo, Hudson Bosworth on guitar, Josiah Nelson on fiddle, Katelynn Lowe on bass and Luke Morris on mandolin.

At the end of the 2020-2021 school year, I drove to Johnson City to visit the legendary roots music club The Down Home. There, at Ed Snodderly’s world-famous venue, the ETSU program is hosting four nights of live music by the students, who are charged with putting together a band and a presentation. While there, I interview graduating senior Alexis Hamilton-Mele, whose concentration has been on songwriting and performing.

“I don’t usually give people a lot of advice to move to Nashville,” said Dan Boner. “As for Alexis, however, I think she’s got the songwriter chops for it. I think that if she goes there and gets in with good networks and gets to know people; that will be the key. I really love her music.”

Hamilton-Mele came to ETSU from western Upstate New York and has fit in well in Tennessee and in the program.

“My time here has been really cool,” said Hamilton-Mele. “I think I’ve learned a lot about songwriting, performing, and just about everything. I’ve been able to play in a band every semester and I did play in a band here in Johnson City outside of school for a couple of years as well. Tonight, this is my last semester and my last show as a student. I feel pretty sad about it ending and pretty scared about where I’m going with my life, but I feel like I learned a lot and I’m ready to move forward.”

After performing onstage with some of her students, ETSU instructor and Old-Time Music Lecturer Kalia Yeagle sat down with me to talk about the program. A fiddler who is excellent at playing both bluegrass and old-time, Yeagle hails from Anchorage, Alaska, yet made the migration to the eastern half of the U.S. about 12 years ago. As with all instructors, witnessing students make an important breakthrough is a highlight of her job.

“That is the stuff that I live for,” said Yeagle. “I had a nice moment a few days ago, actually. Those shows tonight were a last minute thing, as live music in general has been tricky this school year (during the pandemic). So, the other day we were practicing on a stage for the first time and for most students, performing is still pretty new. And, it was so sweet to hear things fall into place and see them working so hard, chipping away at these songs that they have been spending a lot of time on and seeing them imagining sharing those songs with other people for the first time. It’s nice to see them untangle a knot.”

Program Founder Jack Tottle agrees.

“When they get it and they get it right and they get excited about it, it is wonderful,” said Jack Tottle. “That is what makes it worthwhile. One of the higher-profile students to come out of the program is Amythyst Kiah. She is an incredible musician who came from Chattanooga who approached me at some point early on and asked about a guitar class saying, ‘Will I have to read music in order to do this class?’ I said, ‘No. This is music that has been passed down through generations by ear, one person at a time. We do use tablature for people that want to do that, but if you want to learn it by ear and use your recorder in class, that is fine.’”

From the beginning, Tottle was insistent on students learning about the history of the genre, including the influences of African American musicians in the past who did not get their just due. To help pass on this history, Tottle installed a mural at ETSU that features Black artists such as Bill Monroe’s mentor Arnold Schulz, 1920s clawhammer banjo player Uncle John Scruggs, Bob Wills’ influencer Bessie Smith, A.P. Carter’s fellow songcatcher Lesley Riddle and more. 

Now retired on the Big Island of Hawaii, Tottle is proud of the program he began 39 years ago.

“I just felt lucky because after touring for a few years with Tasty Licks, I was ready to not tour so much,” said Tottle. “So, being able to stay in one place yet still be very involved with the music and be involved with younger people and their youthful enthusiasm, for those that can really focus on what they want to do with music, it was just a great blessing to be able to start this program.”   

Berklee College of Music: American Roots Music Program

Boston, Massachusetts

Written By Dan Miller

The Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts was founded in 1945 by Lawrence Berk as theSchillinger House and was the first college level school where jazz music formed the basis of the curriculum.  In 1954, the school changed its name to the Berklee School of Music (named after the founder’s son Lee Eliot Berk).  In 1970 the school changed its name once again, to the Berklee College of Music, and has remained the preeminent college level jazz music program in the country.

While retaining its jazz focus, over the years the college has continually added programs to expand its offerings. In the early 1960’s they offered the first college level programs in rock and pop music.  In 1979 they added a film scoring major and in 1984 a major in music synthesis (now titled electronic production and design) was added.  In 1987 a major in songwriting was added, in 1992 a music business major was created, and in 1996 a music therapy major was introduced.  Then, in 2006, Berklee started to highlight roots music by adding mandolin and banjo as principle instruments. In 2009 they introduced the American Roots Music Program.      

