Industrial Strength Bluegrass from Ohio

By Neil V. Rosenberg

From an essay published in a booklet distributed at the Dayton Bluegrass Reunion (“An All-Star Salute to Dayton’s 40 Year Bluegrass Legacy”) on April 22, 1989. Performers included Paul “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 Harvey and the Osborne Brothers. Used by permission.

Tonight’s concert honors two generations of Dayton musicians who played major roles in creating and popularizing urban bluegrass music.  Cityfolk hopes that this evening, Daytonians will rediscover an important facet of their musical history and become better acquainted with its leading figures.

Today, bluegrass music is internationally recognized as one of America’s vital musical arts. The Dayton bluegrass scene was central to the development of this art. While tonight we focus on the history of the music, bluegrass in Dayton is not 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 bluegrass for their own enjoyment than ever before.  A few statistics: Ohio furnishes one of the highest numbers of subscribers to Bluegrass Unlimited, the leading national monthly for followers of this music;Ohio also has one of the highest numbers of annual bluegrass festivals; and the Ohio-Kentucky-Indiana Bluegrass Association, headquartered here, is one of the largest such voluntary organizations anywhere. What was at first a new music built on old traditions by a few key figures in the Appalachian migrant community is now itself a widespread tradition whose words and sounds evoke for many people images of an old home and of friends and relations who brought a way of life from the hills and coal fields.

Bluegrass music was born in Nashville during the early forties, with Kentucky mandolinist and singer Bill Monroe and his Blue Grass Boys. A featured artist on WSM’s Grand Ole Opry since 1939 who recorded on major labels Victor, Columbia, and Decca (MCA), Monroe oversaw the development of what folk music pundit Alan Lomax called in 1959 with characteristic hyperbole “the first true orchestral form in five hundred years of Anglo-American music.” Based on traditional styles and repertoires, it offered innovative vocal harmonies and newly composed songs by musicians who accompanied themselves in distinctive 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 upland South.

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 played before an audience of over four thousand. 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 native Scotty Jackson, just six months old, had recently moved to Dayton from Kentucky with his parents:

My mother told me that my aunt, my dad and herself took me to an armory 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 remember that 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 was embedded in my subconscious mind or something. At least I would like to think so. … I was the only one of us kids that cared anything about bluegrass music — I still say it was from the Bill Monroe thing in Dayton.

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

Appalachian migrants listening to Kentuckian Monroe and playing for 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, with one end of the crescent marked by Cincinnati, the other by Columbus. Into this urbanized and industrialized region, during the forties and fifties, moved millions of people whom the Ohioans called “hillbillies,” or “Kentuckians,” or “briar hoppers,” or “briars.” Originally terms of contempt spoken by others, these words, particularly “briar,” were ultimately adopted with cultural pride by the working class folk from rural Kentucky, Tennessee, and neighboring areas who came to Dayton and 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 adults leaving the subsistence of the farm or the dangers of the coal mine for safer and more lucrative factory work. Others were youths like Harley “Red” Allen, from Pigeon Roost, near Harlan, who “wanted to get out of that place soon as I turned nine or ten years old.” He believed there were better places, and left the holler to see what the rest of the world was like. Others were just small children who came because the family was moving. Many headed to Dayton because a sister, cousin, or uncle was already there. Those who were old enough when they left to remember the old home are likely to still think of it 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 “down home” with traditional southern music and early country music.  It was heard in the home from older relatives, parents, and older siblings who 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: listening to the radio was a family or community experience. Occasionally someone 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 they were 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 to receive the label “bluegrass.” For them it was a vital new music.  But many bluegrass songs were about the old home. Bluegrass instruments, particularly the banjo and the fiddle, were familiar reminders 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 while creating 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 and a special job to do on their instrument. Down home the most popular early bluegrass vocal format was the duet, which gave plenty of room for individual harmonic variation and freedom.  In Dayton the bluegrass musicians gravitated toward the vocal trio, a more complex harmonic form which required careful planning and skill in execution. The pace and intensity of factory work was echoed in the pace and intensity of bluegrass; as Alan Lomax — always ready with a handy metaphor — said, it was “folk music with overdrive.”  While the old-time banjo of their fathers had a soft and plunky sound, the young Appalachian migrants in Dayton made their bluegrass banjos sound loud and metallic.  When bar owners would pay only for three musicians, the instruments abandoned were the bass, its rhythm taken by the guitar’s bass 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 were working to master the intricacies of bluegrass, shaping the music to their needs and tastes. They entered talent contests, and appeared as guests on local radio shows.  For some it was a passing fancy, recreation; but for talented others a musical life unfolded. Playing on radio and in local taverns and bars, they worked to move up and out, to place their music on records, to build a career. Bob Osborne went South to apprentice with the Lonesome Pine Fiddlers and the Stanley Brothers. Sonny Osborne and Noah Crase worked with Bill Monroe. Frank Wakefield went North to play in the bars of Detoit and work with the new bands springing up among the Appalachian immigrants there.

