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Joe Shannon
Photo by Lonnie Webster

Originally published: 2014-05-13 13:05:44
Last modified: 2014-05-13 20:21:23

Music series founder Joe Shannon dies

by Anna Oakes

Joe Shannon, a special education teacher, musician and the founder of Mountain Home Music, died Tuesday, in Florida. He was 64.

Shannon was born July 26, 1949, and grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., singing hymns in church and teaching himself to play folk guitar. In college, he took up the banjo, joining his fiddle-playing roommate in playing gigs around Tallahassee. Shannon earned a degree in social work from Florida State University, and after working as a group counselor at a camp for at-risk youth, he moved to Boone in 1977. He spent years as a special education teacher in Watauga, Wilkes and Yancey county schools and also taught classes at Appalachian State University.

"Thirty-five years ago, I moved to Boone. I didn't know one person; I didn't know a soul," Shannon said at a Boone Town Council meeting in March. "It was the best move I ever made."

Upon moving to Boone, Shannon, by now a multi-instrumentalist, quickly met many musicians who shared his love for traditional music. He founded the concert series Mountain Home Music in 1994 to provide a venue for the many lesser known -- but talented -- musicians of the region to be heard by receptive audiences.

"I met so many incredible performers, but except for the one or two big fiddle festivals each year, there was no ongoing event or place where locals and visitors to the High Country could experience this talent," Shannon said to the Blue Ridge National Heritage Area organization, which listed Shannon in its Traditional Artist Directory.

After an initial performance at Our Daily Bread in Boone, the concert series has seen many venues, including area churches and ASU campus buildings, and has been aired on public and local radio stations. Musical styles showcased by Mountain Home Music reflect Shannon's tastes and those of the region, transitioning concert to concert between old-time, bluegrass, blues, country, gospel, Celtic, rockabilly and blends of these genres.

Since it began, Mountain Home Music has provided a stage for three National Heritage Award winners, seven North Carolina Heritage Award winners, three members of the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame and more than 1,000 local and regional performers.

"It's probably the most special regional venue that I've ever gotten to be a part of, and Joe was the reason for that," said David Johnson, a member of the Mountain Home Music "house band," the Mountain Home Bluegrass Boys. Johnson is an award-winning studio musician based in Wilkes County.

"Joe was as much a teacher as he was a friend," Johnson said. "You learned from him. He taught us things about types of music that several of us would never have learned from anybody else."

Mountain Home Music shows also featured audience sing-alongs and stories or essays by Shannon, who had a gift for sharing simple but poignant tales.
Shannon was the author of children's book "Tennis Shoe Love" and "My Old Gray Coat," a collection of short stories shared during Mountain Home Music concerts. Shannon also recorded two albums with the Appalachian Acoustic Ensemble: "Warmlight" and "A Full Moon on Freshly Fallen Snow."

Julie Gurganus, who along with her husband, Cecil, has been a longtime friend of Shannon's, said that in addition to his musical achievements, Shannon was a great teacher.

"His ability to teach others, at any level -- he taught kids to college students to adults," Gurganus said. "He had a real gift for that."

Due to his ongoing battle with cancer, Shannon stepped down as executive director of Mountain Home Music following the 2013 season.
In March, Shannon was the recipient of North Carolina's Order of the Long Leaf Pine, conferred by the governor to outstanding North Carolinians who have a proven record of service to the state. Shannon was also honored by a Boone Town Council resolution.

"Kindness is the word that comes to my mind. That's what endeared Joe to people and endeared people to him," Johnson said. "He was always interested in you. He was constantly asking you questions about your pursuits, your philosophies, your family, your lot in life. He was a very selfless individual."

Said Gurganus, "When we were together, it was always like we had never been apart. He would do anything for anybody, and he exhibited that so many times."

Shannon left Boone in March to spend his final days with family in Florida. He is survived by his mother, Margaret Shannon of Orange Park, Fla.; brother Frank Shannon and wife, Cherryl, of Orange Park, Fla.; and sister Peggy Day and husband, Bill, of Metairie, La.

A memorial service will be held in Orange Park on Tuesday, May 27, with visitation from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. and a service afterward. A celebration of life will be held in Boone and coordinated by St. Luke's Episcopal Church in the near future.