​Grundy County Junior Appalachian Musicians

by Bailey Basham, Messenger Staff Writer

In Appalachia, music has always been critical. It has served as a way to tell stories, to remember our history and to honor the community and its love of the land. Each Appalachian community has its own translation, and Bob Townsend said it was learning of Grundy’s version that inspired him to make preserving the history possible.

Through a program called JAM, Townsend and the Grundy Area Arts Council (GAAC) are sharing the region’s traditional music with a new generation.

JAM, which is short for Junior Appalachian Musicians, is an after-school program that provides students with an opportunity to learn and play traditional Appalachian music. JAM Kids provides instruction in small groups for students interested in learning instruments that are commonly found in Appalachia, such as the fiddle, banjo and guitar.

Field trips, visiting artists and an introduction to the rich history of music unique to each local community further supplement program offerings. Each JAM program is encouraged to foster musical traditions by teaching local styles of traditional mountain music and dance to children. Instructors are also encouraged to teach students to learn music by ear, as to preserve oral traditions as much as possible.

JAM has 53 programs spanning four states and 39 counties. Through their affiliate programs, they are able to serve more than 1,500 student musicians every year. The local chapter of JAM was born from a local jam group and is funded and operated by the GAAC.

Townsend, who plays with the Fiery Gizzard String Band, is the director of Grundy’s JAM program. He said he remembers the first time he was exposed to traditional music, he was just 6-years-old, and is an experience he will never forget.

“I was at a fair, and I don’t know if the two men were paid to be there or if they just gathered because there were people around to listen, but they were sitting on a bench playing a fiddle and a banjo, and I thought, ‘That is it. That is what I want to do,’” he said.

Since then, Townsend has been playing music.

“I’m in a band called the Fiery Gizzard String Band, and our claim to fame is kind of that we play local fiddle tunes. A great number of them came from recordings of and learning directly from fiddlers in Grundy that are all gone away. The local tradition has pretty much died out, and we would like to see it make a comeback with local kids,” he said.

For students, the benefits to learning to play music are great. Learning an instrument increases memory skills, improves coordination and math skills and nurtures self-expression, but for Townsend and the GAAC, the JAM project is about fostering a sense of community among the kids.

“My biggest satisfaction comes from just seeing the kids be able to join in to play in a group. Our goal is not to create professional musicians. If that happens, great, but we just want to teach these kids a style of music that they can sit around the house and enjoy themselves or with their family and friends,” he said. “To see the kids get to the level where they can come join in and feel like they’re a part of this big group of musicians playing and having fun is what makes me the most happy.”

Grundy’s branch of JAM is run entirely on donations, both in the form of funding and instrument donations. To get involved or to support the work of Grundy’s JAM program, email <grundyjamkids@gmail.com>.