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Tim Stafford planning year two of Artist in Residence term at ETSU

By Mark Rutledge


Tim Stafford. (Photo by Dan Boner.)

It could be said that the title of Artist in Residence for East Tennessee State University’s Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies program is one that Tim Stafford has lived for decades. Accepting the formal position for a two-year term marks another chapter in his long experience of serving the program — and the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services — as a researcher, instructor, and all-around ambassador.


Honored by the ETSU National Alumni Association in 2015 as a Distinguished Alumnus in the Arts, Stafford has remained involved in projects and programs at the university since his time as a student during the late 1970s and early ’80s. His previous work within the ETSU community, he said, helps to inform his goals for the Artist in Residence position.

“I’m very proud of the university and of being an alumnus,” Stafford said. “That definitely speaks to what I do, and a lot of what I do these days is songwriting. We have a really big contingent of students on campus who are interested in that as well. So, a lot of what I’ve done in this first year as Artist in Residence has been with songwriters.”


That will not surprise anyone familiar with Stafford’s career in bluegrass. He has been voted Songwriter of the Year by the International Bluegrass Music Association three times, most recently in 2023. His start last fall as Artist in Residence came after the release earlier in the year of the album “Lost Voices,” a collection of songs written and recorded by Stafford and Thomm Jutz, another IBMA Songwriter of the Year.

Tim Stafford works with guitar student Audrey Neel in Stafford's office at ETSU. (Photo by Charlie Warden.)

“I’m working with a lot of guitar students as well,” Stafford said. “I’m coaching a bluegrass band and we’ve started a podcast. I’m doing a lot of things. In the songwriting area, I’ve got 10 students in two different sections of songwriting seminar this semester. We write a lot, and it’s just really inspiring to come in and hear those people every day — to hear their songs and how they develop over the course of a semester.”


The podcast Stafford is producing, with Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies program Director Dan Boner, is reflective of Stafford’s history of service to the university within multiple disciplines, music-related and otherwise. Titled “Bluegrass U,” the series is still in the production stage with about 20 episodes recorded so far. Each episode ends with a musical performance. The official objective of the podcast is to be “an engaging and informative program that delves into the rich history, vibrant culture, and evolving landscape of music within the Department of Appalachian Studies at ETSU.” It’s a broad effort to highlight the contributions of the people and programs that make up the department and all of the areas within the Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Services.


Master musician


During 30 years of touring and recording 14 albums with his band Blue Highway, Stafford has been widely recognized for his contributions to bluegrass music. His numerous IBMA nominations and awards include multiple nominations for Guitar Player of the Year. He won that title in 2015 from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America (SPBGMA). The huge catalog of songs written or co-written by Stafford includes about 250 that have been recorded.


Blue Highway performs at The Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee, during a two-night engagement in January. (Photo by Dan Boner.)

Throughout his career in the music industry, Stafford has consistently put his talents to work at ETSU in support of its seminal university program for teaching the music and culture of Appalachia. As an original member of the first ETSU Bluegrass Band, assembled by program founder Jack Tottle, Stafford brings an elder-statesman quality to the Artist in Residence position. Outside of

Tim Stafford and Blue Highway at The Down Home. (Photo by Dan Boner.)

ETSU, he has won too many music industry awards and recognitions to list — including Grammy nominations as a member of Blue Highway, and a Grammy award in 1992 as a member of Allison Krauss’s band Union Station. For more than four decades, he has maintained a professional connection to the university that provided an enduring foundation for his professional life as a singer, songwriter, author, and educator.

Stafford also draws upon his extensive knowledge as a historian of bluegrass music. He earned a master’s degree in history from ETSU and completed doctoral coursework at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. He has authored numerous articles and album liner notes and, with Caroline Wright, was co-author of Still Inside: The Tony Rice Story.

Members of Blue Highway include, from left: Jason Burleson, Tim Stafford, Wayne Taylor, Gary Hultman, and Shawn Lane. (Photo by Sherri George.)

Early involvement


After completing a bachelor’s degree in history in 1981, he was working on a master’s degree when Tottle, who had begun teaching guitar classes at ETSU, asked him to participate in a novel idea. Tottle recognized that, along with other musical groups and programs, the university should be represented by the traditional string music born in the same region.


“I was involved in the very first performance of that band,“ Stafford said, “with Jack, Richard Blaustein, Glen Rose and Greg Fields. We played for many of the faculty members over at the Culp Center. That was the very first performance of what was called the ETSU Bluegrass Band.”

The first ETSU Bluegrass Band, assembled by Jack Tottle, plays for a group of faculty members at ETSU about 1982. Pictured in this newsprint clipping is, from left, Greg Fields, Tim Stafford, Jack Tottle and Richard Blaustein. Glen Rose joined the band a short time later. (Photo courtesy of Jack Tottle.)