Program director Matt Glaser recalls: “A little over 10 years ago Berklee president Roger Brown came by my office to talk: we were both astonished at the waves of fine student folk musicians coming to Berklee, musicians who had their own unique strengths and limitations. Roger wondered if we were doing the best we could to address the particular educational needs of these students, and so the American Roots Music Program was born. From the beginning, the program was structured to be different than a typical academic department.  Many of these students had received their formative training at fiddle camps, where they worked intensively with master musicians, without grades or tests. That became our primary model: we would bring in master musicians, in a range of styles, who would work one on one with any interested Berklee student, on a first come, first served basis.  No grades, syllabi, tests—just pure learning. Our entire program is conceived of as supplementary to the students’ primary Berklee education, as well as deeply communitarian.   

Our definition of “roots music” has both a temporal component and a spatial component: all American music of the first half of the 20th century, as well as all rural music at any time! This intentionally broad definition allows us to include many styles: Country blues, bluegrass, Celtic, country, gospel, early jazz, folk, old-time, spirituals, and western swing.”

The American Roots Music Program developed mainly due to student interest that had been brewing slowly over many years, dating all the way back to the early 1970’s, when John Carlini was a student at Berklee studying jazz guitar. Carlini was also a great banjo player and avid bluegrass fan who went on to work with David Grisman.  Students in the early 1980’s like John McGann, Jeff Troxel, Hiro Arita, and Pete Huttlinger brought with them their interests in bluegrass, Irish, folk and ‘Dawg’ music. The same was true of students who were at Berklee in the early 1990s like David Rawlings and Gillian Welch, and this extended into the early 2000s when Chris Pandolfi, Nicky Sanders, Joe K. Walsh, Andy Hall, Hanneke Cassel and Casey Driessen were attending the college.

In the years surrounding the 2009 launch of the program students who attended Berklee included Sierra Hull, Molly Tuttle, Courtney Hartman, Bronwyn Keith-Hynes, Alex Hargreaves, Eric Robertson, Nate Leath, Mike Barnett, Dominick Leslie, Lukas Pool, and more.  

The American Roots Music Program at Berklee does not focus on bluegrass to the exclusion of other styles, because Matt Glaser feels that bluegrass is a style that was formed in the context of all rural American music from the first half of the twentieth century.  Therefore, the program tries to provide exposure to all of this music.  

Avery Merritt, Sam Leslie, Noah Harrington and Ethan Setiawan
Photo by Dave Hollender
Avery Merritt, Sam Leslie, Noah Harrington and Ethan Setiawan
Photo by Dave Hollender

While American Roots Music is not a major at Berklee, it is a free supplemental program available to any Berklee student from any major—such as performance, song writing, music production and engineering, or music therapy.  Matt Glaser said, “What we do is supplementary.  We provide services to any interested Berklee student, but we are not a major. We want to be like a folk festival or a fiddle camp at Berklee. Tony Trischka comes in, and any interested student can sign up to sit in a room with Tony Trischka and learn from him.  So, it is like this master musician idea.  It doesn’t involve grading or a syllabus, it is primarily hanging out and learning from master musicians.”  

Visiting artists in this program have included, Tony Trischka, Béla Fleck, David Grisman, Alison Krauss, Woody Mann, Mark O’Connor, Noam Pikelny, Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brien, Chris Thile, Sierra Hull, T Bone Burnett, Del McCoury, and many others.  Some of these instructors are visiting guests while others, like Bruce Molsky, Darol Anger, John McGann, Greg Liszt, Joe K. Walsh, Wes Corbett,  have been, or are, adjunct professors at the college.

In addition to studying privately with guest teachers and adjunct professors, students have the opportunity to play in bluegrass, or roots music, ensembles.  In 2002 Dave Hollender introduced bluegrass to the Ensemble Department and the Five-Week summer program. When Roger Brown took the reins as president he was committed to building on the success of these offerings and with his support the college added banjo and mandolin as principal instruments in 2005 and launched the ARMP.“When I enrolled at Berklee as a student in 1979 I was a banjo player wanting to expand my knowledge but banjo was not offered so I studied bass. I take satisfaction in knowing that since we began offering acoustic string players rooted in traditional music the opportunity to study, their presence has added dimensions to the college and enhanced the Berklee experience for other students,” says Hollender.

