We often think of bluegrass music as an old genre, even though it “officially” didn’t begin until the mid-1940s. However, we’re fortunate it began to grow and flourish in a time when technology was booming, allowing our parents and grandparents to witness and chronicle its very start. People from various backgrounds and connections to the music have helped document and preserve this musical heritage throughout the decades, and the latest of these efforts focuses on a long-overlooked area where bluegrass music has truly flourished – southwestern Ohio.
People who moved both north and west from Appalachia to find employment in industrialized areas in the early to mid-twentieth century took their music with them in the form of old world ballads and new tunes they conjured up. Just as they had in the mountains, many of these people participated in churches and social gatherings, and made lots of music in their leisure time. When bluegrass had its big bang in the 1940s and ’50s, music made in this area began to be noticed on a national scale. The Osborne Brothers are perhaps the most famous group with roots in the region, while a number of other bands who performed or recorded in the area like Jim and Jesse McReynolds, Jimmy Martin, Red Allen, and Larry Sparks have certainly left their mark on bluegrass. Several popular bluegrass record labels started in the Cincinnati and Dayton areas, and radio stations such as WPFB broadcast bluegrass music day and night.
A new project sponsored by the Appalachian Studies department at Miami University of Ohio, along with several public and academic libraries in the area, is now seeking to document and share the rich history of bluegrass music within the area. The Southwestern Ohio Bluegrass Music Heritage Project will pull together public programs and lectures, live music performances, and new archival collections, among other ventures, to create a large-scale public history project that will appeal to both the general public and those in the academic world.
The public events begin this spring and for the most part will take place at the Wilks Conference Center at Miami University’s campus in Hamilton, Ohio. Topics to be covered in lectures and presentations include “Bluegrass Broadcast Media in the Miami Valley,” presented by journalist Daniel Mullins, “Bluegrass Gospel and Sacred Music in the Miami Valley,” featuring Lily Isaacs, “The Bluegrass Revival of the 1970s in Southwestern Ohio,” with Jon Weisberger, and a live performance and discussion of bluegrass music within the region featuring Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers with special guest Bobby Osborne.
Bluegrass historians will be interested in several other tasks undertaken by those involved in the project. A wiki-type website featuring bluegrass artists, venues, and organizations important to the region, swohiobluegrass.com, has been hosted by Miami University Hamilton for the past several years, and is in the process of being updated with photographs, artwork, and images of artifacts. Bluegrass scholar Fred Bartenstein and Miami University professor of history Curt Ellison will be editing an anthology of essays on bluegrass in southwestern Ohio penned by scholars and musicians who participate in the public programs this spring. In addition, those involved in the project have begun working to compile an archival collection of bluegrass heritage artifacts related to southwestern Ohio at the Smith Library of Regional History in Oxford, Ohio. They hope to include sound recordings, photographs, documents, and oral histories within the collection.
Residents of the region can also be on the lookout for a traveling exhibit, to be showcased at the regional campuses of Miami University and libraries within the area, featuring a visual and text overview of the importance of bluegrass music in southwestern Ohio. The project’s board hopes that the exhibit will also be featured at the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky, next year’s Appalachian Studies Association conference, and perhaps at a future IBMA World of Bluegrass event.
It’s not often that bluegrass music history is presented to the public in such a broad and overarching manner, especially when it focuses on the history of a specific region. The Southwestern Bluegrass Music Heritage Project seems like an excellent opportunity for musicians, scholars, and fans alike to delve into the background of their favorite bands and venues.
For more information please visit the Miami App Studies program on Facebook, or see the image to the left.