This post discusses two very worthwhile books about regional bluegrass. One of them, “Industrial Strength Bluegrass” (Illinois 2021), was published this year. The other, “Bluegrass In Baltimore” (McFarland & Co. 2015), is six years old. These books are histories of the bluegrass styles that developed in southwestern Ohio (roughly the region from Dayton to Cincinnati) and Baltimore, respectively. Both are valuable contributions to the literature of bluegrass, each documenting a vibrant bluegrass scene and the extraordinary musicians who made it happen.
“Industrial Strength Bluegrass” is a collection of 11 essays by different authors, edited by Fred Bartenstein (who also contributed one of the essays) and Curtis Ellison. There is also a companion recording, “Industrial Strength Bluegrass,” consisting of 16 modern remakes of songs first recorded by musicians who were part of the southwestern Ohio scene. “Bluegrass in Baltimore” is a narrative history written by Tim Newby. They deal with the bluegrass music made and enjoyed by Appalachian migrants who moved north seeking better work and better lives. And they demonstrate that musically southwestern Ohio and Baltimore had a lot in common.
The first essay in “Industrial Strength Bluegrass” discusses patterns of migration from Appalachia to Ohio. Not surprisingly, most who migrated to Ohio came from neighboring Kentucky and West Virginia. Southwestern Ohio in particular offered work in a variety of industries, including General Motors, Armco Steel, Champion Paper, and National Cash Register. New arrivals tended to live first in the centers of Cincinnati, Middletown, Dayton, and the other cites where jobs were concentrated. This migration peaked in the decades after World War II, although it continued for many years thereafter. Similarly, Baltimore, larger than the southwestern Ohio cities, also drew heavily on Appalachian migrants, especially from West Virginia, to work in its manufacturing, shipping, and textile industries.
Many of the people who moved to Ohio and Baltimore from the mountain south played, sang, or simply enjoyed the music they had grown up with at home. They brought their love of mountain music with them to their new homes, and a large market for this music quickly developed in Ohio and Baltimore. The second “essay” in “Industrial Strength Bluegrass” is actually an interview of bluegrass legend Bobby Osborne, the senior (and mandolin-playing) half of the Osborne Brothers duet, members of the Grand Ole Opry since 1964. The interviewer is Joe Mullins, himself a well-known and highly regarded southwestern Ohio banjoist and radio entrepreneur. Bobby vividly describes his “rough” life in the mountains of rural Kentucky, up to age 10, when his father found work at the National Cash Register plant in Dayton: “I never seen a car or anything until I was close to ten years old.” He also describes how his powerful singing style first came to public notice as a teenager when he performed “Ruby,” later an Osborne Brothers standard, live over the radio at a show in Middletown, Ohio. Bobby recounts the early history of the Osborne Brothers, with brother Sonny on banjo, and their days with Red Allen, himself a powerhouse singer/guitarist from Kentucky, also living in Dayton. This interview by itself is worth the price of the book.
Another essay describes the key role of Cincinnati as a bluegrass recording center rivaling Nashville from the late 1940s into the 1960s. Flatt & Scruggs recorded Earl’s iconic banjo instrumental, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” at Herzog Studio in December 1949. Both the Stanley Brothers and Reno and Smiley recorded some of their best known songs at King Studios under the watchful eye of King Records owner Syd Nathan.
Other essays consider the importance of the bluegrass radio shows and personalities and venues for live bluegrass, primarily bars catering to the migrant community. Disc jockey, fiddler and Kentucky migrant Paul Mullins, Joe’s dad, broadcast bluegrass and country music on radio for many years from his base in Middletown and played hot fiddle with some of the region’s best known bands, including the Boys From Indiana (right next door to Ohio) and later, the Traditional Grass.
One thing common to both the southwestern Ohio and Baltimore bluegrass scenes was that much of the very best music was played in rough, noisy gin mills. These bars could be dangerous-dobroist Russ Hooper, member of the Franklin County Boys and a mainstay on the Baltimore bluegrass scene since the 1950s, saw a man shot to death in one.
Another commonality was musical. Many of the musicians discussed in both books shuttled between Baltimore and southwestern Ohio, notably including Red Allen and mandolin virtuoso Frank Wakefield, who played together on and off for many years, and Earl Taylor and the Stoney Mountain Boys. Wakefield moved to Dayton from Tennessee as a teen and was soon known as an innovative mandolin virtuoso and composer. Wakefield wrote “New Camptown Races,” a mandolin tour de force in B flat, a key that most players of the day avoided, when still in his teens and recorded it with a Dayton band. In the early 1960s, Frank and Red recorded one of the true bluegrass desert island discs, “Red Allen Frank Wakefield and the Kentuckians,” Folkways 2408, featuring another recording of “New Camptown Races” and the innovative banjo playing of Bill Keith, who joined the Blue Grass Boys after a stint with the Kentuckians.
New Camptown Races (scroll to track B7)
Earl Taylor and his band were the hit of Alan Lomax’s Folksong ’59 concert at Carnegie Hall and then recorded an album for a national record label. Although their music was world class, they remained a regional rather than national act. Mandolinist Taylor, guitarist Jim McCall, banjoist Walt Hensley, and bassist Vernon “Boatwhistle” McIntyre, were mainstays at both the 79 Club in Baltimore and the Ken-Mill Café in Cincinnati, two of the leading bluegrass bars in their respective cities.
Not surprisingly, given the musical overlap between the two regions, the music made in the Dayton/Cincinnati area and in Baltimore was similar, and the styles were traditional, loud and hard driving. This similarity may also have resulted from the fact that noisy bars were the main venue for the music in both regions, especially in the early days. The bands had to power their picking and singing though the noise and the smoke and the beer. To get and hold the attention of the patrons in these primarily working class establishments the songs had to be plainly stated, simple, clear and direct, and very down to earth.
Ohio performers in addition to those already mentioned who later made national or even international reputations included Larry Sparks, the Isaacs, a family gospel act (matriarch Lily Isaacs contributes an autobiographical essay to “Industrial Strength Bluegrass”), and Jim and Jesse McReynolds. Strong regional acts included Dave Evans, one of the most distinctive bluegrass vocalists ever recorded, and Charlie Moore, who also recorded in Baltimore with noted bluegrass DJ and record producer Ray Davis. In Baltimore the list included Del McCoury and his brother Jerry as well as singer, songwriter, and bass player Hazel Dickens, whose recordings with Alice Gerrard became legendary.
This review has focused on the early days of the two bluegrass scenes. This may be due to my own recollection of some of the more recent events, which included a trip up to Baltimore from my home in Washington in the early 1980s to see former Stoney Mountain Boys Jim McCall and Walt Hensley at the Cub Hill Inn, another of the landmark Baltimore bluegrass clubs of the period. “Industrial Strength Bluegrass” and “Bluegrass In Baltimore” contain a lot more information about these kindred bluegrass scenes, and both make fascinating reading for fans of hard driving traditional bluegrass. The books also make a strong case for the importance of bluegrass music as a source of Appalachian cultural identity and pride.