Through the American Roots Music Program, Berklee ensembles have also performed at various festivals during the summer months, such as the Grey Fox and Fresh Grass festivals. Many bands have got their start at Berklee, including Twisted Pine, Lonely Heartstring Band, Mile Twelve, The Goodbye Girls, and others.

Although American Roots Music is not a major at Berklee, students can select to minor in this program.  Glaser said, “If students wish to minor in American roots music, they have to take a number of courses, including  ‘Survey of American Roots Music Styles.’  This semester Joe Walsh and I will co-teach this class. It is primarily a guided listening experience for all this music from the first half of the twentieth century.  What I always say to the bluegrass players is that you can’t understand bluegrass until you understand what Bill Monroe, and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs were hearing on the radio. They were hearing all kinds of music.  There is a strong case to be made that a lot of what we consider straight-ahead bluegrass was absorbed from early jazz and blues and other styles.  For instance, when Earl Scruggs plays his famous one octave ascending phrase on ‘Foggy Mountain Special’ it is a classic jazz line in the 2-note secondary rag rhythm, just as Louis Armstrong might have played it. In addition, there is the famous story of Bill Monroe walking down the street in Chattanooga and coming upon Blind Boy Fuller playing ‘Step It Up and Go’, and then Monroe turning it into ‘Heavy Traffic Ahead’. The late John McGann always said, ‘Don’t just listen to your heroes, listen to the heroes of your heroes.’  If you do that, then you will be well educated.”

If you are interested in attending Berklee, Matt Glaser recommends that you visit the admissions page of their website (berklee.edu) to find out how to apply to one of their various programs and he offers this advice regarding the audition process, “A student should feel free to play whatever they are interested in, and whatever their strengths are. If you are not a jazz musician, or not interested in jazz, don’t try to play jazz thinking that is what we want to hear.  We want to hear what you are passionate about and what you have spent your time working on musically.”

Joe K. Walsh—a Berklee graduate who has been teaching in the American Roots Music Program at Berklee for twelve years—also offers, “I went to Berklee because I was interested in a variety of different kinds of music: bluegrass, swing, and jazz.  I wanted to understand music more deeply. And Berklee was great for me. For a student who is purely interested in straight ahead bluegrass, it may not be the perfect place. But for those who love bluegrass or old-time but who also want to work on jazz, or classical music, or pop songwriting, for example, it’s a very special place. No where like it in the world.”  

South Plains College: Commercial Music Program

Levelland, Texas

Written By Tim May

In the early 1970’s, South Plains College dean Nathan Tubb would stand just inside the door of the registrar’s office and ask registering students if they had interest in studying music. Most did not. Tubb would then ask what the school might offer that could change their minds. It turned out that what the majority were interested in was the study of instruments like banjo, guitar, mandolin and fiddle. After consulting with enthusiastically supportive president Dr. Marvin Baker, Tubb initiated a three-year study by the Board of Regents that resulted in South Plains College in Levelland, Texas offering the first of its kind: an Associate of Arts Degree in Commercial Music (now an Associate of Applied Arts).     

The man hired to put this new program together that would emphasize bluegrass and country/western was a professional musician and educator named John Hartin: “When I started teaching at the college, I was teaching private lessons in a small room that included the mimeograph machine. It was so tight in there that, if I had a long-legged cowboy in there with me, his feet would stick out in the hallway.” By the second year of the program, Hartin was able to put together bluegrass ensembles, and, with the addition to the staff of multi-instrumentalist Tim McCasland and, later, Ed Marsh, the program could provide instruction for any bluegrass instrument in the genre. The first ensemble (‘South Plains Bluegrass’) gave students a lot of experience in playing festivals and community events in west Texas, establishing a precedent that continues for students to this day.

The program got a huge boost when Pickin’ Magazine ran an article in its December 1976 issue  called ‘Bluegrass Goes to College’. Bill Monroe was on the cover. According to Hartin, “Everything grew exponentially from that point on. We went from having students primarily from out west to students from all over the world.” Another boost came when, in the mid-1980’s, Country Gazette’s Joe Carr and Alan Munde joined the staff. (‘Camp Bluegrass’, held annually at the campus, is a direct result of their connection with the colllege.) Notable alumni whose names bluegrass fans may recognize are Mike Bub, Ron Block and Stuart Duncan, among others. 

