JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – East Tennessee State University unveiled a new cultural program on Thursday, paving the way for historians and artists to express the region’s story in new ways.

Dr. Ron Roach sat with News Channel 11 to share his hopes for the new institute. (Photo/WJHL)

The Institute For Appalachian Music and Culture was created as a part of the university’s Center for Appalachian Studies and Services, and operates alongside the Archives of Appalachia, Reece Museum and Regional Resources Institute. Together, Appalachian Studies department Chair Ron Roach said the school’s programs can cut a new path for local culture.

“Appalachia as we all know has an incredibly rich history and culture,” Dr. Roach said. “And music is one of the biggest of that. Someone once described music as Appalachia’s gift to the world.”

The institute was designed with that gift in mind, Dr. Roach said, and will work to keep it alive and well.

“Its primary mission will be to focus on preserving and highlighting and celebrating and extending the rich music and culture of this region,” he said. The institute is poised to capture parts of regional culture that Roach said have rarely been discussed.

The center has helped create Appalachian works since its creation in 1984. (Photo/WJHL)

“If you ask people about Appalachian music, most people could name some of the usual suspects,” Dr. Roach said. “They would name Bluegrass music as being associated, or Old-Time or Gospel music.

“Not many people know that the father of Blues music, W.C. Handy, is from the mountains of Alabama. Or that Bessy Smith, the empress of the Blues, was from Chattanooga. Or Nina Simone was from western North Carolina, so there are a lot of angles and diverse parts of the music of Appalachia that have not been given enough attention.”

The Encyclopedia of Appalachia contains thousands of entries, like this one about the Pawpaw fruit. (Photo/WJHL)

To get eyes and ears on work from the region, Dr. Roach said a long list of exciting projects are on the way. The first major item of business is the digitization of the Encyclopedia of Appalachia, an award-winning tome that contains thousands of entries. After that, Roach is looking forward to oral history projects that will collect the stories of Appalachia as told by those who lived them.

With a brand-new institute and so many new opportunities on the horizon, Roach said it’s likely that the Appalachian Studies team will need to expand soon.

“We’re starting with our existing staff, we have incredible faculty here at Appalachian Studies who have been producing books and films and albums for many years,” Dr. Roach said. “So we’ll start there and we’ll use existing funding and staff to launch the initiative. But I think very soon we’ll be seeking grant funding for additional positions so we can expand the operation.”

What Dr. Roach doesn’t want is an academia-only program. The institute will maintain its own engagement programs on top of the university’s growing outreach efforts that may take the form of performances, or community history-sharing events.

“We have to have the community involvement in order for this to succeed,” Dr. Roach said. “Because it is a collaborative effort.”