In 1982 when Jack Tottle initiated Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies at ETSU no four-year university had ever attempted anything like it. In fact, there were more than a few in the academic community—some highly placed—who were quite dismissive of the notion that these musical styles were appropriate for university level study.
The mission of educating students regarding country and bluegrass music, thus, quickly became a broader effort. A popular "History of Country Music" course was implemented, which allowed students to learn how the country music of the 1940s and 1950s underlay the music that young people were hearing on radio and television. The extent of the existing educational gap was highlighted when one student asked, "Oh, did Hank Williams, Jr.'s daddy play music too?"
Educating university faculty, staff, and the regional community at large became an integral part of the undertaking as well. Before long, ETSU alumni were mentioned in publications as varied as Bluegrass Unlimited, Sing Out, Acoustic Guitar, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the U. S. Congressional Record, and the New York Times.
One alumna, Jennifer McCarter, caused quite a stir both on campus and in the community when she and her twin sisters were signed by Warner Brothers Records. Their first album featured three different songs which showed up on the national Billboard Country Music charts. Two of the songs reached the #4 and #5 positions respectively. Soon afterward they were seen nationwide on Dolly Parton's television show, and began touring as the opening act for Kenny Rogers.
ETSU students began performing at a variety of prestigious venues. They played for the academically respected Sonneck Society in Nashville, and subsequently at the Moscow (Russia) Folk Arts Festival, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington DC, the Smithsonian Institution's National Folklife Festival (also in Washington), the IBMA awards show in Louisville, Kentucky (with Ricky Skaggs), NATO Headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, and a variety of venues in Japan, including the United States Embassy in Tokyo.
Orient Express , a video documentary of the ETSU Bluegrass Band's initial Japan tour is the first commercially available DVD focusing on the bluegrass and country music scene in a foreign country. The U. S. Government's Voice of America shot footage of the ETSU band's appearance at the A. P. Carter Family Fold, interviewed the students afterward, and then produced a special which they overdubbed in Mandarin Chinese for distribution in Asia.
These activities, of course, promoted awareness regarding our music's value outside of our home region. However, just as significantly, newspaper and magazine feature articles—as well as radio and television coverage of these, and other related activities—have resonated powerfully within the Tri-Cities region. A music once regarded exclusively as old-fashioned blue collar entertainment by many came to be seen as a true living art form. The prestige and respect with which the music was regarded far from its original birthplace helped many residents of the region look on bluegrass and country music in a new and more positive light.
Bluegrass, Old Time, and Country Music Studies at ETSU has clearly played a major role in this renewed excitement about our region's music. It regularly attracts students from ETSU's traditional East Tennessee service area, but also from the entire United States (Texas to New England, Florida to Alaska, plus a multitude of points in between) and from foreign countries as well. Its alumni have won Grammy awards, and honors from the IBMA, the Academy of Country Music, and the Country Music Association (CMA).