Mike Bub has been a top-tier musician in Nashville for a long time, has played on many Nashville masters, and has traveled with the Del McCoury Band, Tim O’Brien, Shawn Camp, Vince Gill, and many others. He participated in the SPC program in the early 1980’s. I asked him about his time there: “The program was well established by the time I got there. I had seen  South Plains College listed in a college reference section in a local library, saw I could go there and study bluegrass, and decided to go. We formed a band there called ‘Weary Hearts.’ That band started off as a trio (Ron Block, Eric Uglum and me), and we later added Butch Baldassari.  We talked the school into having Stuart Duncan come out and do a workshop so we could have him record with us while he was there (he had attended the year before). We took advantage of the school’s recording resources and did an album. I also played in a band that recruited for and promoted the school: that band was Joe Carr, Ron Block, Minnie Perry and me.”

 “I really increased my guitar and mandolin knowledge by studying with Joe Carr. The overall experience really built my formal music education. I expanded my understanding  of harmony: I was mainly studying banjo at the time, and I was able to adapt harmony to the banjo fingerboard and analyze it far beyond the tablature I was familiar with up to that point. The program was one of the greatest opportunities I could have had to learn how to become a working musician.”

Levi Humphries, Jason Sain, Leah Bynum, Meghan Bynum, Ed Marsh
Levi Humphries, Jason Sain, Leah Bynum, Meghan Bynum, Ed Marsh

Things have come a long way since John Hartin taught in a small mimeograph room: the Commercial Music Program is now housed in the Creative Arts building, which includes the Tom T. Hall Production Studio, a state-of-the-art performance venue. The building includes classrooms, rehearsal halls, practice rooms and recording studios with access to 24-track, multi-track, Pro Tools and Midi labs, and a fully equipped television studio with audio and video control areas. Students can get an Associates Degree in Applied Arts, and one-year certificate programs are also available. Examples of classes offered include: “Topics for the Professional Musician” (music business and how to succeed), and “The Method for Live Performance” (how to engage an audience, how to create a set-list, etc.). Ensemble, private study, and classes all provide class hour credit toward a degree.

Jade Throneberry is a first-year, second semester fiddle player at SPC. I asked her about playing in the bluegrass ensemble (‘Pickin’ on the Plains’): “The group has about four weeks to prepare a thirty minute show. We spend a lot of time organizing the pacing of the show, making sure the keys and tempos are arranged in a way to keep things interesting for the audience. Everyone who brings a song to the group is basically the group leader (open to suggestions) for that song. So, if I present a song, I would determine the key, tempo, basic arrangement, and I would bring a chart so everybody is on the same page.” Ensembles play many venues locally and within a three-hundred mile range of the school, as well as on campus, including ‘Fest Week’, which is basically semester finals for ensembles. Jade’s additional thoughts about the program: “It’s a very tight-knit school. The professors really care, they love teaching us, and they really enjoy teaching. They play gigs with the students and come to most of the gigs we have. It’s like a family.” 

Brent Wheeler is the program director for the Commercial Music Program. He told me, “This program is like a network that students can join. There’s a one-on-one mentoring process that lasts forever, we have graduated some elite alumni, and it’s very affordable. We teach bluegrass in the framework of modern, cutting-edge technology.” Regarding COVID: “South Plains College never missed a single lesson. We were able to Zoom online and never missed a step. The experience actually expanded our capabilities, and we are planning on being a hundred percent open in the fall with no restrictions.”

Brent, Ed Marsh, and Bruce McBee  provide private instruction for those wanting to study bluegrass, and, of course, the Commercial Music Program itself includes many more genres. ‘Bluegrass Goes to College’ is still very much a reality and  is alive and well at South Plains College.   

Glenville State College: Bluegrass Music Program

Glenville, West Virginia

Written By Dan Miller

What Dr. Megan Darby has accomplished in the ten years since she took the helm of the bluegrass music program at Glenville State College in Glenville, West Virginia is spectacular…inspiring…magnificent.  She is on a mission to keep traditional bluegrass music alive and relevant in today’s world and she is succeeding.

