WCU band trip is once in a lifetime opportunity

In the early hours of the morning on Saturday, Nov. 30, slightly more than 500 students at Western Carolina University met in the football stadium parking lot and packed into 12 buses. What did they have in common? They all were members of WCU’s Pride of the Mountains Marching Band. Their destination? New York City.

‘The band that changes people’s lives’: WCU marching band a motivator for enrollment

The calendar had declared the start of fall two weeks prior, but that didn’t stop the sun from shining hot and high over Cullowhee Oct. 5, the last day of classes before fall break. For much of Western Carolina University’s student body, the heat probably didn’t matter — they’d already finished their last class and hit the road for a weeklong respite from academics. 

WCU reaches out to special needs students

art frIt was a year-and-a-half ago that Western Carolina University’s director of athletic bands, David Starnes, was asked by United Sound founder Julie Duty to help put together a board for her nonprofit organization, which provides musical performance experiences for students with special needs.

Marching toward The Big Apple

cover“The whole world is watching.”

That’s the statement echoing from a megaphone strapped to the side of David Starnes, director of athletic bands at Western Carolina University. On a recent crisp late fall afternoon, 505 college students march up and down a large intramural field in Cullowhee. The instrumental sounds of Journey’s seminal 80s classic “Don’t Stop Believin’” ricochets around the campus, ultimately radiating into the Southern Appalachian mountain range cradling the school.

Pride of the Mountains is California-bound

Nearly 400 members of Western Carolina University’s Pride of the Mountains Marching Band will travel to Pasadena, Calif., to march in the internationally televised 2011 Rose Parade.

The band is scheduled to appear at the 49th position in the parade, which begins at 11 a.m. on Jan. 1.

“The Rose Parade is seen by millions of people from around the world, and the Pride of the Mountains will be serving as marching musical ambassadors for Western Carolina,” said Bob Buckner, director of the WCU Pride of the Mountains Marching Band. “It’s a role we accept as a high honor, and we are ready to take on the challenges — both logistical and financial — of transporting our students, their instruments and other equipment to California.”

Three trucks will carry the band’s instruments, uniforms, equipment and even band member’s luggage to California in order to save about $40,000 in checked baggage fees. Students loaded the trucks Monday, Dec. 20, and will fly to California starting Dec. 28.

At the Tournament of Roses Bandfest on Thursday, Dec. 30, which friends, family and fans can watch online via a webcast available for $8.50, the band will perform its halftime show “Rock U.”

During the Rose Parade, the band will perform the song “You” by California ska band Suburban Legends, a local favorite in Orange County. Matt Henley, assistant director of the WCU marching band, said the music selection came about as he was thinking about the parade’s theme, “Building Dreams, Friendships and Memories,” and remembered a story about Suburban Legends.

After a member of the group, trombone player Dallas Cook, died in a traffic accident, Suburban Legends held a memorial concert and directed proceeds to Cook’s high school marching band in Huntington Beach, Calif. Cook had credited his experience in high school band for much of his passion for music.

Moved, Henley contacted Suburban Legends about the possibility of playing the group’s song in the parade and building a friendship.

“We love Suburban Legends’ music, and we are excited to play their song ‘You’ in Dallas’ memory and send the message that, like him, we love band too,” said Henley. “We arranged the song for marching band, and that is what we will play on TV as we go around the corner in the parade. Part of our goal was to build a friendship from East Coast to West Coast, and we hope to get the chance to meet members of Suburban Legends while we are there.”

Band members have said they are both excited and nervous to perform in front of so many people. More than 700,000 are expected to attend the parade, and more than 51 million people are expected to watch the internationally televised event on TV.

“I’m actually marching in the Rose Bowl (which will be) watched by a billion people. That is a lot of stress. A lot of eyes would be on me if I fall or trip,” said Candace Rhodes, a freshman music education major from Georgia, in a video she submitted in a WCU video contest, before willing it not to go wrong. “It won’t happen. It won’t happen. It won’t happen.”

When Jeffrey Throop, president of the Tournament of Roses Association, visited WCU’s band in September, he predicted the Pride of the Mountains would be a hit in California.

“I can already tell, you are going to blow everybody away. It’s just so exciting to see you and to see your style. I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Throop, who has observed more than his fair share of marching bands during his affiliation of 36 years with the Rose Parade. “I can’t wait to show you off to everyone, to the world.”

Follow the Pride as they travel to Pasadena at roseparade.wcu.edu.

Putting a rose in his cap: Bob Buckner’s final season as WCU marching band director ends with trip to Parade of Roses

By Brittney Burns • SMN Intern

While preparing Western Carolina University’s Pride of the Mountains marching band for their debut appearance in the 2011 Tournament of Roses Parade, band director Bob Buckner and wife — band auxiliary coordinator Donna — announced their retirement.   

Buckner, a Waynesville resident, is serving his 20th year as WCU’s marching band director. Although Buckner and his wife, who joined the band family the year after her husband, will officially step down in June, they both plan to stay involved with the band.

“We want to retire while we are still in good health and able to still do the things we want to,” said Buckner. “I still plan to come back and help the new director in any way I can. I just don’t want to have to work every day.”

Alyssa Pierce, a WCU junior and marimba player for the Front Ensemble, is saddened by Buckner’s announcement.

