Industrial Strength Bluegrass by Neil V. Rosenberg

[The Dayton Bluegrass Reunion (“An All-Star Salute to Dayton’s 40 Year Bluegrass Legacy”) was presented by CITYFOLK, “a nonprofitorganization designed to support the active awareness of andappreciation of folk traditions in the Dayton metropolitan area,” at Montgomery County Memorial Hall on April 22, 1989. Performers includedPaul “Moon” Mullins and Traditional Grass, Noah Crase, The Hotmud Family, The Allen Brothers, Red Allen, Porter Church, Red Spurlock, The Dry Branch Fire Squad, Larry Sparks, Frank Wakefield, David Harveyand the Osborne Brothers. The 16 page booklet given out at the concertincluded the following essay.]

Tonight’s concert honors two generations of Dayton musicians whoplayed major roles in creating and popularizing urban bluegrass music.  Cityfolk hopes that this evening Daytonians will rediscover animportant facet of their musical history and become better acquaintedwith its leading figures. Today bluegrass music is internationally recognized as one of America’s vital musical arts. The Daytonbluegrass scene was central to the development of this art. While tonight we focus on the history of the music, bluegrass in Dayton isnot just a thing of the past. The southern Ohio region to which it belongs is still one of the wellsprings of bluegrass activity. If there are fewer full-time professionals than in previous years, a far larger number of people in the area now play and listen to bluegrassfor their own enjoyment than ever before.  A few statistics: Ohio furnishes one of the highest numbers of subscribers to BluegrassUnlimited, the leading national monthly for followers of this music;Ohio also has one of the highest numbers of annual bluegrassfestivals; and the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Bluegrass Association, headquartered here, is one of the largest such voluntary organizationsanywhere. What was at first a new music built on old traditions by afew key figures in the Appalachian migrant community is now itself awidespread tradition whose words and sounds evoke for many people images of an old home and of friends and relations who brought a wayof life from the hills and coalfields.

Bluegrass music was born in Nashville during the early fortieswith Kentucky mandolinist and singer Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. A featured artist on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry since 1939 whorecorded on major labels Victor, Columbia, and Decca (MCA), Monroeoversaw the development of what folk music pundit Alan Lomax called in1959 with characteristic hyperbole “the first true orchestral form in five hundred years of Anglo-American music.”1 Based on traditional styles and repertoires, it offered innovative vocal harmonies andnewly composed songs by musicians who accompanied themselves indistinctive styles on guitar, mandolin, fiddle, bass and five-string banjo. Monroe assembled his definitive band in 1946-48, with guitarist Lester Flatt, banjo-picker Earl Scruggs, fiddler Chubby Wise, and bassist-comedian “Cedric Rainwater” (Howard Watts).  In Dayton the radio broadcasts of this influential group were especially popular with the many people who had recently moved in from the uplandSouth.

This new music –which almost everyone at that time identified simply as “hillbilly music” –came in person to Dayton in March, 1947, when Bill Monroe (then 35 –the age today of his disciple Ricky Skaggs) played before an audience of over 4000. For at least one member of the crowd it had a life-altering impact, leading to a career as a professional bluegrass musician.  Pike County Kentucky nativeScotty Jackson, just six months old, had recently moved to Dayton fromKentucky with his parents:

My mother told me that my aunt, my dad and herself took me to anarmory there in Dayton to see Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys.  Playing with him that night were Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs;bluegrass as we know it today. Although I was too young to rememberthat show, which had to be the ultimate, I think that must have had something to do with the way I grew to love bluegrass.  Maybe it wasembedded in my subconscious mind or something, at least I would liketo think so. … I was the only one of us kids that cared anythingabout bluegrass music –I still say it was from the Bill Monroe thing in Dayton.2

Also in the audience was a somewhat older Kentucky native livingin Dayton, fifteen-year-old Bobby Osborne from Hyden.  A fan of Ernest Tubb, he’d emulated the singing of the Texas Troubador until recentlywhen his voice changed. He then began learning to sing Monroe’s songs and listening closely to Monroe on the Opry. After seeing the band inperson he got thumb and finger picks so he could play the guitar likeLester Flatt.

Appalachian migrants listening to Kentuckian Monroe and playingfor other Appalachian natives –this was how bluegrass came to Dayton. It lies at the center of a crescent that faces to the southeast, toward the mountains of Kentucky and West Virginia, withone end of the crescent marked by Cincinnati, the other by Columbus.Into this urbanized and industrialized region, during the forties andfifties, moved millions of people whom the Ohioans called hillbillies,or Kentuckians, or briar hoppers, or briars. Originally terms ofcontempt spoken by others, these words, particularly “briar,” were ultimately adopted with cultural pride by the working class folk fromrural Kentucky, Tennessee, and neighboring areas who came to Daytonand other parts of the crescent seeking a better life. Some, like Robert Osborne of Hyden, father of Bobby, Louise and Sonny; or like Bob Lilly of Harlan County, father of Mike and Keith; were adultsleaving the subsistence of the farm or the dangers of the coal minefor safer and more lucrative factory work. Others were youths likeHarley “Red” Allen, from Pigeon Roost, near Harlan, who “wanted to get out of that place soon as I turned nine or ten years old.”3 He believed there were better places, and left the holler to see what therest of the world was like. Others were just small children who came because the family was moving. Many headed to Dayton because asister, cousin, or uncle was already there. Those who were old enough when they left to remember the old home are likely to still think ofit rather than Dayton as home, but they also created a new home and a new way of life in Dayton –changing its culture and their own in many ways. With a new way of life came new musical traditions.

