Ex-App State professor keeps high country music and instruments alive – The Appalachian
For the past 15 years, a retired App State professor has kept one of Boone’s jamming communities alive by fixing instruments from his workshop in the basement.
Mike McKee, professor of economics, is also luthier. He repairs stringed instruments for residents of Boone.
“That’s enough for a nice bridge for a Martin, but I’d like to put that on something from the ’40s or ’50s,” McKee said as he inspected a block of chocolate brown Brazilian rosewood. “It would have to be a nice guitar.
Aside from the bench sander he uses to remove material from the instruments he works on, McKee does the majority of repairs by hand in his workshop.
“If I was willing to use a bandsaw, I could go a lot faster, but bandsaws scare me,” McKee said. “You can lose a finger.”
Before leaving Calgary in his native Canada, he took a two-week course in how to work the frets on string instruments in July 2007. When McKee moved to Boone later that year to teach economics at App State, he only planned to do small jobs as a hobby. But since his retirement in 2017, he has taken on much more.
“There aren’t a lot of people fixing instruments here,” McKee said. “There aren’t many who charge as little as I do.”
He tries to repair the instruments that come into his house within a few weeks. McKee said he knows people don’t like being away from their instruments for too long.
Music has always been a big part of McKee’s life. He said that at the age of 20 he left the Canadian army after two years and bought himself a guitar.
While McKee spends most of his time fixing instruments, he says he still views it as something that keeps him from watching TV all day.
“I don’t want it to be a job,” McKee said.
Trevor McKenzie, director of Appalachian studies, has known McKee since 2007. McKenzie said McKee has helped many people in the area repair instruments large and small.
McKee gave McKenzie a guitar, which he did for a number of people.
“I mean it was a pretty emotional moment for me, you know, because he gave me a guitar, a really nice guitar,” McKenzie said.
McKee’s office on the second floor of his house is similar to his shop – economics books from his more than 35 years in academia fill the shelves, but in front of a bulky old television there are seven or eight cases of black guitar.
“Honestly, one of my favorite things is going to his house and testing all of his instruments,” said Brandon Holder, McKee’s friend of 11 years.
McKee said he is an instrument collector. His collection contains instruments he bought and repaired over the years and those he built himself.
Outside of his shop, McKee is as much a part of Boone’s bluegrass and old-time music scene as he is of the regional luthier community.
Right after moving to the area, he started inviting people to jam at his place. The meetings would be between McKee and three or four other people he had met at the Appalachian Heritage Council, a student-run group trying to preserve Appalachian culture. McKee’s wife, Jane McKee, began by providing cheese and crackers for the group, then began cooking for the guests.
Before long, the weekly jams grew into something bigger. McKenzie, a regular, said they often play until 2 a.m.
“It was like having Thanksgiving dinner and jam every week, and I mean, it was really special,” McKenzie said.
Jane McKee started having to provide more than cheese and crackers.
“It was wonderful to see all these people. It was work of course,” said Jane McKee. “They were all friends, and we still keep in touch with many of them.”
While walking on the college campus in the fall of 2010, Mike McKee encountered a student carrying an instrument case and asked him what he was playing. The student told McKee that he played mandolin, and a week later he started coming to the McKees’ for the weekly meeting.
Brandon Johnson, an English graduate student came “all home.” He came to every jam,” Jane McKee said.
After Johnson graduated, Jane McKee said that Johnson’s mother attributed her son’s graduation to Mike McKee.
“He graduated, and his mom came up to Mike and said, ‘You know if it wasn’t for you, he wouldn’t be here at all,'” Jane McKee said.
The jam continued at the McKees for three years and became so popular that Jane McKee started cooking meals on Mondays to have everything ready in time for Wednesday.
It wasn’t long before the jam needed to find a new home.
Through Mike McKee’s connections with the owners, the jam moved to a “dive bar” called Murphy’s which became Ransom in 2017. The move attracted more and more people, with some traveling two hours to come watch or play.
When Boone’s bars finally reopened after closing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mike McKee and some of the jam regulars moved to Appalachian Mountain Brewery on Monday nights.
Mike McKee always covers the classics of John Prine and more traditional fiddle tunes, moving from song to song on his trusty Martin, a mandolin he built himself or one of his many other instruments .
Jane McKee said that since knowing him, “he’s always had a guitar”. Music was McKee’s release and his time to unwind, away from work towards his degree, masters and doctorate.
Because McKee’s father was in the Canadian Air Force, he moved around a lot when he was a kid. As part of his college life, McKee has taught in three different countries and six different states, but thanks to Boone’s music community, he says he’ll be sticking around from now on.
“That’s what keeps me here,” Mike McKee said.