The music and artists that are influencing Johnson City, TN
East Tennessee has long been a haven for great music and intrepid young musical artists. From the timeless sounds of our folk, blue grass, and mountain music roots to the growing underground rock, hip hop, and alternative music scene, Johnson City is quickly becoming a gathering point for artists to collaborate and develop a fresh new sound.
Music has always been a big part of the area culture because it speaks directly to our passion for the land, the people, and our unique outlook on life in general. Minutes from the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in Bristol, TN—the region is steeped in tradition and musical legends. Many legendary artists from around the world have referenced artists and music from our area and key influences in their musical development. From the Carter Family, Tennessee Ernie Ford, and Jimmie Rogers to new artists like Big Mistr and Mo Sabri, music has been a core part of our heritage and identity.
The Johnson City Sessions
One of the big historical contributions to music from our area are the Johnson City Sessions that took place in 1928 and 1929 by Frank Buckley Walker, head of the Columbia Records “hillbilly” recordings division. Notable releases from these important recording sessions included; “The Coo-Coo Bird” by Clarence Ashley and “Down on Penny’s Farm” by the Bentley Boys. Many of these traditional bluegrass and folk pieces are considered as important recordings of early country music that influenced later generations of revivalist fold musicians in the 1950s and 1960s, including Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Doc Watson.
The recording sessions were completed at a makeshift studio located at the Brading-Marshall Lumber Company in Johnson City. Amateur musicians from around the region came to audition for Mr. Walker—who was in search for native Appalachian-Blue Ridge Mountains musical talent. Popular music that came out of the sessions, such as “Johnson City Blues,” “Roll on Buddy” and “Moonshiner and His Money,” have become standards for the genre and important historical records of the musical era.
Johnson City Music Festivals
Our area has also grown some amazing regional, and national, acclaim for our music festivals as well. The beauty of our region, the vibrant arts community, and the hospitality of our residents has made Johnson City a great venue for some unique and popular music festivals—drawing attendees from around the world.
Blue Plum Festival – The biggest local festival is the “Blue Plum Festival” which is held each year in early summer. The festival is held in the historic Founders Park near downtown Johnson City, and attracts musical acts from bluegrass, folk, country, and other genres. The festival is free of charge and also attracts regional artists, craftsmen, and food venders to make the event a huge success.
UMOJA Unity Festival – Another great festival held in Johnson City is the UMOJA Unity Festival. This popular event centers around celebrating the diversity and heritage of local cultures and highlights musical performances centered on soul, R&B, and reggae influences. The UMOJA festival also includes many activities for the whole family including; arts, crafts, storytellers, drum lines, and a parade.
Little Chicago Music & Arts Festival – In mid-August, Johnson City hosts one of its more unique events—the “Little Chicago Music & Arts Festival.” The event celebrates the reputation Johnson City earned in the roaring 20s as “Little Chicago,” due to its dubious relationship with organized crime as a distribution center between Chicago and Miami. Today the festival draws crowds from around the country to enjoy authentic food, arts and musical artists in rock, punk, hip hop, EDM, and other genres. The festival has grown every year and has become a standalone destination for new music enthusiasts.
Located on the campus of East Tennessee State University (ETSU), the B. Carrol Reece Museum has an array of exhibits centered on Appalachian heritage and music. There are musical instruments, historical artifacts, and stories about the many pivotal musical influencers from Central Appalachia housed in the museum. If you consider yourself an avid enthusiast to early Americana and folk tradition, the museum should certainly be on your list during your next visit!
If you’re looking to sample the local talent in Johnson City, you can find live music at many bars and restaurants to match your interests. There are plenty to choose from and lots of diversity in the acts they feature each weekend.
The Hideaway – Hard Rock, Metal, and Punk music in the style of the 60s Southern California skater counter-culture are all available at The Hideaway. With classic skateboard decks from throughout the history of the sport lining the walls, The Hideaway is the perfect place to grab a drink and rage on the edgy side of music.
Down Home – If you are more interested in something more country, Down Home is a great option. With good food and amazing local folk, bluegrass, and country acts, you’re sure to fall in love with the music heritage on display. New acts are featured every weekend, and the hospitality is always second to none.
Wild Wing Café – This regional chain does a great job curating local talent to present to guests every weekend. Their guest artists come from rock, country, alternative, and folk backgrounds and always put on a great show for visitors. This is a great option to enjoy local music and regional flavor in a venue that always keeps the party hopping.
Much More! – Johnson City is home to some great independent restaurants and regional chains that are building amazing and unique dining experiences for their guests. Many of these recognize the value in the city’s musical culture and are featuring talent for their patrons. It’s impossible to feature all the great music events available in this article, so be sure to check local event calendars and restaurant/bar event postings to learn more.
Come and Join the Music
If you are a young and aspiring musical artist who is passionate about your craft and looking for a community of like-minded individuals, Johnson City is totally worth a visit. With the diversity of our music scene, we’re confident you can find mentors and peers to help you hone your craft and stretch your talents in new and exciting directions. Our area has been helping inspire a passion for music since it’s very beginnings, and that core identity is stronger today than it has ever been.
So, load up your instruments and plan a visit to Johnson City, TN to share your gift with our welcoming community—or just come to take it all in. Either way, we are sure you will leave knowing that music is at the very heart of want makes our city so amazing.