For young men whose relatives and friends were punching the clock at 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 hard and risky business. For most it meant weeks, months, or years in rough and tumble bars. Reminiscing about the dues they paid, Dayton bluegrass veterans offer a colorful catalog of names: Ruby’s White Sands, the Hilltop Inn/Tavern, Keg #1, Keg #2, The Mecca Bar, The Mermaid, Johnnie’s, The Blazing Stump, Charlie’s Nite Club, Little Mickey’s, Babe’s Place, the Horseshoe Bar, Tom’s Tavern, the Friendly Inn, The Circle Bar, The Family Room, The Golden Fly. New friendships were made and down-home connections reinforced in these crowded bars.  But they could also be as alienating to the musicians as the industrial 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 working conditions; 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.” Mike Lilly was 17 and picking banjo for the Powell Brothers in one such Dayton bar:

One night just a mess of truckers and cops got into it in this one Dayton bar we had been picking at regular.  We were picking on stage and looking down at them boys. They were going at it like cats and dogs. 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!

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 these problems 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 with classics like Ruby and Once More. In Detroit, Frank Wakefield recorded his acclaimed composition New Camptown Races, turning the world of bluegrass mandolin upside down. In Cincinnati, Noah Crase planted the seeds of chromatic style banjo with his recording of Noah’s Breakdown.


Neil V. Rosenberg is Professor Emeritus of Folklore at Memorial University of Newfoundland. His books include Bluegrass: A History (1985); Bluegrass Odyssey: A Documentary in Pictures and Words (2001) co-authored with Library of Congress photographer Carl Fleischhauer; The Music of Bill Monroe (2007), co-authored with Charles K. Wolfe; and Bluegrass Generation: A Memoir (2018). He has published over 70 articles and review essays. In 1981, he originated the column “Thirty Years Ago This Month” which ran for 12 years in Bluegrass Unlimited.

Used by permission.

3 thoughts on “Industrial Strength Bluegrass from Ohio

  1. Hello Neil, You have me footnoted in your book. Thank you. Perhaps I could have you sign a copy?

    1. Howdy Mel

      I know Neil, but if you want your comment to get to Neil, you’ll need to contact him directly. Thanks!

  2. That was a great night. CityFolk is much missed in Southwestern Ohio. I was honored to play bass that night with Red Allen, Frank Wakefield and Red Spurlock, and I also wrote the script. The Dayton Bluegrass Reunion had been conceived as a theatrical presentation, with slides and narration, of the history of the area’s bluegrass scene, a pretty ambitious idea. But all the bands got into it and it was a pretty amazing, fast-paced evening of what we realize today, are all certified legends. God Bless Phyllis Brzozowska and her right-hand man Dave Barber. But I wish someone had a video camera rolling. Steve Matyi took some nice photos.

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