BIG STONE GAP — Mountain Empire Community College celebrated 15 years of its Mountain Music School this past week.
The annual old-time music program wrapped up on Friday, July 26.
Mountain Music School is multigenerational, teaching traditional old-time music to students ages 10 and up and to all skill levels.
“We offer beginner, intermediate and advanced,” said local musician Tyler Hughes.
Hughes began the program as a student 14 years ago, then became an instructor and is now one of the coordinators of the program
“I started as a student in year two,” said Hughes.
Mountain Music School was started by local musician Ron Short and longtime MECC employee Sue Ella Boatright-Wells. The program was created to address the concern that traditional music was not being passed down to local youth.
Wells passed away from cancer in 2016.
“It’s really incredible and heartwarming to me that this camp has continued because it’s really helping carry on her legacy,” said Hughes.
“When they first started 15 years ago they had 30 students. This year we have 121,” said coordinator Mike Gilley.
Gilley has been the head coordinator of Mountain Music School for the past three years.
Along with 121 students, the program also has 19 instructors teaching classes such as autoharp, banjo, string bass, mandolin, fiddle, guitar and voice.
Aside from being a fun learning experience, this program has cultural significance.
The program draws local participants as well as students from Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina and other states. Gilley spoke of a student from Scotland who has attended for multiple years.
“A few years ago we had a family come here from Kansas,” said Gilley. “It was the parents, two kids and two grandparents. They came to Mountain Music School and learned how to play different instruments and formed their own band. That is really neat.
“This school was started for the purpose of preserving this music,” said Gilley.
Gilley stated that the founders, Short and Boatright-Wells, noticed that young people were no longer being taught traditional music.
“Music has always been handed down from the older generation to the younger generation, and they didn’t see as much of that going on anymore,” explained Gilley.
Gilley believes that Mountain Music School has had an impact on the local culture. He stated that since the program’s inception, The Crooked Road and Junior Appalachian Musicians programs have started. MECC offers a career studies certificate in old-time music as well.
“Some of the kids that come to the JAM program or Mountain Music School have come here (MECC) to complete that program,” said Gilley. “We have one student now who is working on his bachelors degree at East Tennessee State University in country, bluegrass and old-time music.”
He continued, “We have another student that is still here at Mountain Empire, that sometime next year, she will go to ETSU to work on that same degree.”
Mountain Music School runs every summer, Monday through Friday, during the last full week of July from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Each day at lunch, participants were treated to a concert by master musicians followed by workshops in blues guitar, jam sessions and square dancing.
The cost is $25 for students ages 10 to 17 and $150 for adults. Registration begins in January.