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Still singing a song of giving: For Novelty Band, music is about fun, sharing

XLighterThe Jonesborough Novelty Band provides yuletide entertainment at the Knight House


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It’s about so much more than the music. It’s also about the giving.

Since 1992, the Jonesborough Novelty Band has entertained visitors to Tennessee’s Oldest Town at festivals, schools, churches—any place where folks are having a good time.  The “three guys who love to sing” are Sam Burke, Mark Calliham and Terry Countermine.

“We don’t do elevator music,” said Countermine.  “The fun we have is because of audience reaction.  As long as our audience keeps coming, we’ll keep singing.”

Audience participation is the group’s specialty.

But the band does more than just entertain with fun music and audience interaction.  Each year 90 percent of any proceeds from their appearances benefit Habitat for Humaniy. The money collected during the years now exceeds more than $50,000.  Countermine said, “We have raised more money than it takes to build a house.”

Mark Calliham

They raise that money playing a variety of songs. “We like the music of the kind that was played by the Kingston Trio,” Calliham said, “We tend to play music that has been around for awhile.”  As a historical reference, in 1957 the Kingston Trio emerged from San Francisco’s North Beach club scene bringing the rich tradition of American folk music into the mainstream.

The group’s repertoire includes 600 to 650 songs.  “You can play about 40 songs in an evening,” said Burke. To choose selections, he added as an example, “We get together before Christmas with our song book.”  The book is titled “Life’s A Song – Sing Along”.

Countermine put together the original song book while working on his Ph.D. in Computer Science at Penn State University.  He put the songs on computer cards. They are now printed in a songbook.  The Novelty Band has distributed hundreds of books.  Countermine said they usually tell their audience the books are handed out, “Keep the book if you make a $10 donation to Habitat for Humanity.”

The band’s history dates back to downtown Jonesborough in 1992 at a restaurant with a Blue Tick Hound in the window.   “It started because of Steve Bacon’s Coffeehouse,” Countermine said.  “I told Steve I would provide music for the Storytelling Festival.  I called my brother and one of my best friends to help.

“Steve told me about Sam. We sang together for the first time at Halloween, 1992. Mark joined in December for some Christmas sing-alongs and the rest is history.”

The Novelty Band uses banjo, guitar, upright bass and a variety of other instruments to lead crowds in sing-along-songs.  Christmas bells are handed out to participants during the Heritage Alliance’s Progressive Dinners. The trio distributes kazoos when they perform before elementary school audiences.

“I bought a whole bunch of bells and made 40 sets,” Countermine said. We hand them out at Christmas time“. And when we play in front of children, we give them kazoos. We have a whole set of kids songs. We learned quickly that you can’t hand out the kazoos too soon.  Once the children have them, it is like having a swarm of bees in the room.  Now we wait until the last 10 minutes of the program before handing them out.”

“We also have a home-made Applause Meter,” Countermine said.  “The lights go on when you make a lot of noise. The more noise, the more lights go on. We have taken the Applause Meter to several sing-alongs.”

The group also has a “Git-Fiddle.”  It is a homemade instrument that’s a one-person rhythm section.  “It’s always a big hit when we add it to the group,” he said.

Burke said during the band’s “peak years” they were playing 50 times a year at various events. They have participated in the Jonesborough Days and Christmas Parades for more than 20 years. During one stretch, they won 1st place in the summer parade four years in a row.

Other appearances have included performing at the Eastman Lodge in Kingsport, at the Yarn Exchange, for Halloween Haunts and Happenings, for the Jonesborough Days kickoff supper and at the Jonesborough Methodist Church for Appalachian Christmas.  A couple of other gigs have been on Valentine’s and Saint Patrick’s Day at Cornbreads plus a featured performance on Groundhog Day.

The band has traveled to Charlotte, North Carolina for a performance on behalf of Habitat for Humanity.  They played at the “Best Friends Festival” in Norton, Virginia for three years to benefit the fund raising efforts of the local Volunteer Fire Department. The Jonesborough Repertory Theater has used the trio in a benefit concert.

Seniors are a favorite audience for the Novelty Band.  “We sing the old songs,” Calliham said.  The group performs almost every New Years’ Eve at the Colonial Hills Assisted Living Center.  However, this New Years gig does not begin at midnight but at 2 o’clock in the afternoon so the audience can retire early.

The band will also play and sing for wedding receptions.  However, before booking them, Burke said, “You should come hear us if you have not heard us before. Our music is a bit different from other bands.”  Audiences must listen to the Novelty Band in live performance to understand why “novelty” is part of the name.

On one occasion, about 20 years ago, Terry’s wife, Sandy, gave him “several hours” of studio time as a present.  JNB made their first – and only CD. “It never made the charts,” Countermine said with a smile.

XNoveltyTerryThe only “professional musician” in the group is Burke.  He remembers bagging groceries when his father said, “If I could make one-half the money, he would put up the other half for a musical instrument costing $75.”

“I started playing in 1964 – the bass,” Burke said.  “I played music while in the Army.  When I got out, I went on the road as a professional musician.  When Sam moved back to the area, he played in the Johnson City Symphony, as well as many other local bands.

Burke has been an engineer, teacher, musician and an educator.  He worked for a number of years with the Wellmont Health System maintaining their medical equipment. On occasion, he would have to leave a Novelty Band performance for an emergency repair of life saving equipment at a Health System hospital.  He currently is an associate professor in the Department of Computing at East Tennessee State University where he obtained both his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees. His faculty web site states, “When not teaching, Sam plays, creates, eats, sleeps, edits and in general does anything and everything music.”

     Calliham grew up, played and sang in a family that enjoyed music. He was in 5th grade when his father got him a guitar.  It was a hand-me-down from his brother – an Electric Silverton.” His philosophy of music is “If it is not fun, why do it?”   

     By the 9th grade, Calliham was playing with a group called “The Ambassadors.” He said, “We wore yellow shirts and paisley ties.  We played beach music.”  He went to Tennessee Tech University where he majored in chemical engineering. As part of his education, Calliham was in a Co-Op project at Huntsville, Alabama and found the time to join a group playing “honky-tonk” and Rock-n-Roll music. The chemical engineer continued to enjoy playing the guitar while employed by Eastman Chemical from 1973 until his retirement in 2011.

   Recently retired from teaching Computer Science courses at ETSU, Countermine said he remembers taking music lessons in the 4th or 5th grade.  At one time he played the tuba.  He now plays the banjo, bouzouki and ukulele. “We all sang – we all loved to sing,” he said about his family. 

     After high school, he went to Alliance College in Pennsylvania on a basketball scholarship and later was an assistant basketball coach at the school. Also a mathematics teacher at Alliance, he left the college for graduate degree studies completing his doctorate in computer science at Penn State.  For Countermine, “Music was always about having fun.”

     With the combined musical experience of more than 100 years, the trio has been described in one newspaper story as having “spontaneous personalities.”  They all agree, “We sing good harmony together.” The ‘three guys who love to sing” will have looked at the chord structure of a piece of music before they bring that new song to their play list.

      However, Calliham said, “We play on eye contact as a means of communicating with one another.  We play off the crowd.” In the final analysis, he said, “We live by the code that we don’t want to peak too.”