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Russell Johnson, Carolina Bluegrass Band
Russell Johnson, Director of the Carolina Bluegrass Band

The UNC Department of Music is proud to announce the creation of the Carolina Bluegrass Band under the direction of Russell Johnson. The Carolina Bluegrass Band joins a roster of ensembles that offer students diverse musical performance opportunities at the highest artistic level.

The new band is part of the Department of Music’s Bluegrass Initiative, launched in 2016 to increase the study of and performance of bluegrass music. Since the World War II era, bluegrass has had a rich and important history within North Carolina and the surrounding region, but today has expanded into a global presence, thriving in many different cultures and practices.

Johnson, a UNC alumnus ’85, joins the faculty with nearly 30 years of experience in bluegrass as an accomplished bandleader, performer, songwriter, and producer.

“Students can study many more types of music than when I was here, and I’m glad that the bluegrass ensemble can be a part of their college experience now,” Johnson said.

A featured artist on 18 CDs and a guest on many more, his “rock-solid and exquisitely high-lonesome vocals” make him one of bluegrass music’s most recognizable tenor voices. As a songwriter, he has been nominated for SPBGMA’s Songwriter of the Year three times and has charted more than 30 original songs on numerous charts. Thirteen of these have appeared on the Bluegrass Unlimited National Bluegrass Survey, including four No. 1 singles for his band, the Grass Cats: “Bluegrass Man,” “A Good Way To Get The Blues,” “The Mountains My Baby And Me,” and “The Old School Road.” He was the driving force of the award-winning Pinecastle Recording Artist “New Vintage” from 1989 to 2000, and currently leads both the Grass Cats and Diamond Creek. Known for his humorous stage presence, compelling songwriting and soaring tenor, Bluegrass Unlimited magazine places him in “the first ranks of contemporary bluegrass.”

Along with the Carolina Bluegrass Band, the Bluegrass Initiative includes several other components. Professor Jocelyn Neal will teach a new academic course on the genre’s history, culture, and musical analysis.

“Many of the early innovators in the style were either North Carolina natives or worked in the state,” Neal said. “It’s part of our responsibility to study this history as well as the present forms of the music. This initiative is a terrific chance for our students to immerse themselves in a performance tradition that blends ensemble work with virtuosity, and that connects to both a specific musical past and a globally enriched, progressive present.”

The Department of Music will host a symposium from November 11-12, 2016, in collaboration with the Southern Folklife Collection and Carolina Performing Arts. Steep Canyon Rangers, Grammy winners and IBMA Entertainers of the year, will headline a concert with the Carolina Bluegrass Band on November 11. The Bluegrass Initiative and Carolina Bluegrass Band are made possible through the generous support of alumnus John A. Powell ’77.

“I hope the Bluegrass Initiative will grow and be woven into everything the department does: new books, articles, presentations, exhibits, and performances connecting with interdisciplinary study, entrepreneurial music in the community, and the overall liberal arts education that we embrace at UNC,” Neal said.

For more information about the Carolina Bluegrass Band, contact Andrew Tie at

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