THE READING ROOM: Southwestern Ohio’s Turn in the Bluegrass Spotlight
In February 1947, Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys played to an enthusiastic crowd in Dayton, Ohio. Among the over 4,000 people gathered to hear Monroe and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs was 15-year-old Bobby Osborne. The night changed Osborne’s life in many ways, and according to bluegrass music historian Neil V. Rosenberg, “Osborne began learning to sing Monroe’s songs and listening closely to Monroe on the Opry. After seeing the band in person, he [Osborne] got thumb and finger picks so he could play the guitar like Lester Flatt.”
Osborne’s story is one among many in the entertaining and illuminating collection of essays, memoir, and interviews gathered in Industrial Strength Bluegrass: Southwestern Ohio’s Musical Legacy (Illinois), edited by Fred Bartenstein and Curtis W. Ellison. The book grew out of a series of public lectures and each chapter in the book — with a couple of exceptions — expands on those talks to reveal some aspect of the region’s rich bluegrass music history. The anthology ably illustrates the dynamic character of bluegrass in southwestern Ohio, tracing its evolution from first-generation players who embrace the traditions of Appalachian music as it migrates to the industrial cities of the north to the innovative music of second-generation players who, though faithful to the tradition, also add new dimensions to bluegrass that reflect the social and cultural experiences of the musicians.
As Bartenstein writes, the collection “documents much, but not all, of the bluegrass legacy of southwestern Ohio. Professionally recorded and performed bluegrass is the tip of an iceberg. …Great performing artists learn their craft and build a following within that environment, but most of the ‘weekend warriors’ of bluegrass perform for their own enjoyment and that of friends, family, and neighbors. There are informal jam sessions in the Cincinnati/Dayton region that have continued on a weekly or monthly basis for decades at word-of-mouth venues: VFW halls, FOP lodges, vehicle repair shops, hardware stores, and the like. … We observe that many of the participants, certainly the older ones, are first- or second-generation Appalachian migrants who impart their skills and repertoire to younger enthusiasts.”
Industrial Strength Bluegrass features sociological studies, like Phillip J. Obermiller’s essay “Appalachian Migration: Setting the Musical Stage in Southwestern Ohio,” which includes maps that illustrate the flow of migrants from Appalachia to selected cities in the north and the flow of migrants from Appalachia to specific cities in Ohio. Between 1965 and 1970, more than 11,000 people moved to the Cincinnati area, and just over 4,000 people moved to the Dayton area.
Other essays probe the ways that southwestern Ohio cities and towns have shaped the music. One of the best essays is Daniel Mullins’ mini-history of the influence of radio stations on bluegrass music in the Miami Valley — which includes Dayton, Yellow Springs, Xenia, Cedarville, and Oxford — in “All the Way to the Fences: Bluegrass Broadcasting in the Miami Valley.” He writes that “even before bluegrass was recognized as a genre distinct from country music, it found a home on Miami Valley radio dials. Broadcasting played a critical role in building the bluegrass market over the decades. Bluegrass music’s consistent presence on the radio airwaves of southwestern Ohio is a primary reason for the genre’s continuing success in the area.”
Mullins profiles influential DJs, including Smokey Ward, Shorty Hobbs, and the great showman Paul “Moon” Mullins, who often introduced his shows with the opening words, “We’re gonna plow all the way to the fence.” “Mullins’s colorful expressions told audiences that he and they were going to have a good time together, from the time he went on the air until he signed off, and that he was going to give it his all.”
Other essays explore, among other topics, early bluegrass venues (Larry Nager, “Sing Me Back Home”), bluegrass gospel (Bartenstein’s “Using My Bible for a Roadmap: Sacred Bluegrass Music in the Miami Valley”), and bluegrass recording studios and labels (Mac McDivitt, “Taking the Music Home: Bluegrass Recording Studios, Record Labels, and Record Stores”). Highlights include banjo player and radio DJ Joe Mullins’ interview with Bobby Osborne — “Bobby Osborne Remembers How It Was” — and an excerpt from Lily Isaacs’ memoir in which she reflects on an “unlikely music career”: “I’m not sure how all of this came to be. I sometimes sit back and reflect on my journey. I knew that my destiny was sculpted by the Almighty, and I am grateful for all the opportunities we’ve had. It seems that my musical journey has come full circle. I guess it all started when this green New York City kid was introduced to a form of music called bluegrass.”
Ben Krakauer examines “Distinctive Qualities of Southwestern Ohio Bluegrass” — including an emphasis on vocal trios, a diminished role for the fiddle and a more central one for the mandolin — and concludes: “Bluegrass in mid-century southwestern Ohio was born out of economic displacement. It served the needs of migrants who existed at a crossroads between an industrial present and the unrecoverable rural past. …Forged in urban experience, the virtuosic distinctiveness of this region’s music yielded notable and lasting innovations in modern bluegrass.”
Neil Rosenberg also provides a summary of the distinctiveness of the music: “Bluegrass in southwestern Ohio evolved in many different musical directions, shaped by strains of gospel, traditional, progressive, folk, ‘newgrass,’ new acoustic, Nashville, and other sounds. What ties it all together is the sense of down-home appropriateness, the nurturing of skills in the rough but enthusiastic environment of working-class bars, and the belief that it is an appropriate art form in which to make a personal statement about life in Northern cities. A new urban folk music, nurtured and shaped by a folk community in an industrial setting, has made the world familiar with southwestern Ohio’s bluegrass.”
Industrial Strength Bluegrass: Southwestern Ohio’s Musical Legacy provides a revealing glimpse into a chapter of bluegrass history that until now has been little explored. The book offers an important introduction to and an excellent starting point for further conversations about how the culture and history of southwestern Ohio continue to shape bluegrass music in enduring ways.