JOHNSON CITY, TENNESSEE—Some American cities have come back, and others are still dominated by boarded-up storefronts and memories of former glories. Johnson City is somewhere in between, with sprouts of new life dotting Main Street.
Willow Street Café is one such sprout, a funky, comfortable coffeehouse with live music, including—on the night we attended, Abby the Spoon Lady and her one-man-band accompanist, Chris Rodrigues. When not on stage, she can often be found busking on the streets of nearby Asheville, North Carolina.
Willow Street was the perfect place to rendezvous with Kris Truelsen and Kalia Yeager, core members of Johnson City-based Bill and the Belles. The group is one-of-a-kind, deftly combining old-time country (as performed in the place where it was born) with the pop sensibilities of the 1920s and 1930s. Truelsen is convinced, and I heartily concur, that period pop (a/k/a The Great American Songbook or Tin Pan Alley) sat side by side in the repertoire of local and regional musicians.
Due to the rigidity of record companies (then and now) they stayed within their chosen genres on disc, hence our conviction today that it was all they played. In reality, musicians had to eat, so they were only to happy to play the hits of the day for paying audience.
The group’s name comes from Bill and the great singer/songwriter Ollabelle Reed, who recorded in Johnson City. (The group Ollabelle was also named after her.) After some personnel changes, it now features Truelsen on guitar and vocals, Yeagle on fiddle and voice, Helena Hunt on banjo and vocal, and Andrew Small on bass.
Truelsen is from Colorado and Yeagle from Alaska. They came together in the mountains of Tennessee, where both studied Appalachian music at East Tennessee State University. Yeagle, who also played with the New Reeltime Travelers, is an educator with a geography degree from Vassar and a graduate certificate from ETSU.
Truelsen was the first person to get a master’s in Appalachian Studies at ETSU, and is the producer and music director of Radio Bristol, housed at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum in nearby Bristol, Tennessee. That’s where Ralph Peer’s historic recording session was held circa 1927, producing country’s first two major stars—Jimmie Rodgers (“The Singing Brakeman”) and the Carter Family.
The museum is great fun—go if you can. I didn’t realize that the so-called Bristol Sessions were one of the first recording dates to be electrically recorded. That meant vastly better sound, and great sales of country records—at least until the Depression put a damper on things.
The central radio show on Radio Bristol is the monthly “Farm & Fun Time,” an hour-long homage to the original show (launched in the 1940s), which featured such artists as Flatt and Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, Mac Wiseman and Jim and Jesse. Now it’s back with a new format, broadcast on Radio Bristol from a studio at the Bristol museum. A pair of musical guests are complemented with heirloom recipes, farming segments and Truelsen’s original ad jingles.
The big news is that “Farm and Fun Time” is headed for TV, at first regionally on Southeast PBS stations, but maybe later it will go national. The program’s burgeoning success recalls another old-time radio show, “A Prairie Home Companion,” first heard back in 1974.
Before we go to the interview, let me add that a month or so after the rendezvous in Tennessee I caught Bill and the Belles right close to home, in a barn close to home in Newtown, Connecticut. It was an ideal place to see them, congenial, rural and relaxed. The audience was relaxed, anyway; the band was on fire, and tore through dozens of tunes, including some very hot fiddle tunes led by Yeagle. This band is just so darned good. Catch them now before the crowds get huge.
Kris Truelsen: Radio Bristol started with folks at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum. The whole point of the station was to celebrate all the great regional artists we have here in central Appalachia. Radio is such a prominent part of country music history, yet there hasn’t been a community station in our region for some time that really celebrates local and regional artists.
Jim Motavalli: The Grand Ole Opry in Nashville actually started the year before the Bristol Sessions, in 1926.
And it had quite a long reach; it made it up to here. “Farm & Fun Time” is one of our flagship shows at Radio Bristol now. The original Farm & Fun Time was on WCYB out of Bristol, with pretty heavy wattage, and it hit a five-state region. It was a noontime show and had a huge following. A lot of the farmers would take a break at lunchtime and come in and listen. Many of the first-generation bluegrass artists started their careers on that show, folks such as the Stanley Brothers, Mac Wiseman, Jim and Jesse. There was a revolving cast of house bands.
