Former App State professor keeps high country music, instruments alive


Samuel Cooke

Mike McKee makes minor repairs to a guitar in his workshop, Feb. 21, 2022.

George Richards, Reporter

For the past 15 years, a retired App State professor has kept one of Boone’s jamming communities alive by repairing instruments from his basement workshop.

Mike McKee, an economics professor, doubles as a luthier. He repairs string instruments for Boone residents.  

“That’s enough for a nice bridge for a Martin, but I’d want to put that on something from the ’40s or ’50s,” McKee said as he inspected a chocolatey-brown block of Brazilian rosewood. “It’d have to be a nice guitar.”

Apart from the bench sander he uses to remove material from the instruments he works on, McKee does the majority of the repairs in his shop by hand.

“If I was willing to use a band saw, I could go a lot faster, but band saws scare me,” McKee said. “You can lose a finger.”

Mike McKee speaks with a repair client in his basement workshop Feb. 21, 2022. (Samuel Cooke)

Before he left Calgary in his native Canada, he took a two-week course on how to do fret work on stringed 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’s not a lot of people that fix instruments around here,” McKee said. “There aren’t very many that charge as little as I do.” 

He tries to repair instruments that come into his home within a couple of weeks. McKee said he knows people do not like to be away from their instruments too long. 

Music has always been a big part of McKee’s life. He said when he was 20, he left the Canadian Army after two years and bought himself a guitar. 

While McKee spends most of his time repairing instruments, he said he still views it as something to keep 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 helped many people in the area with instrument repairs, both big and small.

McKee gave McKenzie a guitar, something he has done for a number of people.

“I mean that was a pretty emotional moment for me, you know, because he gave me a guitar, a really nice guitar,” McKenzie said. 

McKee’s second floor office in his home is similar to his shop — economics books from his over 35 years in academia fill the bookshelves, but in front of an old bulky TV, there are seven or eight black guitar cases.

“One of my favorite things, honestly, is to go to his house and taste test all his instruments,” said Brandon Holder, McKee’s friend of 11 years.

McKee said he is a collector of instruments. His collection contains instruments he has bought and fixed up over the years and those he has built himself. 

Outside his shop, McKee is just as much a part of Boone’s bluegrass and old-time music scene as he is the regional luthier community. 

Just after moving to the area, he began inviting people to jam at his home. The meetings would be between McKee and three or four others whom he had met at the Appalachian Heritage Council, a student-led group trying to preserve Appalachian culture. McKee’s wife, Jane McKee, began by providing cheese and crackers for the group and then began cooking for the guests. 

Before long the weekly jams became something bigger. McKenzie, a regular, said they often played until 2 a.m.

“It was like having Thanksgiving dinner and a jam every week, and, I mean, it was really special,” McKenzie said. 

Jane McKee began having to provide more than just cheese and crackers. 

“It was wonderful to see all these people. It was work of course,” Jane McKee said. “They were all friends, and we still keep in touch with a lot of them.”

Mike McKee tests out a guitar after he made repairs and adjustments to it in his workshop Feb. 21, 2022.
(Samuel Cooke)

While walking across the university campus in fall 2010, Mike McKee met a student carrying an instrument case and asked what he played. The student told McKee he played mandolin and a week later he began coming to the McKees’ for the weekly get-together. 

Brandon Johnson, an English graduate student came to “everything at the house. He came to all the jams,” Jane McKee said. 

After Johnson graduated, Jane McKee said Johnson’s mother attributed her son’s graduation to Mike McKee. 

“He graduated, and his mother came up to Mike and said ‘You know that 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 well attended that Jane McKee began cooking meals on Monday to have everything ready in time for Wednesday.

It was not long before the jam had to find a new home.

Thanks to Mike McKee’s connections to the owners, the jam moved to a “dive bar” called Murphy’s which became Ransom in 2017. The move attracted more and more people, some traveling two hours to come and watch or play along. 

When the bars in Boone finally reopened after closing during the COVID-19 pandemic, Mike McKee and some of the regulars at the jam moved over to Appalachian Mountain Brewery on Monday nights.

Mike McKee still picks along to John Prine classics and more traditional fiddle tunes, swapping 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 she has known him “he has always had a guitar.” Music was McKee’s release and his time to relax, away from the working toward his degree, masters and Ph.D.

Because McKee’s dad was in the Canadian Air Force, he would move around a lot as a child. As part of his academic life, McKee taught in three different countries and six different states, but thanks to the musical community in Boone, he said he is going to stay put from now on. 

“It’s what keeps me here,” Mike McKee said.