January 2009 Issue
Roots Music Revival
Warm your spirits and soothe your soul with a toe-tapping night of traditional bluegrass, country and gospel music.
It was only mid-November, and Ohio’s dreary gray side was already rearing its ugly head. The forecast said 40 degrees, but the freezing rain that pelted our faces as we ducked into the Blue Bell Diner in downtown McConnelsville was an unpleasant reminder that our insurgent winter weather doesn’t play by the rules.
We had come to this population-1,700 town in search of dinner and a show — the kind born out of a “simpler time” that, if you’re too young to remember Sputnik, you’ve probably only heard about. We found the former in a slice of homemade peach and blackberry pie worth every bit of the gas money it took to get to this ’50s-style diner on the town square. The latter was waiting for us across the street at the Twin City Opera House, where the Ohio Valley Opry — a modern-day, old-time variety show that combines bluegrass, country and gospel acts with the occasional comedian — was getting ready to deliver its 100th performance that night. It didn’t take long to figure out that everyone in the packed diner was heading to the same place, all of us hoping the fast-picking pace of banjos, fiddles and guitars would be enough to brighten our moods on this cold and rainy night.
From the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to the plains of Wapakoneta, these days the high lonesome sound of bluegrass and other roots-style music can be heard almost anywhere in Ohio. Venues like the Twin City Opera House, festivals and community centers, radio programs and roadside bars make it possible to enjoy this all-American style of music every day of the week. Rich Baker, a bluegrass musician and a host of the weekend Bluegrass Ramble radio show on WOSU-AM in Columbus, says the genre’s deep Ohio roots are currently enjoying a quiet renaissance. “Bluegrass has always had its ups and downs, but it’s stronger than it’s ever been right now,” he says.
A fusion of blues, country, folk, jazz and gospel music, Baker calls bluegrass music a “uniquely American art form,” one that was born in the United States, but was influenced by the mostly Scotch-Irish immigrants who settled in Appalachia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. “When these people moved to Ohio’s cities for work, they brought this musical heritage with them,” Baker says. “Not to mention, Bill Monroe [who’s generally credited as being the father of bluegrass, introducing the style in the mid-1940s] was from Kentucky,” he says.
Baker says these influences, plus the presence of Ohio’s own bluegrass legends such as Paul “Moon” Mullins and his son, Joe, Tom Ewing, Harley “Red” Allen and the Osborne Brothers meant the roots music scene was on fire in cities such as Dayton, Cincinnati and Columbus in the `50s, `60s and early ’70s. More recently, the genre has received pop culture boosts from the movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and performers such as Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs.
Add to this increased community support of restoring old theaters and finding new uses for struggling ones, and it’s no wonder that most of the seats at the historic 1892 opera house are filled tonight in spite of Mother Nature. Backstage, it’s 15 minutes to curtain and Deana Clark is touching up her makeup while three of her four daughters pop in and out of her dressing room searching for everything from wardrobe advice to a comb. Clark, her husband Marvin and their daughters began the Ohio Valley Opry eight years ago, and tonight’s show marks a proud milestone for this musical family.
“We’ve traveled and sang for 18 years, through West Virginia, Florida, here, there and everywhere I suppose,” says Clark. “When we’d go to those different states, we’d think none of the venues were as beautiful as this one,” she says. “It was built for live music.”
Clark, who sings and plays the piano, calls their shows a “positive brand” of country, bluegrass and gospel music, and says their first performance in September 2000 filled about 350 of the theater’s 562 seats, a number, barring snowstorms, they haven’t dipped below since. Shows feature new artists as well as a core of regular performers that includes her family, emcee and country performer Matt Coleman and “Uncle Doofus,” an old-fashioned country comedian. Minutes later, the first notes of the opening act — the Clark family singing the classic “Keep On the Sunny Side” — fill the room. The song’s message is delivered courtesy of the theater’s impressive acoustics, and by the end, the audience is singing along.
Across the state in Wilmington, an even bigger celebration of bluegrass and roots music is going on at the two-day Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival in Wilmington. The festival, held in November and again in March, is organized by radio personality, banjo player and bluegrass legacy Joe Mullins, and had filled most of its seats by noon on a Friday when we stopped in to catch the first round of performances.
As gospel group the Primitive Quartet finished up, Mullins took the stage to introduce the next act. “Ya’ll got your seatbelts on?” he quipped as bluegrass quintet Dailey & Vincent tuned up. The crowd exploded. Mullins later explained that the group had recently swept the 2008 International Bluegrass Music Awards, taking home Entertainer, Vocal Group, Album and Emerging Artist of the Year, with frontman and lead tenor vocalist Jamie Dailey winning Male Vocalist of the Year as well. Scanning the crowd from behind, nearly every foot in the place was tapping from the first note — three songs in, and people were dancing in the aisles. This doesn’t surprise Mullins. “It’s emotional music and it’s participatory music,” he says. “We’ve had shows stopped because of laughter and we’ve had shows stopped because of tears.” Mullins says many of the people who come to the festival are musicians, which is why the festival has designated “jam session” areas where anyone can join in. “People can play and sing all night if they want to,” says Mullins. “And a lot of them do.”
Coming up in March, Mullins says he’s excited to host the Seldom Seen from D.C. for the first time — they’re one of first bluegrass bands to capture a big metropolitan audience, he says — as well as five-time fiddle player of the year Michael Cleveland.
But even if none of these names rings a bell, it’s hard to deny that the fast-paced rhythms and family-friendly lyrics could be just what you need to boost your spirits during the bleaker periods of Ohio’s long winter. “If you’re interested in one of the purest musical forms, go see a show,” says WOSU’s Baker. “There’s nothin’ like it.”
Ohio Valley Opry
Twin City Opera House 15 W. Main St., McConnelsville, 43756,740/558-2283.
www.ohiovalleyopry.com. Tickets $7 at the door, $8 for reserved seats. Shows are on the first and third Saturdays of the month.
The Southern Ohio Indoor Music Festival
The Roberts Centre, 123 Gano Rd., Wilmington, 45177, 937/372-5804. www.somusicfest.com. March 27–28. The full lineup includes Paul Williams and the Victory Trio, Don Rigsby and Midnight Call, Michael Cleveland and Flamekeeper. Call or visit Web site for prices.
Union Hall Theater
Intersection of Marion (St. Rte. 377) and Coal (St. Rte. 555 S.) streets, Chesterhill, 43728, 740/554-6994. www.unionhalltheater.org. Admission $10, $1 for children under 12. Enjoy live music at this 100-year-old theater with performances by Jordon Run, Willie Phoenix and Blackwater Run over the next three months.
The Bluegrass Opry Barn
9461 St. Rte. 66, Oakwood 45873, 419/594-2435. Admission $10, children 12 and under free. All shows start at 7 p.m. Jan. 9, David Davis & the Warrior River Boys; Jan. 23, Dave Evans and River Bend; Feb. 20, Summertown Road (formerly Bo Isaac & the Wheelrights). Also, enjoy acoustic jam sessions every Tuesday night at 6 p.m.
The Pennyroyal Opera House
Off I-70 exit 198 (Fairview Village), Fairview 43736, 740/695-6291. www.pennyroyaloperahouse.com. Call or visit Web site for upcoming performances. Most concerts are on Friday evenings.
Glass City Opry
Maumee Indoor Theatre, 601 Conant St., Maumee 43537, 419/ 250-1096. www.glasscityopry.com. Admission $15, children 15 and under free. Shows held the second Monday of the month, including Jan. 12, Feb. 9 and March 9.