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The Folk School of Chattanooga re-emerges livelier than ever
HUNKERING DOWN NEAR THE BASE OF SIGNAL MOUNTAIN, Four Squares Business Center might not look like a place with any sort of cultural relevance. It’s a repurposed ’80s retail-complex-turned- office-space. Just off Mountain Creek Road, Four Squares used to be home to the local dollar theatre and a few retail shops and restaurants. Now, it houses law offices and real estate centers. But one unlikely tenant has settled in recently following a strenuous summer: The Folk School of Chattanooga.
The Folk School—Chattanooga’s first and only—has been a part of the community for more than three years. Its beginnings reach back to a store called Mountain Music on Dayton Boulevard. It was there that the first classes began, with three instructors, Christie Burns, an acclaimed hammered dulcimer player and currently director of programming, along with Matt Evans (banjo, guitar, fiddle, mandolin) and John Boulware (fiddle), under the name Mountain Music Folk School. Eventually, the store moved, but the school lived on. It moved into the first physical location of its own on Forest Avenue on the North Shore in 2010.
The focus was simple, and is best summed up by their mission statement: “Cultivating a thriving community of musicians and music supporters in Chattanooga through educational programs and public events, with a primary focus on traditional music forms of our region.” In those early days, this manifested in the form of a wide variety of music classes, in both individual and group settings. This remains a key component of what happens at the Folk School, but activities have expanded to include organized performances, community jam sessions and much more.
“It’s all about building community around music,” says Christie Burns. “I saw that I was in a position to really put music first—not just keep it on the sidelines like a hobby—but to really put it first and see what would happen, and I just haven’t turned back yet.”
Two years after branching out onto Forest Avenue, the school moved again, this time to Rossville Avenue on the Southside. The site had plenty of space and a large storefront with big windows, two things that were on the dream location checklist. It wasn’t perfect, but it promised to be a fine home. “The whole point of moving was to open things up and really put ourselves more out there for community access, and that’s exactly what it did,” said Burns. Yet that’s where the problems began.
“I don’t normally tell this story without a tall glass of beer,” Burns said when asked what happened, clearly still upset about the situation. She continued, “OK, it’s like this. We signed a three-year lease, and we were there for one year. So that’s how that went.” What followed was an exhaustive story of miscommunications and civic red tape—with a bit of bad luck thrown in for bad measure.
“There were things about the space that were not exactly disclosed to us. There were controls on the space. There was already a sort of precarious chain of command, because we were leasing from people who were leasing from the actual property owner,” said Burns. “It became known that modifications were needed to the building in order for anyone to use it for any purpose other than manufacturing.”
One of the major problems came down to a sprinkler system—and a city regulation that has been changing ever since. At the time, businesses of the Folk School’s size were required to have sprinkler systems installed. (Recently, the city has relaxed this regulation.) That might have saved the school from abandoning Rossville Avenue if it happened before the summer. But as bad luck would have it, the regulation was in place at the time, and though the problem was already present before the lease was signed, neither the owner nor the landlord were willing to invest more money to install sprinklers. The Folk School couldn’t afford to make modifications of that magnitude. “It wouldn’t have been responsible at all for us to do that,” said Burns. “The Folk School just doesn’t have that kind of resources, and it wasn’t our building to do that to in the first place.”
Eventually, it came down to a short note taped on the door one morning in June, a notification of lease violation. The school was given 10 days to move out. “At the end of the day, it turned out that we never should have been there and we never should have signed that lease,” said Burns. “So we moved out and had to figure things out pretty quickly as far as what to do next.”
Instead of lying down and feeling sorry for themselves, the Folk School folks got to work on finding the right location, while still sending individual teachers out to homes to teach their students and organizing group jams in the park for kids. They eventually settled on the space the school currently occupies. “We didn’t want to take forever,” said Dean Arnold, executive director of the Folk School. “This [place] doesn’t have some of the benefits [of Rossville Avenue] like the storefront, but this is a nice facility that’s really set up for teaching.”
And it’s turned out to be a great place to be headquartered, he said. “It’s kinda weird. Everyone said, ‘You went to a business park?’ Yes, we did, and it’s turning out that we have a lot of great neighbors wanting to help us out. Plus, the Raines Group is a great landlord to have, so we’re very happy with that relationship we have there.”
The new location opened for business on September 1, and the school has been working to get back to normal ever since. Its individual and group classes are back on track, including sessions on instruments from banjos to dulcimers. More programs are getting off the ground, too. One in particular has Dean Arnold excited—the Mandolin Orchestra. It’s just what you’d expect from a normal stringed orchestra, except with the mando-versions of every instrument. The violin’s counterpart, the mandolin, is the famous member of the family, but the viola has the mandola, the cello has the mandocello, and the bass has the mandobass.
“It’s something I’ve been wanting to do for a long, long time but I didn’t have the time,” Arnold explained. “I just joined the Folk School as the executive director [after years as a teacher] about a month ago, so now it’s my job to not only think about things like that but actually try to pull them off.”
The inspiration came through a friend in the Atlanta Mandolin Orchestra, one of the most well respected in the country. He came to the Folk School for a seminar recently, and the idea grew from there. “Right now, we’re just calling it Mandolin Club, so it’s not as serious,” joked Burns. However, they are already setting lofty goals for themselves.
“Tentatively—I mean, this is really ambitious after two weeks—but tentatively we’re planning on putting on a concert jointly with the Atlanta Mandolin Orchestra, and I’m being real aggressive in saying this so I might have to back off a bit, but hopefully by spring we’ll be able to find a venue here in town and put on a performance,” said Arnold. “If we don’t show well, I can tell you it’ll at least be worth the price of a ticket to see the Atlanta Mandolin Orchestra.”
While Folk School leaders continue to strive to find more ways to expand, Christie Burns remains driven by a desire to see the public’s view of music changed at a cultural level. “I hope to live until 110…I hope I live to find myself in a world where everyone plays music all the time and really thrives on it,” said Burns. “Right now, I can confidently tell you that I get out of bed and everything I do is try to make the world more like that—to eliminate any sense of exclusion, where music is here and you are not there. That’s all big idealism talk, but it’s what drives me.”
Next time you’re driving down Mountain Creek Road, don’t just pass by Four Squares and assume it’s your average business park. Stop in and talk to Christie Burns or Dean Arnold and you might just learn a thing or two about folk music. If you can’t find the school in the business park—just follow the sounds of banjos, dulcimers and mandolins.
The Folk School of Chattanooga is sponsoring “Sacred Harp Singing”, 7 p.m. Thursday, Oct. 17. St. Elmo Fire Hall, 4501 St. Elmo Ave.
Folk School of Chattanooga, 1200 Mountain Creek Rd., #130. (423) 827-8906. Website: chattanoogafolk.com