Bluegrass in Columbus
We met our friend Brent Davis and his wife, Susan, for supper on Sunday afternoon in Columbus, OH, after a long drive from Pennsylvania. Irene spent a couple of hours helping to fold T-shirts as preparations for Musicians Against Childhood Cancer progressed, and a powerful, but quick, thunderstorm raged through. Brent, who works for WOSU Public Media in Columbus, has produced a series of films for the station about neighborhoods in Columbus. So he took us on a tour of Columbus neighborhoods with a particular emphasis on bluegrass here in the state capitol, home to Ohio State University.
Downtown Columbus shows all the signs of prosperity and growth that can be sustained by a major city that houses both the state university and the state government. The downtown business area, on the near north side, merges into the university campus. The university boasts 60,000 students and is dominated by the cathedral-like football stadium and surrounded by distinctive architecture — all strangely quiet on this summer Sunday evening. But there’s another side to the city.
The south side of Columbus is dominated by Columbus Castings, the largest single-site steel castings plant in North America, supplying railroad under-castings. Interestingly, Columbus Castings was once the Buckeye Steel corporation for which Samuel Prescott Bush, George H.W. Bush’s grandfather, served as president from 1908 until 1927. Buckeye Steel attracted workers to the south side of Columbus from many places, including the hills of Appalachia, in the 1930s and ’40s. Due to its proximity, I imagine a large number came from Eastern Kentucky. Ethnic communities grew up around the steel company, and these neighborhoods developed and flourished through the middle half of the 20th century. The South Side, dominated by renewed industrial activity, is home to ethnic Hungarian and German, African-American, and Southern white communities with, these days, somewhat muddied borders. The German Village is a lovely enclave of restored old brick houses that has been fully gentrified for a generation. Meanwhile, most of the people of Hungarian ancestry have moved to the suburbs, as have many of the Appalachian whites. (WOSU sponsors an ongoing series on Communities in Columbus, which you can view online.)
For years, along with a few other gathering places like bars or small restaurants, The Bluegrass Music Shop was a hangout for bluegrass musicians in Columbus. There’s still a weekly jam there on Saturdays. In fact, the jam there is the longest running jam in the area, having taken place over thirty years between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. every Saturday. Mark (Brink) Brinkman, award-winning bluegrass songwriter, can be seen in one of WOSU’s films, playing at the jam and discussing the city’s bluegrass community.
The Bluegrass Music Shop inhabits a small brick house set back from High Street on the South Side. The mainstay of the shop has always been sales of recorded bluegrass music and devotees who come to hang out, jam, and chew the fat. It’s an authorized Martin Guitar dealer and sells a wide variety of new and used instruments, plus all the necessary gear – strings, capos, picks. There are still cassette tapes of classic bluegrass bands available here. There might even be a few eight tracks and LPs. But the sizable group that once came here has dwindled over time, and the recorded music business has inevitably moved toward downloading and streaming, cutting out the middle man and turning vital shops like The Bluegrass Music Shop into representatives of a fast-fading era. Sadly, the means of communicating and passing down the musical traditions are disappearing with these gathering places.
There was a period in Columbus’s history when there were bluegrass jams from the several locations we toured on the South Side up to some of the bars and food joints in the area around Ohio State University. Most of these seem to have gone the way of the dinosaur, as musical tastes have changed and the ways in which bluegrass music is learned and passed along have developed along new lines. Young people who grew up in blue collar factory homes have gone on to college, moved to the suburbs, and, increasingly, become heirs to changing musical tastes and the vast expansion of entertainment alternatives. The proliferation of college and university programs in traditional and bluegrass music has formalized the learning process and professionalized entry into performing. Meanwhile, the jamming scene at many festivals seems to have declined, particularly at those not held in the summer or those that feature increasingly strong performing lineups.
Bluegrass music and its audiences are a moving target. The sound and feel of the music played by Bill Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, and Jim & Jesse can still be heard and is still revered and enjoyed at bluegrass festivals. So are newer and different sounds and vibes — bands like Della Mae, the SteelDrivers, Trampled by Turtles, and the Punch Brothers. One of the glorious elements of today’s bluegrass festivals remains both looking backward toward the founders and forward to an unknown future, toward what will still be called bluegrass. Today’s young players were schooled on the classics while growing up in the ever-changing environment of country, pop, and rock music, in a world where the tight extended family is often found only in fond (and often not accurately remembered) nostalgia.
Jammers, meanwhile, will continue to keep the old songs alive by playing and singing them, slowly adding material from a newer repertoire to their bag of tricks. And someone will say, “It’s all good!” even when it might not be.