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Caleb Courtner's timeless music speaks older than his years

By: Lacy Hilliard
Tomahawk Writer, Photographer

Listening to Caleb Courtner play the mandolin, you might assume that you’re listening to a seasoned pro. If you meet him, his demeanor and character only further the betrayal of his youth. At only twenty-one years of age, Courtner has done a lot of living musically speaking, and it seems that as the chapters unfold, the only direction he’s capable of going is up.
Caleb was born and raised in Johnson County and is a 2010 graduate of Johnson County High School. Caleb credits his father, Shannon Courtner, for being the major musical inspiration in his life. His father played with the bluegrass/gospel group New Laurel Creek and can play just about everything from guitar to banjo to mandolin. Caleb recalls his boyhood fascination at his fathers many musical talents and his desire to be just like him. It was Shannon that taught his son to play the mandolin.
Caleb learned by ear and it’s only recently that he taught himself to read music. As is common in the bluegrass world, jam sessions don’t leave much room for sheet music and just about everyone knows the same set of traditional folk songs like Dark Hollow, Temperance Reel, Billy and the Low Ground, and Shuckin’ the Corn to name a few. Bluegrass jam sessions often use traditional songs as the base and branch off from there. Though Caleb has been jamming for most of his life, his love of all things music led him to explore the realm of treble clefs and time signatures.
Tough Caleb’s roots lie in bluegrass, he has an appreciation for a wide variety of genres. It’s surprising to learn that the CD player in his car is often occupied by ‘old school’ hip-hop. Perhaps it is Caleb’s ability to appreciate such an intermixture of genres that has provided such diversity in his talent. Many musicians have inspired Caleb both locally and on the national stage. He credits local musicians Skip and Charlie Roark of New Long Creek as well as Tyler Thompson and his father, Shannon Courtner for helping to mold him as a musician. Chris Thile (Nikel Creek), Sam Bush, and David Grisman are also some of Courtner’s biggest influences.
One of Courtner’s most recent endeavors was playing mandolin with Ashlee Blankenship and Blades of Blue. Blankenship’s ‘clear as a bell’ vocal styling’s coupled with the clear tone of Courtner’s mandolin made for a stunning pairing and the group rapidly gained recognition. His time with the ‘Blades of Blue’ is just one accomplishment on his impressive resumé. He has made his mark at several competitions including winning third place at the Merlefest mandolin competition; which is no small feat considering that Merlefest is widely renowned as one of the greatest bluegrass festivals in the country. He has also gained an endorsement from Moon Beam Mandolins; a family owned company and Merlefest sponsor. Caleb proudly sports a Harvest Moon F-Plus #59 mandolin and he can’t say enough about its tone and quality.
Caleb’s advice to any young musicians that are considering a career in music is to work tirelessly and dedicate all of your spare time and energy to your craft. Talent isn’t enough in today’s market because there’s so much talent to choose from. Today’s musician must be as savvy in marketing as they are at their craft. Social networking and marketing yourself to venues and labels can be a full time job. Though at a young age Courtner did aspire to become a professional musician, his time as a college student at Northeast State has opened new doors for him and he is currently studying psychology. He has also signed on with the United State Air Force where he hopes to continue his studies and serve his country.
Caleb may not be pursuing music as a career but his passion for it won’t be easily dwindled. Right now he’s playing with a group out of North Carolina called Carolina Crossing. Courtner said that though he’s choosing to move away from the life of a career musician, the close-knit bond he feels by being a part of the bluegrass community has helped shape him. Courtner says “This is Appalachia’s music, it’s a part of my culture and I’ll never stop playing.”

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