This story, originally published by the Bristol Herald Courier, was produced by the Virginia Folklife Program and is the first in a series highlighting individuals working at the intersection of culture and community.
Tyler Hughes plays the banjo and autoharp, calls square dances, co-directs Mountain Music School at Mountain Empire Community College, and — five years after he was first appointed — is still the youngest member of the Big Stone Gap town council.
He is now also co-managing a new funding opportunity for traditional arts in and around Bristol, led by the Birthplace of Country Music Museum, and supported by Mid Atlantic Arts’ Central Appalachia Living Traditions initiative.
His musical career and service to his community and Southwest Virginia are intertwined, inspired by the vision of a formative mentor, Sue Ella Boatright, and through early experiences playing music with friends that were as many as five decades older than him. (His first band, led by David and Bernita Jervis, was “Tyler Hughes and the Generation Gap.”)
Boatright was the dean of workforce development at Mountain Empire Community College, tasked with recruiting coal miners to learn skills for alternative careers beginning in the 1980s.
“She’d drive through the coal camps in Wise County and register people for classes on the hood of her car, bringing them to the college. She was a true force,” Hughes said.
She also worked to get more people involved in local musical traditions, no doubt influenced by the legacy of her father, respected banjo player Scott Boatright (who was recorded by Mike Seeger in 1969).
She worked with Ron Short to establish Mountain Music School in 2005 at the college — still the region’s most affordable music camp (tuition for adults is just $150). Hughes attended when he was 13, and, as he puts it, “caught the bug for traditional music.”
That time made a lasting impression. She championed Hughes when he decided to apply to East Tennessee State University’s program in Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots music, where he earned his BA in 2015. Today, he works to increase access and participation in community arts. He is driven by the conviction that making creative work, and experiencing art together, contributes to not only our individual wellness, but it also strengthens our communities and creates new opportunities for local economies in Appalachia.
“People in the Appalachian region deserve to have the fullest life that they can achieve,” he said. “That means having an education and getting a job that will pay the bills and give you a comfortable life. But you also need enjoyment and you need pleasure. And music has always been a part of people’s lives here in some way or another.”
Some of Hughes earliest experiences in community music were with his grandparents, who were members of a line dancing club in the 1990s. His grandparents would bring young Tyler and his brother to meet ups with 15-20 other couples to line dance to country music. They would wear fringe cowboy boots and western shirts, bought special for the purpose from Wytheville’s Old Fort Western Store.
“They took it very seriously, you had to look the part,” he said.
“People in the Appalachian region deserve to have the fullest life that they can achieve.”Tyler Hughes
As a teenager, he performed with the Generation Gap in church, at coal camp reunions, in campgrounds and at the kind of small community venues that depend on the dedication of a few volunteers.
“Those experiences impacted my thinking,” Hughes said. “They acquainted me with a lot of people outside of my generation, which has shaped my understanding of the world.”
He remembers Roosevelt Stanley, who ran a music program at the Tacoma School Community Center outside of Coeburn. It was a family operation: Roosevelt’s wife would make chili, hot dogs, and bake a cake or two, and his daughter ran the concessions stand. Once, he left the venue in the musicians’ hands, announcing at intermission he needed to run home and monitor his Ebay bid for an apple butter kettle.
Another family ran music at the Presley Horton Store in Eidson, Tennessee, making soup beans and cornbread for concessions and drawing a crowd who arrived in Ford trucks, Subarus and horse and buggies.
People still gather for social dances in long-running venues like the Country Cabin in Norton and Lay’s Hardware Center for the Arts in Coeburn. It is often the commitment of a family, or a few individuals, that sustain community spaces like these.
“Their name may not be in the history books, but they’re really important, whether they know it or not,” Hughes said.
Time in intergenerational community gathering places, where politics are set aside in favor of music and movement, prepared Hughes for civic service. And it is what motivates him as an artist. He recently began organizing — and calling — a twice-yearly square dance at the Birthplace of Country Music Museum.
“What drives me to organize dances and camps and events is to try and bring people together,” he explained. “You don’t have to try to bring people who are different together. We’re all different naturally. You just need to bring people together.”
“You don’t have to try to bring people who are different together. We’re all different naturally. You just need to bring people together.”Tyler Hughes
In 2021, Central Appalachia Living Traditions, an initiative of Mid Atlantic Arts, identified Bristol as an “anchor community” and assembled a group of local culture workers and independent artists to decide how to invest $75,000 to support community and folk arts.
Hughes, together with 12 other committee members — the Greater Bristol Folk Arts & Culture Team — helped shape two new funding opportunities. A $4,000 fellowship, open to individuals in surrounding Virginia and Tennessee counties, is accepting applications through April 14. A $5,000 grant is open to the kind of grassroots, volunteer-run community spaces that influenced Hughes (by invitation only; nominations accepted via firstname.lastname@example.org).
To Hughes, investing in community culture in Appalachia is a means to forge connections across generations and politics, but it is also creates pathways for emerging creative careers.
“I hope that one day we can move past only offering people choices in extractive industries, and be able to say, ‘Here are some other options,’ or ‘Here is how you can create your own business.’”
For more information about the Greater Bristol Folk Arts & Culture Team, please visit birthplaceofcountrymusic.org.