The bluegrass program at Glenville began in the late 1990s when the chair of the fine arts center, John McKinney, asked his friend, bluegrass multi-instrumentalist Buddy Griffin, to perform with his percussion ensemble and later to offer lessons to students at the college.   After Buddy started teaching at the school, McKinney jokingly asked Buddy to write up a curriculum for a bluegrass music certificate program.  The next day Buddy shocked his old friend by bringing him the curriculum.  McKinney, along with other supporters, made it official starting in the early 2000’s.      

By 2002 the certificate program had become popular at the school.  To earn this certificate, students were required to take at least 21 hours of core bluegrass content.  By 2007 an official bluegrass music degree was established.  Buddy Griffin was the program’s founding director.  That same year, Megan Darby—who had grown up playing bluegrass music—was recruited at the Summersville, WV Bluegrass Festival for the program, but ultimately entered the college as an Early and Elementary Education major combined with the bluegrass certificate.      

In 2010, Griffin announced his retirement and Megan, affectionately known as “Miss Megan,” was hired to be his assistant.  When Griffin retired in 2011, Megan—who was now a recent graduate and student teacher of the year—took over the job as program director.  Hiring such a young person to be a program director is something that doesn’t happen often in academia.  To ensure that Megan obtained the requisite education, a contingency in her contract required she continue her education.  While running a college level education program, Megan attended Marshall University to earn her master’s degree in Instructional Technology (which she earned in 2013) and then she continued at Walden University and earned her doctorate in College Learning and Teaching, which she completed in 2018.  Additionally, she completed a certificate in Appalachian Studies from Marshall University this summer.     

When Megan took over as the director of the bluegrass program at Glenville, she had three objectives.  The first was to give the students real world bluegrass experience.  She did that by arranging for the school’s ensemble—The Glenville State Bluegrass Band—to start touring.  To date they have performed at many of the country’s top festivals and bluegrass venues.  In touring the students have the opportunity to learn how to book shows, manage a tour, work with festival and venue promoters, create a set list, MC a show, and everything else that goes with being a member of a touring band.     

Mr. and Mrs. Eddie Stubbs speaking on the Pioneer Stage speaking to Glenville students and administration members and the community of Glenville on the day they dropped off Eddie’s archives.  Photo Courtesy Glenville State College Public Relations
Mr. and Mrs. Eddie Stubbs speaking on the Pioneer Stage speaking to Glenville students and administration members and the community of Glenville on the day they dropped off Eddie’s archives.  Photo Courtesy Glenville State College Public Relations

Megan’s second objective was to get the students to record.  To date the school’s band has recorded several CDs.  Some were recorded at Tom T. and Miss Dixie Hall’s recording studio and some at Ricky Wasson’s studio.  Megan does her best to bring the band into the recording studio about every four years.  This not only gives each new crop of band members exposure to the recording process but exposes them to all other aspects of bluegrass music, to include production, engineering, songwriting, photography, liner notes, graphic design, and various lessons in the real world of music business.    

Her third objective was to restructure the curriculum.  She said, “Early country—but specifically traditional bluegrass music—is where my heart is. I take pride in preserving and promoting the 1945 to 1965 time period.  Before the restructuring of the program, these kids were involved in things like choir, marching band, and conducting.  To me, that was ridiculous.  I said, ‘Take conducting out, we need bluegrass history.  Take marching band out, we need bluegrass internships—these kids need to be networking.’ So, I re-wrote the curriculum on most of the core classes.  We now also have a class in the business of bluegrass music.”     

A big part of the bluegrass degree program at Glenville is about networking and encouraging students to pursue opportunities.  The goal of the program at Glenville is to expose the students to all aspects of bluegrass and then help them network.  The school has formed relationships with many festivals, recording studios, organizations, like the IBMA, and media outlets like RFD TV.        

Megan said, “I am fortunate to be at a smaller school and that they trust me.  For those who are seeking opportunities in bluegrass, this is a tailor-made program.  Part of my ongoing teaching philosophy is that one person is not going to be able to teach these students what they need to know, so I’m going to have them travel and take them to where I believe they will get the experience and the knowledge.  That is why it has been important to me to build these connections outside of our small town and college.”     

