Local News

Story published: 11-06-2013 • Print ArticleE-mail Story to a Friend

First of the Musical Heritage Murals going up in Mtn. City

The first of three murals, Cristy Dunn adds some finishing touches to her depiction of Tom Ashley picking his banjo for his pony.
One of the best-kept secrets in East Tennessee is the rich musical heritage of Johnson County, but that story is about to be told in a big way. The Johnson County Arts Council recently secured funding through the East Tennessee Foundation, the Johnson County Community Foundation, and several prominent Johnson Countians and local businesses for the Musical Heritage Mural Project. The project will result in three murals being created by local artist and Johnson County High School teacher Cristy Dunn and installed on downtown buildings that honor the nationally and internationally known old time musicians who have called Johnson County home. In addition to beautifying downtown Mountain City, the murals will document local history and create a strong cultural element. The much anticipated first in the series has just been completed: a mural that depicts Clarence “Tom” Ashley picking his banjo for his pony. The public is invited to come out for the official unveiling of the mural on Saturday, November 16th at 3:00 in the afternoon at the corner of Church and Donnelly Streets. A reception will follow at Lois’s Country Café. Guests at the reception will be treated to an intimate concert in which Kenny Price demonstrates Tom Ashley’s signature clawhammer banjo style.

Clarence “Tom” Ashley began performing at medicine shows in the Southern Appalachian region as early as 1911, and gained initial fame during the late 1920s as a solo recording artist. He was “rediscovered” during the folk revival of the 1960s, and spent the last years of his life playing at folk music concerts with the young Doc Watson, and two other Johnson County musicians, Clint Howard and Fred Price. The group appeared at Carnegie Hall in New York and at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. In 1933, Ashley made the first known recording of “The House of the Rising Sun,” which he claimed he learned from his grandfather, Enoch. Ashley and his band helped to popularize the Southern hymn, “Amazing Grace.” Country music singer Roy Acuff once worked medicine shows with Ashley, who likely taught him “Greenback Dollar.” Among other musicians directly influenced by Ashley are Bob Dylan, Jerry Garcia, of the Grateful Dead, and Joan Baez. In March 2013, the Library of Congress announced that the album, Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s, would be added to the National Recording Registry. The album consists of a series of early-1960s recordings performed by Ashley and bandmates Doc Watson, Clint Howard, Fred Price, Gaither Carlton and Tommy Moore. Although humility is as much a part of Southern Appalachian culture as the old time string band, it is only fitting that a musician of national influence be recognized by his own hometown.

The Musical Heritage Mural Project has generated a great deal of enthusiasm within the community. Local residents remember the musicians as their neighbors and kin and realize that they have left a tremendous legacy. The next mural in the series will be considerably larger in size and will feature the story of Tom Dooley, who was captured in the Pandora Community of Johnson County and about whom the now famous song was written. G.B. Grayson, another Johnson County musician, was the first to record the Ballad of Tom Dooley and also wrote and recorded many of the old time fiddle tunes that have since become standards. G.B.’s nephew, Frank Grayson, who carried on the old time fiddle tradition, will have a place in the Tom Dooley mural as well. The third in the series of murals will honor Clint Howard and Fiddlin’ Fred Price, who toured with Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley during the folk revivial of the ‘60s. If you would like to keep up with the progress of the mural project, hear related music, and see some of the old black and white reference photographs that informed the paintings, visit the Musical Heritage Mural Project Facebook page.