It happened back in the days I still worked for Tusculum University (Tusculum College at that time). It was commencement day, and I was standing in the big open interior area outside the doors leading into the gymnasium, where chairs were lined up on the floor awaiting the graduates, and relatives and friends of the same were filling the bleachers.
Standing near and just finished fulfilling his own role in the ceremonies was a fellow I’d known for several years. Like everyone taking part in the official proceedings, he was dressed for the occasion. His garb, though, was different from that of anyone else in the building.
He was wearing a kilt, not an academic gown. And carrying a bagpipe.
“You’re really going to do it?” I asked him, referring to a good-natured stunt he’d threatening to pull off.
“Only for a few seconds.” And with that, he put the mouthpiece of the bagpipe into his lips, blew air to inflate the bag under his arm, with the arm began pumped the bag to push air through the drones and got a note going. Atop that foundational tone, a familiar melody emerged as his fingers moved on the chanter.
It was a song not usually heard from bagpipes, not “Scotland The Brave” or any other familiar tune, but it fit the instrument’s sound surprisingly well.
It was that well-known riff that opened Rod Stewart’s late-1970s disco hit, “Do You Think I’m Sexy?”
Bagpiper Jon Shell played only a few bars of the disco standard. He was, after all, there on a paying job, and goofing around with a Rod Stewart pop song on a bagpipe wasn’t part of the deal.
But it was funny. And verified that my piping friend, Jon Shell, has a sense of humor and doesn’t take himself more seriously than he should.
He is serious about the bagpipes, though. It’s impossible for me to imagine him without them.
I reconnected with Roane Mountain native Jon last week after not seeing him for too many years. I’d met him through his Tusculum visits and knew he would make good material for a column.
I visited with him last Tuesday in the Elizabethton school where he teaches history to 7th and 8th graders, Keenburg School. There we talked about what’s been going on in our lives and families, how fast the years fly past, and the status of piping in Northeast Tennessee.
I admit I was surprised to learn that our region has a stronger connection than I’d realized to the world of bagpipe playing than just the historical contributions of Scotland and Ireland to our area settlement.
There’s a bagpipe culture scattered throughout our area, and some of those who are part of it are known names in their field. Sandy Jones, one of Jon’s early piping teachers, was pipe major for five years of the City of Washington Pipe Band after being with the U.S. Air Force Pipe Band, now lives in Jonesborough.
It was he a young Jon Shell studied with after his father allowed him to move to Washington, D.C., as a boy, to live with relatives in an area where the best bagpipe instruction could be found.
One of the City of Washington Pipe Band members is a man most will have heard of lately: William Barr. Yes, that William Barr, 77th and 85th United States Attorney General. He’s a piper, and Jon has made music with him, marching across a parking lot at a festival.
How did Jon get into this bagpipe thing?
Jon, a Roane Mountain boy, had visited the Highland Games at Grandfather Mountain, at age 11, and there heard bagpipes for the first time. The unique sound connected with something inside him, and the connection never faded.
Also unfaded is his connection with Sandy Jones, who despite officially being retired and hidden away in small-town Tennessee, still teaches piping during the summer, this time not with Jon as a student, but a fellow instructor.
This happens in a community well-known to Greene Countians who are fond of visiting the Mast General Store: Valle Crucis, North Carolina. In Valle Crucis is the Episcopalian-affiliated Mission School Conference Center, where hosted events include a five-week educational program of the North American Academy of Piping & Drumming. In that program Jones teaches with Jon as his associate.
Jones, influential as he was in Jon’s life, was not Jon’s first piping instructor. That distinction belongs to Harvey Rich of Linville, North Carolina.
Jon himself is following the path of his own instructors in building and nurturing the piping tradition of our corner of the nation. He plays regularly for graduations and convocations at Tusculum and sometimes elsewhere, and is frequently called upon to pipe at funerals, weddings and other special occasions.
Bagpipes are a traditional part of funerals for responders such as firefighters and police. There’s a Kingsport firefighter learning to play bagpipes right now, Jon said.
John will travel as far as about four hours’ distance to share his music, and now some he has taught have transitioned to teaching status and are helping others learn the distinctive musical skill.
Scott McLeod, who was seen years back playing the pipes in television commercials for First Tennessee Bank, was taught by Jon. McLeod, though, has mostly put aside the pipes in later years.
Also a student of Jon’s is Ben Pollard, another Jonesborough-based piper in whom Jon expresses great pride. He has joined Jon at times in some of Jon’s own presentations and performances.
What about Jon’s own family? Does his wife Carol, who is Dutch, wish to learn the skill? No, and the children, now grown, haven’t taken it up, either.
Even so, Jon tells me, all have been strongly supportive of Jon’s relatively unusual musical pursuit, and not once has one of his children said, “Dad, would you please, please, PLEASE put that noisy thing down?”
Living now in Elizabethton, Jon happily reports that he “finally has a place to practice bagpipes.” That is in a closed garage in the home he and his family share, where the famously loud instrument is muffled by the walls.
And just how loud is a bagpipe? Several together can generate volume comparable to rock concerts, and Jon told me that the drummers who march at the rear of pipe bands have been known to suffer hearing damage due to the volume coming back at them so steadily.
Jon will sometimes share an old joke: Why do pipers march? To get away from the noise.
Jon now sometimes wears hearing protection when he is going to be playing in a loud setting for an extended time.
Interested in having Jon play at one of your own special events? Want to learn how to squeeze music out of the old chanter, pipe and drones yourself?
Jon can be reached through email at email@example.com. He’s glad to link up prospective pipers with good instructors in, or at least close to, their areas of residence.
Or you could drop by the next Tusculum University graduation ceremony and look for the guy in the plaid skirt, carrying a stiff-legged, squalling upside-down octopus around with him.
That’ll be Jon. Feel free to say hello. I can vouch for him being a nice guy, despite the funny outfit.