Appalachia Sessions: It’s like Austin City Limits with a mission

Beth KinnaneDowntown, Our Town Stories

Just before the Georgia Bulldogs commenced to gigging the TCU Horned Frogs last night, a very special taping was wrapping up at The Bijou Theatre. It was the second installment of the fledgling Appalachia Sessions, which debuted last month with a Christmas Spectacular.

And while the name may conjure images of banjos, fiddles and dulcimers, the music isn’t restricted to what is thought of as Appalachian music, but rather music of all genres performed (primarily) by musicians from Appalachia. ALL of Appalachia.

The Appalachia Sessions is the brain-child of Breezy Wynn (the younger) of The Wynn Group and presented by the East Tennessee Historical Society. Wynn is the president and executive producer of the series. He explained that the purpose of the program is more than a musical showcase.

Students lined up outside the Bijou for the first Appalachia Sessions taping back in December.

“We’re bringing students in from all over East Tennessee, at no cost to them, for these tapings,” Wynn said. “It’s a way to reach them through the silos of music and literacy, in a way that can be transformative. It allows them to see people who are from where they’re from who’ve succeeded in the arts, hearing how they learned to read, write and play music.”

Along with the performances (which will be filmed at The Bijou for now and aired 3-4 weeks later on WATE-6), the musicians share stories and anecdotes about their lives and experiences. The show is hosted by Knoxville’s own Chris Blue (winner of The Voice) and the Crockett Band.

“He’s our Jimmy Fallon,” Wynn said, referring to Blue, who certainly adds some glamour to the proceedings. “And you can expect to hear all types of music: country and western, bluegrass, gospel, blue and jazz, even rock.”

But it isn’t just about the stage performances. Before heading to the Bijou, the students first make a stop at the Museum of East Tennessee History (operated by ETHS) farther north on Gay Street for a tour of the exhibits.

Warren Dockter, Ph.D., president and CEO of the ETHS, said that all the participants are encouraged to sign up for Mentor Monsters, a piece of the project done in coordination with Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library of Knox County.

“The Mentor Monsters program is the literacy component of what we’re doing here,” Dockter said. “This is where we get school-age children to read to and mentor younger children in their families and communities.”

Participants receive a one-year student membership to the museum and have the opportunity to receive free merchandise or participate in meet-and-greets with performers after the tapings.

Both Wynn and Dockter were quick to praise the partners they have put together so far in getting the Appalachia Sessions off the ground, including the Elgin Children’s Foundation, Thrive Knoxville, WATE and Pellissippi State Community College. And they are hoping to attract some more.

“Right now, we’re doing these tapings once a month,” Wynn said. “If I could, I would do them every week.”

But until that time both Wynn and Dockter would like to see more local businesses sign on to sponsor their employees, etc., to attend the tapings. The sponsorships help fund bringing students in for these experiences for free.

“We want to speak inspiration into these children’s lives,” Dockter said. “We want this to be an edifying experience for them. Think of it as Austin City Limits with a mission.”

To learn more about the Appalachia Sessions go here and the East Tennessee Historical Society go here.

Beth Kinnane is the community news editor for

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