Music key to keeping essence of Appalachia

Posted by | March 1, 2011

Please welcome guest author Eric Dixon, a sophomore in philosophy at the University of Tennesse/Knoxville. The following piece of his ran February 28, 2011 in the ‘Appalachian Outlook series’ published regularly in the school newspaper, The Daily Beacon.

Appalachian mountain music is a tradition that traces some of its most distinct roots back to East Tennessee. Yet this old-time music isn’t something that our culture at large seems to hold in high esteem. The people of East Tennessee largely cast folk/Americana/bluegrass as a thing of the past. When friends from outside the region come to visit, many East Tennesseans find themselves pushing off this style as “redneck” music that is more comedy than serious art.

I find this notion disturbing and altogether unfair to the people of these Appalachian ranges. For years, Appalachia has been a region of America that has held its own identity in the face of insurmountable change. I once heard an expression in Bill Hardwig’s Appalachian Literature/Culture course, which I recommend taking if at all possible, that I think speaks to this scenario: “Appalachia is in, but not of, America.”

The history of Appalachia is an incredibly powerful thing — a heritage that still holds utmost value and relevance in the now. The case of Appalachia illuminates the determination of a region to hold tightly to the essence of its people. While the refusal to adopt the beat of America at large may have cost political or economic gain, I believe the resolve of Appalachians not to lose their collective identity is laudable in the least. As history shows, cases of Appalachia are few and far between.

At the core of Appalachian heritage rests old-time mountain music. This folk music began as a means to bring about community in mountain towns. Townspeople would gather on a porch or in the town square and listen to the pickin’ of mountain musicians. The fiddle, or violin, has been characteristic of this style since its inception centuries ago, while the banjo, which many outsiders perceive as the “face” of mountain music, became characteristic of the style some time around the mid-1800s. It’s obvious that folk music is defining of Appalachia’s past, but where is it today?

Has Appalachia lost its ability to dig in its heels and ride out the storm of modernity? While it’s a little harder to find these days, I believe the age-old spirit of Appalachia still resides in pockets of East Tennessee. You wouldn’t guess it, but I think Knoxville is one of those places.

Mountain music is something for which the vast majority of Knoxvillians have lost an appreciation over the past half-century or so. We embrace Lady GaGa and Justin Beiber above local heroes and homegrown artists. I don’t believe it’s a crime to hold such mainstream artists in high regard, for everyone is entitled to his or her own taste. However, I do find it unsettling that local Appalachian music has lost almost all appeal and support amongst the Knoxville community at large. This unique tradition of pickin’ has become negatively polarized in the eyes of most UT students and community members.

Thankfully, there are still some who keep this tradition alive. Matt Morelock does just that. A banjo player himself, Morelock owns a relatively new music shop in downtown Knoxville. Morelock Music is located across from Mast General Store (another joint that keeps Appalachian tradition alive) on Gay Street. The shop specializes in unique, old-time instruments of all sorts. Though his collection of banjos, guitars, mandolins and resonators is certainly respectable, old string instruments aren’t all that are available at Morelock Music. The shop also provides a nice assortment of vintage clothing, music lessons and recording sessions.

Providing an outlet to get a hold of old-time instruments is something particularly valuable to our Appalachian community. Nonetheless, I think Morelock’s hosting show is the most important thing he does to keep the ways of the mountain people alive and well. Every first Friday of the month, Morelock Music hosts a free show. Typically, the artists are of the acoustic/folk/old-time style you wouldn’t see at many of the typical venues in Knoxville. Just this semester, Morelock Music has hosted such great acts as The Hot Seats, Matt the Electrician, Love’s It and the Hackensaw Boys.

In an effort to keep the essence of Appalachia alive, I encourage you to check out Morelock Music this Friday for a free show featuring Rum Drum Ramblers (show starts at 8 p.m. and donations for the band are encouraged). As Jesse Fiske of the Hackensaw Boys put it following a show at Morelock Music just last month, “Knoxville has one of the best folk/Americana/old-time scenes in the entire country,” and you would be crazy not to take advantage of it.

2 Responses

  • I’ve been a fan of irish trad for years and have heard some of the most amazing music in the smallest towns of Ireland.I always had an interest in genuine folk music. The Nashville show sounds like a great take, my question is -can an outsider go to the source of the music? I’d like to go to some of the out of the way places and listen at the source. Can it be done?
    thank you,

  • barbara says:

    Irish and Scots traditional music make up the core of appalachia, brian. The mtns in the southern highlands resemble the scots highlands and attracted celtic peoples for that, and other reasons. The communities remained isolated as mtn towns often do. The music brought over from Ireland & Scotland (along with the pipes & the Dulcimer) gained a distictive flavor in Appalachia, mostly noteably vocal style (see AP Carter & Maybelle)- often sung w/out instrumentation as oral tradition in the home. So there is a reason why some of the ballads sound familiar in aspect or lyric if you’ve been to Ireland. The celts are the root of the music of Appalachia. Nice article Eric.

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