published Friday, July 29th, 2011

Phillips: Musicians represent America at Belgian conference

I pointed out in my column last week that a Belgian invented the saxophone, an instrument that has made countless contributions to American music.

While I won’t argue that we’re about to pay them back in full, a trio of Chattanooga musicians embarked this week on a trip there hoping to put a dent in the debt.

Bluegrass fiddler John Boulware, dulcimer player Christie Burns and blues/ragtime guitarist Lon Eldridge left Thursday to fly to Ostend on Belgium’s northwest coast. There they be the first American representatives to take part in Ethno Flanders, a weeklong international conference for folk musicians.

Once there, they will teach their fellow participants to play tunes representing a number of American styles, including old-time, ragtime, blues, jazz and bluegrass. They will, in turn, learn tunes from other countries.

The conference starts Monday and will continue through Aug. 8, culminating in a final concert at the Folk Dranouter festival, during which the Ethno Flanders participants will perform tunes together as a folk orchestra.

The trio raised money to cover their travel expenses through a campaign on the crowd-funding website Their tickets were provided by a local donor, who wished to remain anonymous, and as the first American musicians at the conference, their entrance fees were waived.

Boulware, a champion contest fiddler who plays with local bluegrass hot shots Slim Pickins, said he’s never been out of the country. Although it’s nice to serve as representatives of the Folk School and the city, Boulware said he feels most honored to represent America.

“I had to get a passport just for this,” he said, laughing. “It’s one thing to go over there ... representing Chattanooga, but to be representing the United States is really something a lot bigger than I had in mind.”

Boulware said he’s most excited at the prospect of increasing his familiarity with the music of more exotic cultures.

Thanks to numerous mission trips to Eastern Europe and Latin America, Eldridge is no stranger to international travel, but he said Ethno Flanders offers him an unprecedented opportunity to combine his passion for music with wanderlust.

“I always tell people at my shows that my favorite three things to do in the world are to travel and play music and meet people,” he said. “I’m excited to get to do all three things at the same time.”

Burns co-founded the Folk School of Chattanooga, and both Boulware and Eldridge are among its instructors.

Since its start, the Folk School has helped shepherd Chattanooga’s rich folk music traditions, as well as represent those traditions to the public through events like the Folk Stomp, which took place earlier this week.

I, for one, think the school is one of the biggest feathers in Chattanooga’s musical cap. Seeing three of the school’s teachers graduating to folk-music ambassadors emphasizes to me just how lucky we are to have them.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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