Although Megan has formed many connections outside of the town of Glenville, West Virginia, she has also built quite a bluegrass community in the town.   Until 2018 the bluegrass program did not have its own home.  Megan’s office was in the basement of the fine arts building.  Seeking a solution, she found a vacant building in downtown Glenville—one that was owned by the college—and presented a business plan to the school’s administration which proposed turning the building into a venue and home for the bluegrass students.  She raised funds and by September of 2018 The Pioneer Stage, Bluegrass Music Education Center became a reality.  The Pioneer Stage hosts weekly community jam sessions, bluegrass concerts, workshops, and seminars for everyone. The college students also participate in community outreach programs such as performing in retirement homes, funeral parlors, town events, and square dances. Megan added, “Serving as the President of the West Virginia State Folk Festival, I take pride in our heritage and often find a need for our students to mentor young children through youth camps and school visits as well.”    

In another effort to further promote, preserve, and celebrate traditional bluegrass music, Megan was the motivating force behind a February 2019 hooding ceremony honoring first generation bluegrass musicians with an honorary doctorate from the college.  The musicians who were bestowed this honor were Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Bobby and Sonny Osborne, Mac Wiseman and the bluegrass program’s founder, Buddy Griffin.      

During the process of arranging the honorary doctorates, Megan worked closely with Eddie Stubbs and found him to be someone who enthusiastically believed in her mission.  Her relationship with Stubbs eventually led to a fundraising effort to develop “The Eddie Stubbs Archives and Recording Studio” at Glenville.  Due to very generous donations by Gus Arrendale of Springer Mountain Farms and Barry Blank, a bluegrass and country fan and friend to Eddie Stubbs—and lesser donations by the current administration, and many family and friends of the program—they were able to raise the funds.  Eddie’s archives, which includes books, photos, recordings, memorabilia and other reference items are now housed at Glenville.  The archive was dedicated in a ceremony held on March 24th, 2021.

Looking towards the future, the college is preparing to launch a new Bachelor of Arts in Appalachian Studies in the fall of 2021.  Megan initially was tasked to write the curriculum for this program, which includes an emphasis on bluegrass music, West Virginia history, Appalachian literature, Appalachian music traditions, and more.  Additionally, using the knowledge she gained while working on her master’s degree in Instructional Technology, Megan developed an online program allowing the college to offer the bluegrass certificate program to anyone in the world via online study.     

Due to Miss Megan’s excitement, passion, energy and enthusiasm, the bluegrass music program at Glenville State is thriving.  Helping support her in this continued effort is her partner Luke McKnight (grandson of Jesse McReynolds). Luke now works for the college and teaches lessons to the students in the program. He has also recently been accepted into the Appalachian Studies program and is likely to be the first to complete the new degree! With a program like this at Glenville, I’d say that the future is bright for bluegrass.   

Morehead State University: Kentucky Center for Traditional Music

Morehead, Kentucky

Written By Nancy Cardwell

At the Kentucky Center for Traditional Music (KCTM), a part of Morehead State University’s Caudill College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, “music is a living tradition,” says director Raymond W. McLain. “We provide an atmosphere of creativity in order to encourage young artists to carry our heritage on to the next generation. Though the focus of our program is music, we also provide mentoring and important life and business skills.” 

“Traditional music” at MSU includes bluegrass, old-time, country, Western swing, blues, ballad singing, Celtic music, and all other styles identified with the Southern mountain region of the United States. 

KCTM is located in Morehead’s Arts District, in a renovated library that includes classrooms, practice rooms, a recording studio, and archives for research. Floating floors, double walls and insulated glass make the building a perfect home for studying, creating and recording. Every room is hardwired to the studio, so students can record from anywhere in the building. A wall of mirrors in band rehearsal rooms shows groups how they will appear onstage.  

Morehead State’s involvement with traditional music dates back to an annual Appalachian Celebration which has been held on campus for decades. Chris Gallaher, Ray Ross and Andy Carlson created the first curriculum for KCTM in 2000. Sandy Knipp was the first director, followed by Don Rigsby and Jesse Wells—the latter a former student who now serves as assistant director, instructor and archivist. MSU offered the first minor in Traditional Music Studies in 2000. In 2011 courses were added in traditional music history and theory, private instruction, and band classes. The four-year Bachelor of Arts in Traditional Music Studies degree, added in 2013, was the first to focus on bluegrass, old-time and country music in Kentucky, and the first in the world meeting National Association of Schools of Music accreditation standards.
     

