This weekend in Centerville, OH, Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers will be performing at a special event, one that is very close to Joe’s heart. They are on a twin bill Saturday with Alternative Strings, an extra-curricular music program for students in the Centerville school system, grades 8-12.
The program is the brainchild of Doug Eyink, who directs the orchestra at Centerville High. Doug is also a banjo player, who has been finding and creating arrangements for young string players who want an experience outside of classical music. It has been running now for 17 years, and has been recently generating a good bit of attention.
Each year they hold a benefit concert, billed as Bluegrass Blowout at Centerville’s Performing Arts Center, with proceeds going to fund Alternative Strings. A small stipend for the program is provided from the school system each year, but it won’t cover expenses like purchasing instruments or travel to festivals and shows.
Doug tells us that Alternative Strings has been a rewarding experience for both his students and himself.
“It’s allowed me to do something that a lot of orchestra teachers would be afraid to do – incorporate my love of bluegrass and Celtic music into our student orchestra. Band programs cover all different types of music, but not so much for orchestra kids. I’m just trying to offer more options to my kids in southwestern Ohio.
When we started back in 1993, I didn’t know how we would make it work. I started by envisioning the four string sections (violins, viola, cello and bass), and viewing them as guitar, mandolin, dobro and bass in a bluegrass rhythm section. We think like a backup orchestra.”
So far Doug’s kids have performed in that function with Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Sierra Hull & Highway 111 and Cherryholmes, both at previous Bluegrass Blowout shows, and at nearby festivals.
“I always dreamed about playing banjo with Doyle Lawson, and it was absolutely surreal to get to have the kids perform with him at the MACC.
Seeing the kids get a positive impression of bluegrass music, and the people who play it, is a thrill for me. They were charmed by Doyle and Rhonda, but they really responded when we had Cherryholmes and Sierra, since they were so much closer to the kids’ age.”
Joe Mullins has been involved since the first Alternative Strings fundraiser in 2008. Doug was familiar with Mullins from his many years playing banjo, and from Joe’s radio presence in southern Ohio. Joe said he got an interesting call from Eyink that piqued his curiosity.
“Doug hit me with an appeal that grabbed me right away. He said something like, ‘I, myself, am a burned out banjo player, but have been in music education for years. We are going to start an annual concert at our Performing Arts Center, and I want you to come MC, and we’ll advertise on your show. Doyle is coming early to do a workshop and, for these kids, their only experience with bluegrass is from their orchestra teacher. Will you come moderate the workshop?’
That first show really opened my eyes. Doug Eyink wrote a score for some grass tunes, and they came out on stage and played them on the show. It simply destroyed the crowd.
When they played at my festival, Darrell Adkins saw them and invited them to his Musicians Against Childhood Cancer festival to do a set with Doyle.”
This weekend’s Bluegrass Blowout show takes on a special meaning for both Mullins and Eyink. As is always the case, Alternative Strings will perform a set, followed by a set by the Radio Ramblers. But when the two groups combine for a few songs with band and string orchestra, a crew will be shooting video, which hopefully will turn into a music video for one of the songs on the latest Ramblers CD, They’re Playing My Song.
“The song is Some Kind of War from Bill Anderson, which is the single from the new album – maybe the most contemporary song we have recorded.
We picked this song because Doug knew it would work for an orchestral performance, and because he had just found out he had colon cancer when we started discussing the video. He’s been through several surgeries and treatments, but has recently been declared cancer-free.
My mom was dying from breast cancer at the same time last Fall, and the song just resonates so much between what I went through and what he was going through.”
When Doug received his diagnosis, it was for a stage 3 cancer in his large intestine. He was treated at the Cleveland Clinic, where a great deal of research had been conducted on intestinal cancer.
Though his therapies were eventually successful, he felt initially blindsided by the news. He was a relatively young man, with a wife and five children. But as he was heading into treatment, Doug readily agreed with the choice of a song to collaborate on with Mullins.
“Even though the song never really comes out and takes the cancer angle, it is not a far stretch. I think the first verse will catch most people… I know my school kids understood that situation all too well and were very taken aback by it.
I think, for all of us, we live in this crazy fast-paced world that leaves very little time for understanding, sympathy and kindness.
There are still a few people out there that ‘get it.’ I think it is songs like this that remind us to take a step back, or just take a minute, or even a little more time to reason out why someone might be doing something that seams to be offensive or out of the norm. You never know when this kind of situation, ‘Some Kind of War,’ might impact you and change your behavior or even your life! It has certainly changed mine!”
This year’s Bluegrass Blowout will take place on Saturday, March 9, at 7:00 p.m. in the Centerville Performing Arts Center. Doug shared a few words about how the funds are used.
“The Bluegrass Blowout is fundraiser for our program. We get support from the school system (auditorium, security, etc), but we have to cover our bills and show a profit to get anything from the concert. Everything we make goes right back to the kids.
It took us years to pay for a PA, and charter buses for shows. We save our money to buy instruments, and have applied for grants whenever we could. We’ve been able to purchase two mandolins and a dobro so far, and I let the kids use my banjo.
We do get a minor stipend from the school system, but I end up putting a lot of my own money in each year.”
Folks outside of southern Ohio who would like to offer financial support to Alternative Strings, can send a check to:
c/o Doug Eyink
500 East Franklin Street
Centerville, OH 45459
937-439-3500 (ext. 3619)
Doug and his wife, who is also a music teacher, are currently setting up a private music program, The School Of Strings, LLC, for middle school students, as their local school system has dropped strings for those grades.
Hats off to Doug Eyink for his tireless work to provide educational options for young people – especially for exposiing them to the joys of bluegrass music!