By Katie Millard, Photos by Lena Kalantzis
Fiddles and banjos underscore Southeast Ohio, with a surprising history connected to the region.
Coal and soot fell from stomping boots as miners, factory workers and families were swept up in rising fiddles and train-whistle harmonies. After long shifts, the blue-collar workers who made Southern Ohio often relaxed to the tight tunes of bluegrass, which they carried with them from Tennessee, North Carolina and other southern Appalachian states. Songs ranged from quick-tempo twang to longing music that intertwined fiddle strings with heart strings.
First recorded on Aug. 12, 1927, “Banks of the Ohio” is an old bluegrass murder ballad accompanied by a folk tale. Betty Mace of Perrysville describes the grave of the victim in the ballad.
According to legend, a hunter happened across the grave, which sported a single flower. He decided to pick the flower for his wife, and another sprouted immediately. The whole town heard and tried it, and each time a new flower grew. Finally, the accused murderer was pressured to try. Upon picking the flower, it instantly withered and died.
“Only say that you’ll be mine
And in our home we’ll happy be
Down beside where the waters flow,
On the banks of the Ohio.”
Although bluegrass’ birth is primarily associated with Ohio County, Kentucky, bluegrass music traveled north and thrives in Southern Ohio too.
“There’s a couple areas in the country that have always been kind of bluegrass hotbeds,” Dan Brooks, dobro player for the Rarely Herd, an internationally established bluegrass band from the ‘90s, says. “Southeastern Ohio was one.”
“I’m unprepared for eternity:” Bluegrass is born
Bluegrass is rooted in Appalachian music, a genre of traditional music from the Appalachian Mountain region that encompasses bluegrass, country, folk and old-time music. The genre is known for its blend of Scot-
The banjo, a staple of the genre, originated in Africa. The genre’s vocal stylings also have distinct roots in blues, African American Psalm singing and field hollers, a type of song sung in fields of plantations by enslaved people. According to Black Music Scholar, music was a way to navigate the horrors of slavery as well as communicate encrypted messages, Biblical stories and encouragement.
Bluegrass first emerged in the early 20th Century, and soon after, bluegrass music took firm root in Southern Ohio. “The Bluegrass Triangle” refers to the area connecting Columbus, Dayton and Cincinnati, where factories drew workers from central Appalachia to its Ohio edges, bringing musical traditions with them. Small bars and clubs attracted famed bluegrass acts like the Osborne Bothers, Earl Taylor and even Bill Monroe, the “father of bluegrass.”
Further east in southern Ohio, small factory cities transitioned to coal mining towns as bluegrass traveled east, and bluegrass continued underscoring the working class and their stories. Bluegrass— alongside jazz, blues and folk music – is part of the “music of coal.”
Jack Wright, author of “Music of Coal” and a former film professor and Ohio University alum, says song themes range from the intricacies of coal life to black lung.
“As an industrial subject, coal mining is probably one of the richest veins of folklore for musicians and for songs about mining,” Wright says.
According to Native Ground Books & Music, Appalachian migrants in southern Ohio performed for one another to help keep their culture alive and as an outlet to discuss working class life. Early southern Ohio bluegrass was found in the home, church and on the radio, enjoyed communally. As younger migrants arrived, they were met with the familiar music and found comfort in the musical memories of the “old home.”
Tight discipline in the mines and factories was reflected in tight harmonies and quick fingering strings. The highly specialized work carried into the music, with performers mastering their individual instruments and parts of each song. In Dayton, trios became most popular, traveling from fickle bar to crowded pub.
Some traveled further, however, such as the Dayton-based duo the Osborne Brothers, the first bluegrass group to perform at the White House and 1994 inductees to the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall of Honor.
“Come on now and go down to the banks of the Ohio”: Ohio fuels modern bluegrass scene
As bluegrass developed, Southern Ohio continued to produce noteworthy acts, singers and bands in the bluegrass scene.
Hailing from Athens County, the Rarely Herd hails got their start playing locally. Family gathering jam sessions shifted to something more formal when they met Alan Stack, who would become their fiddle and mandolin player. The group officially began in 1989, and two years later the band was signed by a record label, touring the U.S. and performing in a bluegrass series in Ontario, Canada.
“Just by virtue of our records, being out on radio, we started to get a lot of calls and a lot of bookings in different places,” Brooks says.
While Brooks and the Rarely Herd grew from Southern Ohio, he says their hometown roots continued to influence their success. Some Rarely Herd songs reference Ohio, including “My Virginia Girl,” which opens with intricate strings and the line, “It’s another lonely night in Cincinnati.”
