image_pdfimage_print

Dan the Man

...does it all

by Stephen Pitalo

As a music factotum, Dan Boner is steeped in the traditions of bluegrass. That may seem odd once you learn he grew up in Bridgeton, a town in southern New Jersey, although his family holds roots in the coalfields of central West Virginia.

“I can remember watching my Uncle Larry play the guitar in church and being absorbed with music from a very young age,” he remembered. “Bluegrass and country music have always been the central focus of my life. It was all around.”

Now, Dan Boner directs the renowned East Tennessee State University (ETSU) Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies program and is co-author of the first-ever Bachelor of Arts degree in Bluegrass, Old-Time, and Roots Music Studies, one of many facets of this brilliant musician, teacher, photographer, and amplifier technician.

“I always wanted to play music,” said Dan, who learned to play guitar, banjo, fiddle, bass, and eventually the mandolin. “When I was four years old, my grandmother bought me a little guitar that I would carry around to put on mini concerts for my friends and family. Then, when I was seven, I got a guitar that I actually could learn on and started taking lessons from my uncle for about a month or two. He showed me the chords, and I started playing alongside him in church. I learned how to listen for chord changes when you didn’t really know a song, listening to the melody and figuring out which chords might fit. Soon, I was playing with a group called The Shining Lights, and then a few years later, the Strings of Gospel, which included David Reed, the son of Ola Belle Reed, a great songwriter.”

“My mother’s side of the family was from New Jersey, and in fact, there’s an elementary school named after my great-grandfather in Cedarville, New Jersey, the Myron L Powell School,” he said. “But the ‘mountain’ side of the family is from down in West Virginia.”

Boner started giving lessons on the guitar when he was age nine because he enjoyed taking lessons from his Uncle Larry and another West Virginia transplant and local musician, Cecil West. “By the time I was 14, I was giving about ten lessons a week, teaching banjo, fiddle, and guitar by ear,” he said. “When I was about 11 years old, Troy Spencer gave me some advice. He said that guitar and banjo players are ‘a dime a dozen,’ but I’d always have work if I stuck with the fiddle. I still tell some of my students that.”

Dan attended ETSU, which boasts alumni Kenny Chesney, Barry Bales, Adam Steffey, Tim Stafford, Becky Buller, and Amythyst Kiah, and he was immediately immersed in the program.

“I arrived at ETSU in the fall of 2000, and my life changed in so many ways. Within the first year, I performed with the ETSU Chorale across Italy and at the Vatican in Rome; then, three months later, I was touring Japan with the ETSU Bluegrass Band and a documentary film crew. Being part of East Tennessee State University has made for some incredible experiences over these past 22 years.”

Outside of the university, Dan found ways to teach within the wider bluegrass community through festival workshops, which he attended as a former member of the Becky Buller Band, and bluegrass music camps. While teaching at Steve Kaufman’s Acoustic Kamp in 2015, Dan met Alan Munde, who founded the bluegrass program at South Plains College with Joe Carr, who hosts Camp Bluegrass in Levelland, Texas.

“Alan and I share a lot in common as college educators. We immediately became friends, and for several years, we would run into each other at festivals and music events. About three years ago, he invited me to teach at Camp Bluegrass, which was postponed in 2020 and 2021 due to COVID. But I’m all set to be there for the 2022 camp this July.”

As if a tremendous career in bluegrass performance and instruction weren’t enough, Dan’s interest in photography has grown within the last decade.

“We live in a wonderful hybrid world of analog and digital, and I will switch between digital and film photography depending on my mood. Many of my interests, like photography, have grown out of necessity,” says Boner. “It’s good for anyone working in music to understand a little bit about photography, graphic design, social media, live sound, video, and recording.”

Another passion of Dan’s is amplifiers and working to alter, amend, or perfect guitar amplifiers for sound control and quality.

“Talking about doing things out of necessity, the electronics stuff started by wanting high-quality audio equipment without paying $1,200 or $1,500 per channel for good microphone preamps. So, I learned how to build my audio equipment in hopes of saving money, and it turned into a real passion. I love vintage microphones as well. Seeing photos of Flatt and Scruggs around a vintage ribbon microphone tugs at the heartstrings,” he explains.

Dan believes his combined love for things artistic and mechanical is genetic. His mother is a skilled painter, and his father is a machinist. “The heart is happy when the hands and mind work together,” he added.

“I have been developing some really nice vacuum tube recording equipment over the past five years that I’m pleased with,” he continued. “I have gradually moved away from simply cloning well-known pieces in favor of making designs inspired by my own sonic choices. I’ll spend hours and weeks testing different transformers, components, and circuit arrangements and listen intently, oftentimes asking my musician friends for their opinions.”

 

If this paints a portrait of Dan Boner as a very busy man, it’s accurate.

“What am I going to do today?” he laughed. “Let me tell you—I’ll be going to the university at noon. I have a rehearsal with the ETSU Bluegrass Pride Band and a guest singer who will be performing a Kenny Chesney song with us at the Down Home in Johnson City tomorrow night. We will rehearse that song along with the rest of our material. After that, three of my students will be recording videos of their finals for voice and fiddle lessons. One of our scholarship donors is in town visiting from Florida, so I’ll catch up with her this afternoon. And then, at six o’clock, we’ll be at the Down Home in Johnson City for the second night of our program’s final shows for the semester. There will be about six student bands that play tonight. Tomorrow morning, Brittney Haas will be given her send-off, having been our artist in residence at ETSU this year, along with Mike Compton, so we’ve got a little thing scheduled for them at 11.

“Back at home, I have a shipment of electronic PCB boards arriving soon. That way, when summer gets here, I can start prototyping some new circuits. The vacuum tubes are here already, but I need to order some audio transformers from Cinemag. I need to follow up with a company in China where I’ve been sourcing the metalwork. I do the front panel designs in Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator and want to make sure the graphics look perfect before ordering the final products. And there may be a couple of Fender guitar amps on the bench that need new capacitors.”

Dan seems to flourish in this organized chaos of creativity and instruction because he thrives on variety and living in the moment.

 

“I am quite a spontaneous person and love when good things happen unexpectedly. That’s what makes life interesting. As they say, it’s not just about the destination, but the getting there.”