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East Tennessee Culture Keeper Ed Snodderly Offers Chimney Smoke

Billie Wheeler

From a hilltop above Johnson City, TN, you could (spiritually) survey large swaths of the history of country music. The Carter Family came from a few miles north, and very nearby is Bristol, where they made their historic first recordings in 1927. To the west are Sevierville and Luttrell, hometowns of Dolly Parton and Chet Atkins respectively. The Stanley Brothers hailed from a few miles away in Virginia, and the area is full of towns and rivers that crop up in country and bluegrass songs.

And then there’s Johnson City itself, home to the East Tennessee State University with its renowned Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies program, as well as the Down Home, one of the essential venues for roots musicians and an institution approaching its 50th anniversary. Ed Snodderly is a fellow who connects all of those dots. He founded the Down Home, teaches at ETSU, mentors emerging artists in the region and writes exceptional songs that shed light and love on contemporary Appalachian culture. In Episode 255 of The String, Snodderly talks about his years as a culture-keeper and his exceptional new album Chimney Smoke.

Ed grew up near Knoxville in a farming family around a dynamic musical culture. He took up the guitar and began making trips to Nashville in the early 1970s, when he hung out at the Old Time Pickin’ Parlor on Second Avenue or the Exit/In to see Norman Blake or Guy Clark. He caught the Grand Ole Opry in its final years at the Ryman Auditorium, where he was struck by the contrast and communion of Roy Acuff’s old-time hillbilly music and the newgrass fusion of the Earl Scruggs Revue. He says he was as taken by the British Invasion as by old-time and acoustic roots.

“That was the time that the Will The Circle Be Unbroken record came out,” Snodderly says at the outset of our conversation. “And so there was a lot of transition going down. Everything was trying to move where it was being heard and being appreciated, and different sides joining together. For me, being just in high school, looking to what's next for me and what's my music, it was a good thing.”

After some sojourning in Boston and on the West Coast, Ed returned to East Tennessee where music venues like Exit/In and Club Passim in Boston inspired the Down Home, a listening room he opened with his friend “Tank” Leach in 1976. About the same time, he also launched a recording career with a couple of solo albums starting in 1977 and a long run with the beloved Brother Boys starting in the late 80s.

Ed also thrived as a songwriter, scoring cuts by Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and Missy Raines, the star bluegrass bass player who was a member of the Brother Boys early in her career. One of those songs - “The Diamond Stream” - was selected to be quoted in stone as a feature in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum when it was built in downtown Nashville in 2001. It’s quite something to see Ed’s lyrics at the edge of a fountain connecting the main entrance to the rotunda where Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and others are enshrined. In another of his adventures, Ed had a minor role in O Brother Where Art Thou? the most important roots music movie of the past quarter century.

You’d have to know none of this history to be swept up in Ed’s new album Chimney Smoke. Made in Nashville with producer R.S. Field and the late great engineer Bil VornDick, it’s a hybrid - of acoustic and electric timbres, of plainspoken folk and artful southern poetry. The light touch of the expert band comes from folks like guitarist Kenny Vaughan, bass player Chris Scruggs, and drummer John Gardiner. Also here, a cast of fascinating and honored guest vocalists including Gretchen Peters, Amythyst Kiah (whom Snodderly taught and mentored during her degree at ETSU), and North Carolina song master Malcolm Holcomb, whose imagistic work has kinship with Snodderly’s intricate lyrics.

I hear it in the pensive and appreciative song “There You Are,” in which Snodderly sings about noticing and acknowledging the purpose and history in ordinary people.

“There you are in that hat
Taking your time to talk like that
You’re more that the dust and dew
More than the country blues 
More than what the wind blows through”

In the title track, Ed ponders how the outside world sees his hillbilly people (while acknowledging that’s evolved), and he casts old mountain folk as resourceful guardians of values. And there’s plenty of room for interpretation and imagination when hearing the magic “Jump Dance South” in which a family reunion is chronicled as “The chairs in the yard/ Have all been broke in hard/ They move the sun/ Into the shade.” Asked about it, Ed says it was written soon after his mother’s death, though it’s not about her per se. He quotes lines from it, offering a spoken word treatment, which frankly works, including a line about “a kid” who “kicked a rock right off the Earth.”

“I love singing that,” he says at last with his beatific smile. “I don't know what it means.”

The album ends with a fresh and folky reading of “The Diamond Stream” with its lovely evocation of time, natural cycles and the human need to participate in the concert of life. You’ll also be able to hear the first recorded version of his fateful song in early September when the completist roots label Bear Family Records releases On The Honky Tonk Highway With The Brother Boys, a 51-song, 2 CD set compilation of that band’s best music from between 1988 and 2022.

Also in this hour, I get to know Miles Miller, the longtime drummer for Sturgill Simpson who's broken cover as a songwriter himself with the album Solid Gold.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of <i>The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org</i>