The Music of East Tennessee has a rich history, and played a major role in the development of modern country and bluegrass music. Bristol, known as “the birthplace of country music”, (and home of the Birthplace of Country Music Museum), and Johnson City, notable for the Johnson City recording sessions, are both towns in the Tri-Cities region of East Tennessee. The music of East Tennessee is defined by country, gospel, and bluegrass artists, and has roots in Appalachian folk music.
Pioneer settlers of the Great Smoky Mountains created old-time music ballads, before their relocation, by the creation of Great Smoky Mountains National Park. To help celebrate this heritage, Townsend, Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and other locations in the Great Smoky Mountains, host annual festivals, some of which feature folk and bluegrass music. The Great Smoky Mountains Association also promotes events with mountain music, and has released several award-winning albums, including: Old-Time Smoky Mountain Music, Old-Time Bluegrass from the Great Smoky Mountains, On Top of Old Smoky, and Big Bend Killing. The Great Smoky Mountains Heritage Center, in Townsend, also helps to preserve this pioneer cultural history. In addition, the Museum of Appalachia, in Norris, hosts occasional folk music performances.
In May 1925, the now-legendary Fiddlers’ Convention was held in Mountain City. Pioneering fiddler G. B. Grayson won first prize for his rendering of the folk song, “Cumberland Gap”, besting rivals Ambrose G. “Uncle Am” Stuart, Charlie Bowman, and Fiddlin’ John Carson. The song was named for Cumberland Gap, a narrow pass through the Cumberland Mountains, which was explored by Daniel Boone in the 1770s, as he blazed the Wilderness Road. In recognition of this heritage, the town of Cumberland Gap, Tennessee, hosts the monthly “Cumberland Mountain Music Show”, with live gospel, bluegrass, and country music. To commemorate the Mountain City Fiddlers’ Convention, the nearby community of Laurel Bloomery hosts the annual Old Time Fiddler’s Convention. The event is held every summer, at the town’s Old Mill Music Park. Area musicians travel to attend this festival, which features old-time folk and bluegrass music. G. B. Grayson is buried in Gentry Cemetery, in Laurel Bloomery. He mentions the town in the 1928 Victor recording of the song, Train 45: “I’m a goin’ to Laurel Bloomery, Tennessee, Henry…”
The Bristol recording sessions, held in 1927, have been called by some the “Big Bang” of modern country music. They helped launch the careers of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, among others. In 1998, the U.S. Congress formally recognised Bristol as the “Birthplace of Country Music”, and the Birthplace of Country Music Museum opened in 2014. Though less-known than the Bristol sessions, the Johnson City sessions, of 1928 and 1929, also played a significant role in helping to popularise country and bluegrass music. Some recordings from the Johnson City sessions influenced such later musicians as Bob Dylan and Doc Watson. In 1929 and 1930, a series of recording sessions was held in Knoxville. Some historians say that these, also, influenced early country music. The sessions are documented at the East Tennessee Historical Society’s East Tennessee History Center, which is also located in Knoxville.
The Oak Ridge Boys, of Oak Ridge, are one the oldest and best-known musical acts from East Tennessee. Since the 1940s, they have sung country and southern gospel music hits. Dolly Parton, from Sevierville, is a country and gospel music legend. Her theme park, Dollywood (located in nearby Pigeon Forge), features live music performances, and is home to the Southern Gospel Museum and Hall of Fame. Parton’s western-themed Dixie Stampede, a dinner theater restaurant, (also in Pigeon Forge), has daily shows as well. The Country Tonite Theater, in Pigeon Forge, has operated since 1996. Its award-winning shows have included performers such as Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, and The Bellamy Brothers.
Places in East Tennessee have been the inspiration for many songs. Perhaps the most well-known is Rocky Top. Released by the Osbourne Brothers in 1967, it is one of the ten state songs of Tennessee. Though often performed at Tennessee Volunteers football games, it is not the official fight song of the University of Tennessee (Down the Field). In addition, Rocky Top, Tennessee is now a town, northwest of Knoxville, which changed its name from Lake City in 2014. Ronnie Milsap’s 1980 song, Smoky Mountain Rain, is also one of Tennessee’s state songs. Dolly Parton’s hit, My Tennessee Mountain Home, served as the centerpiece of her 1973 album, My Tennessee Mountain Home. Parton also reminisced on her rural childhood in her 1984 song, Tennessee Homesick Blues. East Tennessee Blues, written in 1926 by Charlie Bowman, (from Gray), continues to be a popular bluegrass song. Please Come to Boston, recorded and written in 1974 by Dave Loggins, has been covered by many artists, including David Allan Coe and Joan Baez. The song concludes with the line, “I’m the number one fan of the man from Tennessee.” Loggins, born in Mountain City in 1947, is the second cousin of singer Kenny Loggins. Chattanooga Choo Choo, originally published in 1941, tells the story of a train trip to Chattanooga. In 1957, the British musician Lonnie Donegan had a No. 1 UK hit with a skiffle version of “Cumberland Gap”. In addition, Dixieland Delight, released by Alabama in 1983, was inspired by a highway drive through Rutledge, Tennessee.
The Ballad of Davy Crockett helped to popularise the 1955 film Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier. First recorded and introduced on the television series Disneyland in 1954, it has been covered by a number of artists, most notably Tennessee Ernie Ford. The song’s lyrics say Crockett was “born on a mountaintop in Tennessee”, but his actual birthplace was Limestone, Tennessee, the home of Davy Crockett Birthplace State Park. In addition to his renowned frontier exploits and military service, Crockett served East Tennessee as a state legislator and Congressman. The folk hero Daniel Boone, who helped explore East Tennessee, was honored in the soundtrack for the television series Daniel Boone, which ran from 1964 until 1970. The last of three versions of the theme song was sung by The Imperials, a Grammy-winning Christian music group. Ruby Falls, a waterfall inside the Lookout Mountain Caverns, has inspired multiple songs. Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison wrote and recorded the song “See Ruby Falls”, on Cash’s 1970 album Hello, I’m Johnny Cash. Country artist Ray Stevens also included a song named “Ruby Falls” on his 2011 album, Bozos’s Back Again.
The music of East Tennessee is celebrated throughout the region at annual festivals. The Museum of Appalachia hosts the Tennessee Fall Homecoming each October. The four-day event has featured headliners such as Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, Mac Wiseman, Janette Carter, and Rhonda Vincent. The Kingsport “Fun Fest” is held each July, and has included Charlie Daniels, as well as The Newsboys, among others. Heritage Days, a street festival event, is hosted each October, in Rogersville. The Shady Valley Cranberry Festival, also in October, has live country, bluegrass and gospel entertainment.
Artists from East Tennessee, such as Kenny Chesney, Rodney Atkins, Lauren Alaina, and Ashley Monroe (originally from Knoxville), continue to help define the country music industry. Greeneville, home to The Band Perry, also features occasional performances by the group.