Region’s bluegrass music roots celebrated in new songs, book, live performance by top stars

Joe Mullins discusses the Industrial Strength Bluegrass project while at Memorial Hall in Dayton.

Bluegrass music was the soundtrack of last century’s migration from Appalachia.

Now, with the help of Miami University’s regional campuses, working-class tunes of yesteryear are being re-discovered.

Leading the resurgence is a new book – “Industrial Strength Bluegrass: Southwestern Ohio’s Musical Legacy” – that chronicles the past generation of thousands of area families who brought along the distinctive sounds of bluegrass as they migrated from Kentucky and other mid-southern states for work here.

Book co-editor and contributor Fred Bartenstein said he hopes for a Bluegrass revival with the book’s release, a coming concert and a CD featuring some of Bluegrass’ biggest performers.

“Southwestern Ohio was to bluegrass what New Orleans was to jazz or what Chicago was to the blues. It was the place where the music really took root and evolved,” said Bartenstein.

It’s a regional musical legacy that rang nationwide but is forgotten by many locally whose families lived and worked here in the last half of the 20th century, said Bartenstein

The population shift, which began in the 1940s, saw thousands each year taking on the heavy industry jobs offered by Middletown and Hamilton’s steel mills to other manual labor opportunities in the industrialized Dayton and Springfield area.

“It’s totally about the Appalachian migration but bluegrass music, which emerged in the mid-1940s was popular among the hundreds of thousands of migrants to this region. And this (southwest Ohio) region was also one of the largest markets for bluegrass music,” he said.

“Brilliantly talented musicians began their careers here … including many who appeared on live broadcasts from a Middletown radio station … and other really significant radio outlets based in this region and some significant record companies.”

“It all was a perfect storm for it to evolve from the way Bluegrass music sounded in the mid-1940s to the way it sounds today,” said Bartenstein. “And a lot of that happened in Cincinnati, Hamilton, Middletown, Dayton and Springfield.”

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Later this month will see a live Bluegrass concert – with a limited on-site audience and broadcasted online – from the Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival near Wilmington, Ohio and the release of CD featuring internationally-celebrated artists including Rhonda Vincent, Bobby Osborne, Vince Gill, Lee Ann Womack and Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers.

The CD on the Smithsonian Folkways label tells the story of southwestern Ohio bluegrass through historically iconic songs.

Miami University’s regional campuses in Hamilton and Middletown are playing a major role in rediscovering Bluegrass’ local origins, said Matthew Smith, director of Miami University Regionals Public Programs.

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“Since 2017, Miami University Regionals has been at the forefront of the Southwestern Ohio Bluegrass Music Heritage Project. This project has drawn on scholars, artists, archivists, and musicians in greater Cincinnati and the Miami Valley to explore the region’s rich bluegrass heritage and make it accessible to the public and researchers,” said Smith.

“Achievements to date include a series of public lectures and musical programs, a traveling panel exhibit illustrating the history of southwestern Ohio bluegrass, a dedicated archive at the Smith Library of Regional History.”

Bartenstein said the coming CD will feature historical photos of workers at the old Armco steel works.

Those interested in attending or watching online the eight hours of live performances from the March 27 show at the Roberts Convention Centre in Wilmington, Ohio should go to iTickets.

Seating for the concerts, which will go from 1 to 9 p.m., will be limited to 450 due to coronavirus safety precautions.

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