From that beginning in 1982, Tottle went on to cement ETSU as the internationally recognized go-to institution for bluegrass and roots music instruction, inspiring similar programs around Appalachian music at several other universities. Although Stafford was never a student in the program, he has always been a part of it. In many ways, the connection was there — through a community of bluegrass musicians and instructors in Stafford’s hometown of Kingsport, Tennessee — before the program existed.


“There was a great bluegrass community in Kingsport that I became a part of in the late ’70s and early ’80s,” Stafford said. “It revolved around a store downtown on Market Street called The Guitar Shop.”


Storied collaborations


Stafford taught music lessons at the store along with other area musicians, including the late guitarist James Allen Shelton, who performed with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys; Audey Ratliff, acclaimed as both a player and builder of fine mandolins; and Tottle, an accomplished mandolin player when he moved to the area in 1979 from Boston, where he led a band called Tasty Licks that included banjo virtuoso Béla Fleck. It was through the music store in Kingsport that Stafford developed relationships with some other now-famous musicians who went on to study at ETSU under Tottle and eventually lend their talents to the program as faculty members. Among those were Barry Bales and Adam Steffey, who, along with Stafford, were early members of Union Station. Bales has been with the band since. Two of Stafford's fellow Blue Highway members, Shawn Lane and Gary Hultman, also have connections and collaborations with the program at ETSU. Hultman is an alumnus.


Stafford tells a story about a teenager who showed up at the The Guitar Shop in those early days hoping to begin mandolin lessons under Tottle, who was not working that day. Someone asked Stafford, who taught banjo and guitar, if he could step in and provide a lesson. “I said, ‘I know one song on the mandolin. I’ll try to show him a little bit.’ And it was Adam. So, I gave Adam Steffey his very first mandolin lesson.”


Steffey soon began taking lessons from Ratliff, who played with Stafford and Bales in a band called The Boys in the Band. A short time later, Ratliff decided to switch instruments and told the other members he had a young mandolin student to recommend for the band — Steffey. “I couldn’t believe how far he had come in a short period of time,” Stafford said. “It was like, this cat’s amazing now.”

Alison Krauss and Union Station was featured on the cover of Bluegrass Unlimited magazine in June 1991, with a cover story about the band written by Jack Tottle. Members pictured included, from left, Barry Bales, Adam Steffey, Krauss, Tim Stafford and Alison Brown.

The Boys in the Band had completed its run by the late ’80s, and Stafford formed a new band called Dusty Miller that also included Bales and Steffey. That band was broken up in 1990 when Krauss, who was beginning her meteoric rise as a recording artist, invited the three to become members of her band. At that time, Stafford had been working for two years in the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at ETSU under Richard Blaustein.


“Richard was good enough to let me keep my job and still play with Alison,” Stafford said. “I had no idea … I knew we were going to be busy with Alison, but I didn’t know it was going to be like it ended up being. Eventually, I did have to quit my job at the Center during that time.”


Needing to be with his family more, Stafford left Union Station in 1992, the year his son, Daniel, was born. Tottle soon had him working with students in what was then called the ETSU Bluegrass Program. In 1994, Stafford formed Blue Highway with Wayne Taylor, Shawn Lane, Rob Ickes and Jason Burleson. In addition to multiple Grammy nominations, the band has won a Dove Award and is represented among nearly 30 IBMA awards.


Artist in demand


Looking toward his second year as Artist in Residence, Stafford has ideas about areas of study that could be added. One might be an entire class that looks at the business side of the music industry — an area that he touches on in other classes.

“Every day I’m asked a question about some facet of how to make a group work, travel, or something else within the business-related aspects. I wouldn’t mind teaching a class like that.”

He will keep a primary focus on songwriting, he said, because there is such a big demand for it. The classes fill up fast and have a waiting list for those who have been unable to get in — many of whom are not necessarily interested in writing bluegrass songs.

Tim Stafford, left, coaches a bluegrass band with students (from left) Trey Saunders, Angel Edgemon, Megan Gordon and Laura Franklin, at ETSU in Johnson City. (Photo by Appalachian Places staff.)

“It’s an endlessly fascinating topic,” Stafford said, ”because it’s so cross-genre. I have students who are into punk. I have students who really love country music, and others that like rock ‘n’ roll. I don’t have any rap students yet.”

Beyond songwriting and other instruction, Stafford is using his position to highlight and promote all of what goes on within the Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies program.

“There’s a lot about this program that I thought I knew but I didn’t,” he said. “One of them is the community. Gosh, they have such a great sense of community here that you don’t realize until you go down to the bottom of Sam Wilson Hall. You hear them gathered around in those lounges, and they’re picking. They’re not doing anything for class, they’re just picking and hanging out and talking. Everybody knows everybody else, and everybody supports everybody else. It’s really amazing and encouraging. They make connections here that they keep for the rest of their lives.”


Mark Rutledge is communications coordinator for the Appalachian Studies Department at ETSU, and managing editor of Appalachian Places.


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