There were many artists in southwest Virginia who were doing tour routes throughout the area, and they would come through, using “Farm & Fun Time” as a way to push ticket sales for their events. We brought the show back, knowing the impact it had on our region. We put a contemporary spin on it—performing in front of a live audience at the museum. The reception has been amazing. It’s monthly and it sells out every month. People are really happy we brought it back. It’s also becoming a TV show. It’s been picked up by PBS. It’s going to start out syndicated throughout the Southeast, and after six months hopefully it will become national.
Bill and the Belles is the house band, and we play a lot of jingles that we write for our sponsors. We have a food segment coming up, and I have to write a song about morel mushrooms.
Kalia Yeagle: Kris is a jingle-writing machine.
Will the TV filming change how you do “Farm & Fun Time”?
Kris: I’m hoping it’s not going to change a thing. We’ll film it in the museum, and we’ll also have another studio we’ll shoot in for larger shows. At the core, our mission is to keep “Farm & Fun Time” as a radio show. So it will be a 58-minute radio show on TV. We have two featured artists every month, with Bill and the Belles as the house band. We have our heirloom recipe storyteller, and we have a visit to a farm. Tomorrow I’m going up to a state park and we’re going to be foraging for medicinals. We’ll be working with a lady who puts together packages of medicinal herbs for cancer patients at St. Jude’s in Memphis.
Your show obviously brings to mind “Prairie Home Companion.” They at least played around with the conceit of being an old-time radio show—with the commercials and such.
Kris: What an influential show. It’s impacted my work tremendously. As a kid I listened to “Prairie Home Companion” for years. My parents loved it. I snuck into a “Prairie Home Companion” show in Philadelphia once, and saw Garrison Keillor rehearsing. It was inspiring to me, seeing 20 or so people working together on the show.
Considering how much you tour, it must be difficult to fit everything in.
Kris: The radio is a full-time job, but the band is also a full-time commitment. We do 100-plus dates a year.
I’ve seen you at several festivals in the Northeast. Which ones are you playing in 2019?
Kalia: We’re doing our favorite hometown event, the Bristol Rhythm and Roots Revival, in September. We do a live “Farm & Fun Time” from the festival, which is always a lot of fun. We’re also doing a UK tour in August and September.
Kris: In June and July we’re playing some arts centers in the Northeast. We’ll also be out west and in Canada.
Kalia: We did a month-long tour in Germany last winter, and it was really interesting to hear the reactions of international audiences. They really seemed to dig it, the Americana sound.
Kris: For traditional American music, there are pockets around the world where there are real subcultures of people who are 100 percent invested in it. Not only do they bring American bands over, but they also learn to pick and sing like those bands from the 1930s and 40s. It’s pretty wild.
When I first heard Bill and the Belles, I was struck not only by Kalia’s great fiddle playing and singing, which is a constant in your band, but also by the way you sing, Kris, which is unlike anyone I’ve ever heard singing old-time or bluegrass. You sound a lot more like the contemporary crooners, who would be singing Tin Pan Alley songs. I’m sure if you heard some of the old singers back then, they would have included some of that repertoire, but it didn’t get recorded. The record companies wanted to keep you in your niche.
Kris: You’re picking up on some of the focal points where Bill and the Belles started. The pop music of the 1920s and 30s was huge here in our region of eastern Tennessee and southwestern Virginia. But like you said, when the A&R guys came down to record, they wanted authentic “hillbilly music,” with fiddles. It didn’t fit into their aesthetic. But many of the artists were very open to playing what was then the modern music.
That being said, there are a few examples of country musicians from this region who did record and had a repertoire of pop music. And for us we find that very interesting. I love the chord progressions of what you might call more uptown hillbilly music. The melodies have quite a bit of depth to them. And for my voice, it really is very fitting. I like to see myself as kind of a hillbilly crooner.
The songs you write have the feel of Tin Pan Alley, too.
Kris: We want our songs to have a timeless quality to them. Tin Pan Alley really stretched for decades, and the songs don’t hearken back to a specific era. We pull from a lot of eras. We combine music of the 1920s and 30s with the 50s and 60s. And we get into today, too, and inevitably that becomes the Bill and the Belles sound. It’s an amalgam of all these different eras of American music, because that’s what we like.
My theory is that Bill Monroe heard jazz, the popular music of the time, and it influenced him to add solos to old-time country and create bluegrass. I think both bluegrass and country swing are reactions to hearing jazz.