“We are all sad to see Bob leave, but we know he will always be a part of this band,” said Pierce. “I am confident that he will remain an inspiration to us and to whoever comes to lead the next era of the Pride of the Mountains.”

The Buckners have plenty to keep them busy once they retire. One of the things they look forward to the most is being able to spend more time with their grandchildren.

“We have three grandchildren who live right here in Sylva,” said Buckner. “Most people retire to travel the world, but we have been lucky enough to have already traveled all over the world. I just want to hang around WCU with my family.”

Buckner and his wife also plan to spend retirement relaxing and working on their golf games, a hobby they both enjoy.

Both Buckner and his wife have built an empire around the Pride of the Mountains. During Donna Buckner’s time with the band she has not only acted as the auxiliary coordinator while still being able to be a substitute teacher, she founded the color guard as well as the dance team. Donna Buckner started the Catamount color guard during her first year working with the band. It began with 12 girls and has grown to a squad of 36 women who play an integral part in the Pride of the Mountains performances. She has coached girls on the dance team who have gone on to perform for NFL professional teams such as the Redskins, Falcons and Panthers.

Buckner’s reign as director is full of milestones. One of his most notable accomplishments is that there are currently more than 100 active band directors in North Carolina who are WCU graduates.

“I think the number of active band directors who are former Catamounts speaks volumes not only about the marching band, but about Western’s music program in general,” Buckner said.  

One of Buckner’s proudest accomplishments while working at WCU came in 2009.

“Receiving the Sudler trophy was a really big deal for our band; it’s the highest honor possible,” said Buckner. “It says a lot considering the size of school we are and highlights how good we really are.”

The most recent accomplishment the band has experienced is one they are still preparing for. On Dec. 30 of this year, the Pride of the Mountains Marching Band will join the country’s most talented bands in the 2011 Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif.

Although excited to participate in this prestigious event, Bucker was not surprised.

“I was sitting at home writing the last show of September (of last year) when I first got the call; I was extremely excited, but I was kind of expecting it,” said Buckner. “We had just won the Sudler trophy and are an extremely talented band.”

Band member Stephen Eller was overwhelmed with the news about the Tournament of Roses Parade.

“When we were first told about the Rose Parade, I thought Bob was joking. Marching that day will be one of the highest honors this band has had thus far, and I am proud and excited to be a part of it,” said Eller.

After getting over the initial excitement, Buckner quickly began preparing the band for the performance. The first thing the band did was revise the 2010 pregame show to include the tune they will perform for the “TV Corner” portion of the parade. This allows them to incorporate practice for the performance without interfering with the plans that were already in play for football season.

The theme for this year’s parade is “Building dreams, friendships, and memories.” Instead of doing the predictable and choosing music to highlight the theme, Buckner wanted to approach it with a “hands on” idea.   Assistant Director Matt Henley contacted a southern California, all horn band that mixes Brazilian, rock, country and Cuban flavors to develop their own unique sound, and made arrangements for WCU’s band to perform the band’s tunes at the second part of the Tournament of Roses BandFest.

“When they hear a 390-member strong band play their music — we are going to blow them away.” The two bands will perform together at BandFest, really embracing the theme of this year’s Rose Parade.

With the big day approaching quickly, the band is attentively working to straighten out all the last-minute details of the trip. The band’s staff coordinator, Rachel Rimmer, has worked with travel agents to single-handedly scheduled flights for each band member (totaling 396 people).

“Working out the logistics has been difficult,” said Buckner, “Rachel has been great handling all the travel. Believe it or not, we had some students who didn’t even have a photo ID.”

While the band staff sorts out the final details of the trip, Buckner has been encouraging students to work out and get in shape for the 6.5-mile hike of the parade.

“After all 396 people who will be marching that day actually line up, we measure just over 300-feet long,” Buckner said. “What people don’t realize is that the parade march expands over six miles and will be no easy feat.”

Band members have been regularly visiting the campus gym and joining fitness classes to prepare for the hike. Senior band member Shelby Harrell is taking preparing for the parade seriously.

“I’ve been hitting the gym a lot to prepare for 6-mile parade march. It’s so exciting to think about all of the people that will be there to watch our band,” said Harrell. “I have no doubt that we will be fully prepared for the parade and I know we are going to have the time of our lives.”

Buckner credits the band’s success to being a “real team effort” between himself and both of his assistant directors, Henley and Jon Henson.

“The most fun part of this entire experience is the real unique situation we have here — we are all from the band program at Tuscola High School,” said Buckner. “Three generations of mountaineers working together.”

According to Buckner, the best way to watch the Pride of the Mountain’s Rose Parade performance is the commercial-free, live streaming of the event on HGTV beginning with the BandFest performances on Dec. 30.

Smokey Mountain News Logo
Go to top
Payment Information


At our inception 20 years ago, we chose to be different. Unlike other news organizations, we made the decision to provide in-depth, regional reporting free to anyone who wanted access to it. We don’t plan to change that model. Support from our readers will help us maintain and strengthen the editorial independence that is crucial to our mission to help make Western North Carolina a better place to call home. If you are able, please support The Smoky Mountain News.

The Smoky Mountain News is a wholly private corporation. Reader contributions support the journalistic mission of SMN to remain independent. Your support of SMN does not constitute a charitable donation. If you have a question about contributing to SMN, please contact us.