Stephen Marshall and Steve Reece have been telling me about Chris Dula and the open jams at the Acoustic Coffeehouse in Johnson City for months. This past week, I joined my musical mates for a impromptu jam session at this college venue and it’s official…I’ve been “Dulafied.”

Chris DulaDula is an associate professor of psychology at ETSU and encouraging Doc Marshall to pick up his bass and rejoin the music scene in the region – and we’re all the better for it too. But that’s just the beginning for this local minstrel. Dula seems to have a contagious spirit for music that translates to the audience – literally.

Each month, Chris gathers an unpredictable group of musicians of all ages and genres to perform a library of songs from an 80 page songbook. He has no setlist and on many times there are newbies in the band – like me.

This was my first night to perform at The Acoustic Coffeehouse on Market Street in Johnson City. This college hangout is located next to a laundermat and hosts live music on most any night of the week. It’s a small room and they serve sandwiches, bagels and cold micro-brews. There are students, teachers and crowds hanging out at all hours and you never know what you might hear.

Jim Benelisha is a local celloist who runs the Acoustic Coffeehouse where his love of live music manifests itself in a venue that’s open to anyone who can play an instrument. There’s an old spinet piano in the corner and a collection of percussion scattered around the stage like a child’s toy box.

He setup the sound system tonight and in quick succession, eight musicians gathered around Dula to explore the songbook. Besides myself, Marshall on Bass and Reece on drums, there was a young 16 year old trumpeter/fiddler, Zak Ross a talented young guitarist and Michael Fernando on Acoustic.

When Chris got to the mike, he immediately encouraged the audience to grab an instrument. He persuaded fans in the audience to play congas and without haste or pretense, the set began.

He teased the band as to whether they should start from the back of the book, or the front and explained to the small crowd that gathered, “the guys aren’t allowed to practice the music. We’re hear to have a good time and we hope you enjoy yourself too.”

Thus began an adhoc experiment of music from Snoop Dog, Old Crowe Medicine Show, Led Zeppelin, Wilson Picket, U2, The Monkees and Lynyrd Skynrd. Most of the songs were familiar to the audience and many times during the night, he stopped the band as the crowd was encouraged to sing choruses acapela as Dula directed the words.

Of course, the music at times is unpolished like a rough gemstone, while other moments evolved into experimental efforts that conjured abstract jazz, rock and funk expressions.

It’s refreshing to participate with new musicians and always a pleasure to join other players who simply enjoy the art form. Most important is the liberating spirt of expression as this ensemble (who perform monthly at the coffeehouse) celebrate an evening of loose liberty of joy and participation surrounded on all sides of the stage.

If you haven’t experienced the Acoustic Coffeehouse, I’d recommend this room if you have a taste for organic music. There are traveling acts, solo acts, poetry, and random sessions like the one this week.

Hopefully, there’ll be another time soon to join this pied piper and I’m sure he’ll continue to spread the musical bliss.

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