Kalia: I think you’re on to something there. I think that’s a great theory. There are pivotal moments of crossover and collaboration. People get exposed to new sounds and try to fit them in within their own existing voices. It’s those moments that really excite us as a band, and it’s what has stayed true for us. We like to hear sounds that arose from two seemingly disparate sources that somehow found a way to work together.
Kris: Jazz crossover, for us it’s incredibly inspiring. Not only was Bill Monroe very aware of jazz, but a bunch of other musicians—Clayton McMichen, for instance, who was in the Skillet Lickers, a world-class fiddler—
Kalia: One of my favorites, he’s still an influence on me, definitely.
Kris: The Skillet Lickers hearkened back to the 19th century, and McMichen has been quoted as saying playing only old music drove him crazy, and he wanted to push the boundaries. He started a band called the Georgia Wildcats, which was hillbilly jazz. He went forward with that and left the old-time field behind, but the DNA was still in there.
There’s a lot of jazz in your playing, Kalia. Who were influences on you besides Clayton McMichen?
Kalia: I grew up in a pretty diverse musical situation, in and around Anchorage, Alaska. There’s a really thriving musical community up there. My dad was a bluegrass musician growing up. But so many people have moved there from so many places that the music scene really reflects that. So if you grow up learning fiddle you’re going to get some folk music, bluegrass and swing, as well as some French-Canadian tunes and old-time too.
David Grisman was the catalog of my youth for sure. That Dawg Music is burned into my memory. I moved to upstate New York for college and got into playing music there, a bit more on the swing side of bluegrass and old-time fiddling. I met Kris when I came down to Tennessee for graduate school, and that’s when I really started digging into old-time music.
I have the sense you’re quite an historian, Kris.
Kris: There’s been a lot of study, a lot of listening to old records, for sure. Early country music is part of my lifeblood. I did get my masters in country music studies. I wrote a thesis on early country music history. I’ve spent a lot of my life studying the old folks and what they did.
Ralph Peer actually came back to Bristol several times, looking for talent. And he was the catalyst to get A&R men from other labels to come down. It made sense, because they saw the record sales that were happening from the Bristol Sessions. Once the music was electrically recorded, the sales took off because the sound was so clear. With records made before 1927, there’s some amazing music on them, but you have to listen through the scratches and the noise. So they’re a little bit more inaccessible for a lot of folks.
I saw you first at the Brooklyn Folk Festival, which is a great event that grew out of the Jalopy Theater in Red Hook.
Our latest record, DreamSongs Etc., is on Jalopy Records. They’re a great organization—the Brooklyn Folk Festival to me is one of the great festivals in the U.S. Curator Eli Smith is really good at finding people who are dedicated to their art. He brings in artists you aren’t going to see at any other festivals. And then they get recorded for Jalopy Records. It was an honor to be part of that.
Because of the Jalopy Theater and the folk festival, Brooklyn has a very developed old-time scene.
And it has been for a very long time. We’ve been fortunate to be friends with John Cohen, who lives in the Hudson area and started the New Lost City Ramblers, one of the important figures to help the folk revival become what it became. He has been incredibly inspiring to us as musicians and artists. It amazes me to see the impact he continues to have in his life today.
Mike Seeger in that group was a real catalyst, too. It’s interesting that the Ramblers’ music still sounds authentic, but the popular groups of the period—The Kingston Trio, the Limeliters—which had a real tinge of Tin Pan Alley and sophisticated harmonies in their music, sound more ersatz. It’s funny, the repertoire of old-time country is completely different from what those groups drew from. Those groups were college-influenced folk.
Kris: Mike Seeger and John Cohen, they were coming down south, they were making field recordings with amazing artists. They weren’t interested in commercial recordings, and it’s reflected in the music they played, which has great depth.
Tell me about your personnel changes.
Kris: We’ve been working with Helena for about a year now. I met her through ETSU—I was teaching there and she was one of my students. She’s from Waynesville, North Carolina and has been playing banjo her whole life. And an incredible singer too. When we started looking for a new banjo player it was a no-brainer to go to her first.
Andrew Small of Floyd, Virginia is our new bass player. He’s the manager of the big old-time country music store County Sales and a world-class musician. The band is hitting the road a lot more and doing more touring in far-off places. And the group we have is really ideal for that.
“Farm and Fun Time” airs from 7 to 9 p.m. on the second Thursday of every month. Here it here. Keep an eye on local listings for the PBS show. And here’s a show from 2018: