A Country Rag-- Distilled Spirits

A Country Rag Distilled Spirits

"And there'll be dancin', dancin' in the streets..."

By Jeannette Harris

ReelTime Travelers
Graphic: ReelTime Travelers, photo by Steve Cook

NOTE: Steve Cook was named last year as a "regional hero" by Marquee Magazine, which has an article in its Summer 2008 issue featuring Music On The Square, with a substantially increased audience now, with accolades and recommendations for attendance during its tenth year anniversary of diversely entertaining presentations of Appalachia and Americana.

"We've had a lot of requests but we're gonna play anyway."

For the past two years, as soon as sidewalks warm enough to sit upon, the Jonesborough Novelty Band opens the first of Friday evening Music on the Square free street concerts. Roads are blocked off, babies gathered, instruments tuned, costumes repaired. Grandmas find their dancing shoes. You won't find Nashville here. Founder, coordinator and guiding spirit Steve Cook has lined up months through mid-fall of mountain bluegrass, blues, celtic, folk, and a storyteller or two. If one can't show, Steve'll play bass with whatever pickup band passes through.

In previous years, concerts by the East Tennessee Musicians Co-op were held in the park behind Jonesborough's log house but the man who ran it (Bill Howze) retired, musicians drifted off, and for seven years the idea died. Its informal beginnings years ago were at Erwin's Chucky Trading Company, a riverside tavern with tex-mex food and pool tables. The building itself dated back from the 1880s, built as a brothel for railroad company execs and perhaps their out-of-town guests. It doesn't exist anymore.

The revival of an informal co-op performing free, or passing a hat (bowl), spread originally by word of mouth and drew to Jonesborough dozens, then scores, now hundreds of townsfolk and visitors of all ages and descriptions. Greene Valley patients are wheeled out of vans by clinic workers. Youngsters dance on the courthouse steps and its stone bannisters. Couples clog on Main Street. Bystanders sit on benches and curbs, or bring their folding chairs. The Ice Cream Parlor stays open with its over-sized cones. Dillworth's serves supper and its sometimes solo musicians clash and complement music on the street. The sisters and brother at Cranberry Thistle keep their coffee and tea thermoses full. Guests amble amidst pastries and homemade meals, rocking chairs and local papers, magazines, talking with whomever's there. Music on the Square You never know who you'll meet at Cranberry Thistle, or on the crowded street. Steve and Tava Cook's Jonesborough Art Glass Gallery gleams and reflects with unexpected hanging shapes, and steel girders of the new National Storytelling Center rise across the street. The Eureka refurbished hotel next block is nearly complete.

There's the table for voter registration and another selling MOTS t-shirts. The profit goes for promotion now to local radio stations, newspapers, chambers of commerce, hotels, motels. Public radio WETS spreads the news. Most of the musicians are students or professors from nearby colleges: Milligan, Tusculum, and ETSU. Money collected for them goes to performers or to their favorite charities. Marquee magazine and Blue Ridge Country cite it as a model revival of community interaction and spirit, a successful indigenous endeavor keeping smalltown America vibrant.

Steve says the primary motivation, though, is music, the universal language that all cultures, all ages, all religions understand, the repository of our history handed down through families and friends from this generation to the next, and the dances that go along, our feet and hands telling us of ancestors crossing the seas long ago and settling this land. Main Street is our "family room," he says, the place where we can gather to share our pasts and presents, where we can relax and entertain each other, or do nothing at all. "It feeds our soul," he says. "A shallow life is nothing growing there, like a fallow field. This is real grassroots, inside and out volunteer." Now, even during formal festivals, musicians and other artists form or regroup in coffee houses and on the street. It's a good place to hang out.

And the musicians play on, "however long they feel like playing, however long folks feel like staying." Stevan Jackson on dulcimer, celtic harp, and guitar. The ReelTime Travelers with their fiddle, banjo, guitar, and mandolin. Soon they'll lean against the Antique Mall, tapping and clapping with the crowd, talking, listening to traditional ballads of loves and lives gone astray along the hills of home, brought alive by the Birch Springs Band.

Chimney sweeps dive. Behind Jonesborough spires, the Appalachians dim. Streetlamps come on.

Music on the Square

"Let me be your salty dog

or I won't be your man at all.

Honey let me be your

salty dog tonight."

Graphic: Music on the Square, photo by Steve Cook

May Jonesborough Novelty Band; Stevan Jackson; ReelTime Travelers/Birch Spring Band; Dustin Laughrun/Country Blue
June Whitewater; Alan Ross/Sigean (Celtic night); Rocky Hardymon/Susan Lachman&Tom Antenucci; Patrick Rheaume/Tomahawk; Country Blue/Lightnin' Charlie&The Upsetters;
July Jason Edwards/Short Hill Ramblers; Randy Hixson/Andreena Belcher; Red Wilson and the Hotshots; The Din
August Mike Brobeck/Ed Snodderly Band; Jim and Sheri Miler and Friends; J.R. Moore Band; Appalachian Trail
September H.B. Beverly; Stevan Jackson; Ted Olson; Leisure Tyme; Jonesborough Novelty Band

Jonesborough Art Glass Gallery -- "The truly educated never graduate." Tava, formerly a nurse, and Steve Cook, who studied art at ETSU, began their custom stained-glass work with "relative success," meaning commissions from friends and family, in 1976. Their son Rob is also an artisan, with lamp-working, hot glass, originally melted over Bunsen burners. The corner shop sparkles with original glass creations from over 100 crafters nationwide.

DANCING IN THE STREET (Stevenson-Hunter-Gaye)
"Callin' out around the world
 Are you ready for a brand new beat? 
 Summer's here and the time is right
 For dancin' in the streets
 They're dancin' in Chicago
 Down in New Orleans
 Up in New York City
 All we need is music, sweet music
 There'll be music everywhere
 There'll be swingin', swayin' and records playin'
 And dancin' in the streets...."
-- The Mamas and Papas

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A Country Rag

text&graphics©Jeannette Harris, photos©Steve Cook, June 2000. All rights reserved.