The first generation of Dayton bluegrass musicians grew up “downhome” with traditional southern music and early country music.  It was heard in the home from older relatives, parents, and older siblingswho sang, played the guitar, fiddle or banjo. It was in the church. The old-time topics and musical styles came in modern shapes from the radio, in programs of hillbilly music broadcast out of southern urban centers like Knoxville, Bristol, Cincinnati, and Nashville: listeningto the radio was a family or community experience. Occasionallysomeone owned a few records, but these and the machines needed to play them were a luxury relatively few could afford.

When the young people arrived in Dayton they found the music theywere familiar with on local radio stations like WPFB in Middletown, hosted by fiddler Smokey Ward. Gradually they met others like them, maybe not from their down home, but from another, similar, down home; fellow “briars” who shared their enthusiasm for country music. In the early fifties the country music they liked was just beginning toreceive the label “bluegrass.” For them it was a vital new music.  But many bluegrass songs were about the old home. Bluegrassinstruments, particularly the banjo and the fiddle, were familiarreminders of the music played by earlier generations from back home;yet they were played in new ways.

This combination of old and new was a perfect metaphor for the lives of people who sought to preserve the old ways from home whilecreating a new life. The assembly-line discipline that their new jobs demanded was reflected in the tightly organized structure of the bluegrass band, in which each musician had a special part to sing anda special job to do on their instrument. Down home the most popularearly bluegrass vocal format was the duet, which gave plenty of roomfor individual harmonic variation and freedom.  In Dayton thebluegrass musicians gravitated toward the vocal trio, a more complexharmonic form which required careful planning and skill in execution.The pace and intensity of factory work was echoed in the pace andintensity of bluegrass; as Alan Lomax –always ready with a handy metaphor –said, it was “folk music with overdrive.”4 While the old-time banjo of their fathers had a soft and plunky sound, the youngAppalachian migrants in Dayton made their bluegrass banjos sound loudand metallic.  When bar owners would pay only for three musicians, theinstruments abandoned were the bass, its rhythm taken by the guitar’sbass strings, and the fiddle, its lead voice taken by the mandolin,which could also provide the percussive “chop” that delineated the rhythmic structure of the music.

In the early fifties the young musicians around Dayton wereworking to master the intricacies of bluegrass, shaping the music totheir needs and tastes. They entered talent contests, and appeared asguests on local radio shows.  For some it was a passing fancy, recreation; but for talented others a musical life unfolded. Playingon radio and in local taverns and bars, they worked to move up andout, to place their music on records, to build a career. Bob Osborne went South to apprentice with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and theStanley Brothers. Sonny Osborne and Noah Crase worked with BillMonroe. Frank Wakefield went North to play in the bars of Detoit andwork with the new bands springing up among the Appalachian immigrants there.

For young men whose relatives and friends were punching the clockat local factories, the prospect of playing music –getting paid to do something you enjoyed and were creative at –could be very appealing. With it came the excitement of travel, the attention of women, and possibility of stardom. But beneath the glamor lay a hardand risky business. For most it meant weeks, months, or years inrough and tumble bars. Reminiscing about the dues they paid, Daytonbluegrass veterans offer a colorful catalog of names: Ruby’s White Sands, the Hilltop Inn/Tavern, Keg #1, Keg #2, The Mecca Bar, TheMermaid, Johnnie’s, The Blazing Stump, Charlie’s Nite Club, LittleMickey’s, Babe’s Place, the Horseshoe Bar, Tom’s Tavern, the Friendly Inn, The Circle Bar, The Family Room, The Golden Fly. New friendshipswere made and down-home connections reinforced in these crowded bars.  But they could also be as alienating to the musicians as theindustrial labor they replaced. They were places where people came and went noisily, often not caring about the music or the musicians;where fickle owners offered minimal wages and abysmal workingconditions; where fights were constantly erupting. As Suzanne Edmundson of the Hotmud Family put it, “People in Dayton work hard, live hard –need to let their hair down quick.”5 Mike Lilly wasseventeen and picking banjo for the Powell Brothers in one such Daytonbar:

One night just a mess of truckers and cops got into it in this oneDayton bar we had been picking at regular.  We were picking on stageand looking down at them boys. They were going at it like cats anddogs. Before it was over, some cop got mad and fired his gun. His bullet grazed me in the leg and went right through Jack’s new bass.Lord, I cut my teeth on some good ones that night!6

There was the fatigue of the road, the threat of failed marriage,the pitfall of drink, the unfortunate reality of untrustworthy promoters. Just keeping a band together in the face of all theseproblems was a challenge.  But the Dayton bluegrassers were committed,ambitious, and innovative. By the mid-fifties they were exporting their music from Dayton. Between 1956 and 1958 the Osborne Brothers and Red Allen, recording in Nashville and performing out of Wheeling, set new standards for vocal trios and hot instrumental styles withclassics like “Ruby” and “Once More.” In Detroit Frank Wakefield recorded his acclaimed composition “New Camptown Races,” turning theworld of bluegrass mandolin upside down. In Cincinnati Noah Crase planted the seeds of chromatic style banjo with his recording of”Noah’s Breakdown.”

Used by Permission.