Kentucky Center for Traditional Music students and faculty share the stage at a “Sounds Of Our Heritage” semester finale concert.  
Photo by John Flavell
Kentucky Center for Traditional Music students and faculty share the stage at a “Sounds Of Our Heritage” semester finale concert.  
Photo by John Flavell

The number of student bands varies. Last semester there were two bluegrass bands, one old-time band, a country band, and two Mountain Music Ambassador groups which tour and record. The first overseas concert tour by KCTM students visited Morehead’s sister city, Ballymena, Northern Ireland, in 2009. Since then, student bands have toured in Ireland (2018), China (2011, 2013, 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018), and Jamaica (2015).

In addition to Raymond McLain and Jesse Wells, faculty members include Thomas Albert, Leo Blair, Megan Gregory, Nathan Kiser, Daxson Lewis, L. Scott Miller, Sarah Wood O’Donnell, and Ruth McLain Smith. “A lot of our faculty members tour and have professional careers,” Raymond McLain said. Brother and sister Raymond and Ruth grew up performing with the legendary McLain Family Band in all 50 states and in 64 countries. Raymond played banjo with Bluegrass Hall of Famers Jim & Jesse, mandolin with Reno & Harrell, and in a duo with Mike Stevens. Ruth played bass with the Ramona Jones Family and numerous other bands. Jesse Wells has performed with Ralph Stanley, Town Mountain, The Wooks, Don Rigsby, Dirk Powell, and is currently a member of Tyler Childers and the Foodstamps. 

Raymond said, “I started teaching one night a week at Belmont University in Nashville when I was with Jim & Jesse. I realized there were a lot of young musicians who were talented but very unhappy. They had been drawn into the world of competition, worried about who sold the most records or drew the biggest crowds, or who had the most chart success. Our father, Raymond K. McLain, said that when you’re entertaining, how deeply you affect people with your music is more important than the number of people you affect.” 

“We are passionate about sharing this music and inspiring those who are interested,” Ruth McLain added, “and that comes back and inspires us. Just like the work I get to be a part of on the IBMA Foundation board, it’s about sharing the music with the next generation. We’re only going to be here so long, and then it will be their stage. Probably the thing I love the most about KCTM is the safe, supportive, friendly environment where a student can feel comfortable trying out new songs or instruments or vocal styles, and everybody wants you to succeed.”
     

“Almost 100% of our majors have found employment in music on a full- or part-time basis,” Raymond said, “and a couple are earning advanced degrees in music therapy or business. They are bandleaders, touring musicians, recording artists, recording engineers, teachers, booking agents, songwriters, musical theater staff members, and one is giving tours at the Grand Ole Opry. They’re all loving what they’re doing.”

Ruth and Raymond’s father, Raymond K. McLain, taught classes in bluegrass and Appalachian music at Berea College in Kentucky back in 1971, so bluegrass education runs in the family. After his experience at Belmont, Raymond W. McLain went to East Tennessee State University as Jack Tottle’s assistant in 2000, and then became the director of their Bluegrass, Old-Time and Country Music Program in 2006. “Dan Boner’s first year at ETSU as a student was my first year as a teacher,” Raymond said. “Very soon I was able to hire Dan as my assistant and now he’s the director. I feel like we’re all doing the same thing at different colleges. There’s a place for all of us, and we want to work together to teach all of our students.”

As at so many schools last year, COVID-19 challenged the staff at Morehead to do things differently. “Going online meant we could focus on recording and using technology in a way that we wouldn’t have done otherwise,” Ruth said. “The students came through 2020-21 with flying colors,” Raymond added. “The best thing we have at KCTM is a group of talented, creative, diligent, focused students. I get excited about their potential. Things are looking good for the fall, and we’ll continue to offer some classes online. Some live hours away and want to continue to learn remotely. Others are here in the dorms and want to get back to jamming in person.” 

“Everyone learned more than we expected this year,” Ruth said. “It’s exciting to give students access to a bag of tricks—things they can pull from what they’ve learned in music theory and history, or in private applied lessons. The goal is for them to find their own voices as singers, musicians, songwriters, producers, or in whatever area of the industry they choose.”    

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