McDowell native honored for research into bluegrass history


McDowell native Jordan Laney, who has a Ph.D in cultural and social theory, is an instructor and a Presidential Pathway Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. She has been honored for her studies about the history of bluegrass music, specifically how the bluegrass festival movement got started. In this photo, she is speaking at the graduation ceremonies at Virginia Tech.

A McDowell County native who is now a professor at Virginia Tech has been honored for her studies into the history of bluegrass music, specifically how the festival movement began.

Jordan Laney, who has a Ph.D in cultural and social theory, is an instructor and a Presidential Pathway Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Religion and Culture at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. Laney, 32, earned her degrees from Goddard College, Appalachian State University and Virginia Tech. Before that, she graduated from McDowell High in 2005 and still considers McDowell County home. Her family lives in the Glenwood community, she said.

“The Appalachian region is my passion and I would love to return to McDowell and I am constantly looking for ways to deepen my connections to western North Carolina,” she said to The McDowell News. “Music has been a thread that constantly connects me to home.”

While she enjoys trying figure out songs on the banjo (clawhammer old-time style), Laney said she does not consider herself to be a musician.

“The ability to be a part of the bluegrass community without being a musician is one aspect of what I find wonderful about traditional Appalachian musical communities and festivals in general; the community expands beyond the stage,” she said to The McDowell News. “That attention to power and play beyond performance is one of the key objectives of my scholarship.”

She said regularly attending Old Fort Mountain Music was crucial to her understanding of culture and community.

“My father, Bart Laney, is a master musician and I have been privileged to observe as he teaches guitar, mandolin, and fiddle,” she said to The McDowell News. “With my brother, Colby Laney, I have been able to travel to festivals and attend shows that continually increase my enthusiasm and curiosity about bluegrass music and the region in general. Being an Appalachian Sound Archives Fellow, Berea College (2016) and a member of Leadership Bluegrass (2013) were both immensely helpful in gaining resources and contacts for completing my dissertation.”

Laney is most recently the 2019 recipient of the Rosenberg Bluegrass Scholarship Award, given by the International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) Foundation. The paper that won her the award is titled: “Rehistoricization and Performance: a Methodological Approach to (Re) Creating the Bluegrass Genre.”

She added this paper is only part of a much larger project, her dissertation, which asks how “bluegrass music festivals began, for whom, and to what end.”

“My research was conducted at Berea College’s Appalachian Sound Archives, at Appalachian State University’s Belk Special Collection, and through online surveys, participant observations, and interviews,” she said to The McDowell News. “In this dissertation, I carefully examine the role of bluegrass festivals, specifically those envisioned and enacted by Carlton Haney, notably, in Fincastle, Va. in 1965.”

Carlton Haney, also a North Carolina native, was a booking agent, songwriter and festival promoter in bluegrass music. He is credited with producing the first weekend-long bluegrass festival in 1965, which became the model for other similar festivals across the nation.

“My findings illuminate how bluegrass festivals serve as sites where widely accepted generalizations about place (specifically, Appalachia and the rural American South) and specifically the bluegrass community are formed,” said Laney. “Further, I address the role of gender within these spaces and the symbiotic relationship between female labor and bluegrass. The history of bluegrass festivals is approached with the intention of broadening discussions of gender, labor and historical narratives beyond the festival grounds. I hope to continue writing and educating and helping people ask ‘tough’ questions and I am very honored to be part of such a supportive community. I would also love to see this project become a book.”

Her presentation, made at the Cultural Studies Association Conference held May 30 through June 1, at Tulane University in New Orleans, “employs a feminist perspective to re-imagine the telling of Bluegrass Hall of Famer Carlton Haney’s ‘Bluegrass Story,’” according to a news release.

In addition to a cash honorarium of $500, Laney is invited to give a presentation at a bluegrass music academic-themed seminar at the IBMA Business Conference in Raleigh on Thursday, Sept. 26, along with other scholars.

The IBMA Foundation presents an annual award to the developing academic scholar who presents the best paper at a juried academic conference on an aspect of bluegrass music. The objective of this award is “to grow the academic awareness of bluegrass music by encouraging developing academic scholars to present research of high quality to fellow scholars on any aspect of the genre,” according to a news release.

The award, originally known as the IBMA Academic Prize, was presented in 2011 to Benjamin Krakauer, who recently joined the faculty of Warren Wilson College in Swannanoa. The IBMA Foundation assumed responsibility for the award in 2019, re-naming it in honor of renowned bluegrass music historian, author and scholar Neil Rosenberg, who was inducted into the Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2014.

The IBMA Foundation is the philanthropic organization that supports programs and initiatives fostering the growth of bluegrass music. The Foundation helps donors create a legacy to benefit future generations of musicians and fans by connecting resources to projects that focus on bluegrass music-related arts and culture, education, literary work, and historic preservation, according to the news release.

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