By Lee Bidgood

The second annual String Band Summit was held by East Tennessee State University’s program in Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies (BLUE) and Department of Appalachian Studies. The event took place February 9-12, 2023, in the Culp Center on ETSU’s campus. The conference/workshop/festival event accomplished its goals to bring together practitioners/artists, teachers, students, and other stakeholders in string band music across genre boundaries.

The 2023 Summit included an emphasis on people of color. The Thursday pre-Summit concert hosted by ETSU’s Reece Museum and featuring Sparky and Rhonda Rucker, highlighted the Black experience in Appalachia. The conference began with a panel that highlighted important contributions of African American people to string band music, followed by a response by Dr. Daryl Carter, director of ETSU’s Black American Studies program. The Friday night concert was headlined by the band led by DaShawn Hickman, a Mt. Airy, NC-based virtuoso in the sacred steel guitar tradition—and also included BLUE artist-in-residence Mike Compton and his blues-focused mandolin music. The Saturday dance included Afro-Caribbean dance figures and Crucian quelbe music.

Other presentations included a panel that discussed drive, authenticity, and crossover in bluegrass; a panel on approaches to teaching bluegrass music theory; and a panel that considered the problems and possibilities of teaching, borrowing, and creating new traditions. Student groups from the University of North Georgia and Berea College led workshops focused on musical creativity and Kentucky repertory; other workshops focused on local two-finger banjo traditions and the Scottish strathspey.

Event participants reported in the feedback survey that the event was transformative, particularly in its focus on inclusion, and through facilitating connection across lines of discipline, genre, and generation. Participants found the participatory and exploratory aspects of the event helpful:

“I especially appreciated the participatory nature of the Summit, with lots of actual music making and playing. I also deepened my understanding of approaches to teaching this music.”“I was encouraged to let my guard down and try new things. I was encouraged to approach topics with curiosity and ask questions.”

Participants pointed out the opportunities for mentorship that the event offered:

“This event does a great job supporting junior scholars. It creates the space for senior scholars to engage with junior scholars meaningfully.”

“While certainly all of the contributions have value, I personally find value in the supportive relationships that build through String BAnd Summit. Whether it is a senior scholar supporting emerging junior scholars, or seasoned professional musicians mentoring musicians who are looking to professionalize their craft, people find new ways to collaborate with one another, and opportunities to challenge each other to think expansively, etc. That ‘multi-generational’ connection speaks to the essence of string band music practice.”

Participants felt that the event fostered a sense of inclusivity and generosity:

“Although inclusivity can always be increased, this was undoubtedly the most inclusive bluegrass/old time event I’ve ever been to.”

“I appreciated the overall sense of musical generosity that was there.“

A participant pointed out the helpfulness of the guidelines document:

“I appreciated the handout in the program that helped guide my thinking. The themes helped me contextualize the information I was taking in and gave me perspective on how to apply this information into my own life and research.”

The 2023 Summit was primarily sponsored by ETSU’s program in Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies, in collaboration with the Department of Appalachian Studies and the Language and Culture Resource Center. Additional support was provided by the IBMA Foundation, the Boone’s Creek Opry, Mapes Strings, Visit Johnson City, and private donors.

Return to the August, 2023 issue of The Cornerstone.

Photo above: DaShawn Hickman speaks to ETSU bluegrass students and conference attendees.