“There’s a lot of those groups I don’t know how they stay together because, you know, the banjo player will be from Indiana, the guitar player would be from Virginia, this guy would be from Wisconsin,” Brooks says. “We were very lucky that we all live within 15 minutes of each other.”
Larry Sparks, Harley Allen, John Hickman and the Hotmud Family also hail from Southern Ohio, each enjoyed successful bluegrass careers alongside the Rarely Herd.
The Rarely Herd has won numerous awards for bluegrass, including a 10-year run of “Most Entertaining Band of the Year” from the Society for the Preservation of Bluegrass Music of America. They also won the “Bluegrass America” competition in 1991. Still, Brooks says the Bob Evans Farm Festival in Rio Grande, Ohio is one of his favorite spots to perform.
“We’ve always loved Bob Evans since forever,” Brooks says fondly. “It’s a really cool thing.”
“In our home we’ll happy be:” Ohio bluegrass festivals
Each year, Bob Evans farm hosts their weekend-long annual Farm Festival. Its 2023 event marks the 52nd anniversary, and among the rides, food and local goods are the lilting sounds of country and bluegrass performers.
The now-grandparents who make up The Rarely Herd have decided to hang up their microphones in favor of casual playing for family or friends. However, the Rarely Herd still unites about twice a year to play. Whenever they can, they perform the Farm Festival.
Brooks says while the festival was huge in the ‘90s, often boasting 80,000 attendees over its three-day span, the best part was the hospitality, which keeps the band returning even into retirement. He says they would always receive a letter a few weeks after their performance from their hosts. Regretfully,
Farm Festival is just one of several annual Southern Ohio bluegrass festivals. Sammy Karr, organizer of two premiere bluegrass festivals in the U.S., connected with bluegrass at age 10 at his first bluegrass festival in 1974.
“When you’re 10 years old, you just want to go somewhere with your parents and play with your friends,” Karr says. “When we were old enough to start going with him to the bluegrass festivals. We started liking it a lot, we started getting to meet some of the bands. We thought that was really cool.”
Of the two festivals Karr organizes, SamJam––which won the International Bluegrass Music Association for best festival––takes place in Piketon.
While Karr has been a fan of bluegrass for nearly 50 years, his festival at the Piketon Fairgrounds works hard to keep bluegrass young.
“I think the best thing we’ve done with SamJam is get younger people to come to our festival,” Karr says proudly. “We do a lot of things that cater to the younger audience, college age kids, so we get a different kind of bluegrass. A little more progressive.”
SamJam is a sensory adventure. Daytime brings sunshine on green grass, spotted with American Flags, vibrant outfits full of fringe and sounds of fiddle and banjo echoing through the fairgrounds. Hats are a favored attire and lawn chairs of every shape, size and color dot the space, often left empty to opt for stomping of boots along to the beat. Lollipop-toting toddlers waddle around the grass among seated life-long enthusiasts with long, white beards – at SamJam, all ages can enjoy bluegrass.
As night falls the stage lights brighten, illuminating performers and their various stringed instruments against the dark night sky. By the end of the evening, smoke machines join the music in the air surrounding the dancing, rosy-cheeked crowd.
It is still hard for Karr to comprehend, however. The festival— in true bluegrass fashion— began humbly in middle America. Karr had a little barn in Worthington, Indiana and decided to host a small music festival for his nephew’s 21st birthday. The first year boasted about 30 people and a performance by Karr and a buddy of his.
The next year, however, Karr decided to continue the performance.
“By the time the eighth one was done, I had to move it out to a campground because it was getting so big,” Karr says.
Before long, SamJam attracted the attention of Rick Greene, who approached Karr with the idea of the Piketon Fairgrounds. Pike County nestles a bluegrass hub in between U.S. 23 and Ohio 32, both four-lane highways. Now, SamJam has surpassed its eighth official year and Karr says it draws 3,000 people and about $4 million dollars to the county annually.
“It started in a garage, and now … we won the International Bluegrass Music Association Award for best festival,” Karr says. “[We’ve] beaten people from Paris and everywhere else. It’s unbelievable how this has happened.”
“My love, you see”: Bluegrass maintains its Ohio legacy
The twang of the banjo and flip of a fiddle still harmonize today, as bluegrass continues to be a prominent Appalachian genre. Bluegrass intertwines with legend, with Appalachia and with Southeast Ohio. Just as history, the Rarely Herd and SamJam do, bluegrass songs invite the world to experience the “banks of the Ohio.”