Musician Josh Compton photographed at Schoenbrunn Village in New Philadelphia (photo by Ken Blaze)
Ohio Life

Josh Compton’s ‘The Big Trail’ Tells the Story of Tuscarawas County

The musician wrote and recorded a collection of folk songs that trace the history of his home. It stretches from surveyor Christopher Gist’s arrival in 1750 to the Great Flood of 1913.

Josh Compton’s voice rises like a ghost against the backdrop of his spare acoustic guitar and the distant notes of a piano. As he spins the tale of a nameless traveler crossing a river in a world still unshaped by man, the promise of a new Eden gives way to summer heat, driving rain and the competing forces of the Bible and a soldier’s blade.

Compton sees “Silver Frost,” the song that opens his 2024 album “The Big Trail & Other Ballads of the Tuscarawas,” as a fable that reflects the early history of Tuscarawas County, where he was born and still lives today. It was along the Tuscarawas River in 1777 that the pacifist residents of Schoenbrunn, the first Christian settlement in what is now Ohio, were swept up in the Revolutionary War as competing interests closed in around them.

“Silver Frost” is a great song whether you know that history or not, and that’s the allure of what Compton has done with his album. The flowing, 17-song journey (plus a few bonus tracks) works as a standalone piece of art.

“It’s been in my head for a long time,” says Compton, who records and performs under the name Brother Joshua. He adds that the roots of “The Big Trail” can be traced back to a college photography course for which he took pictures at landmarks across Tuscarawas County.

“I didn’t really understand the significance of this place until I started to read up on the history, especially centering around the Revolutionary War,” he says. “I’m just someone who loves to write songs — story songs, especially — and it’s just ripe for inspiration.”

Compton, who is also an elementary school art teacher, has long been a musician, but it was his interest in Appalachian folk music that had a lasting impact on his style.
      Musician Josh Compton photographed at Schoenbrunn Village on March 29, 2024 (photo by Ken Blaze)

The life of Moravian missionary and Schoenbrunn founder David Zeisberger figures into Josh Compton’s hopeful “Schoenbrunn Song,” as well as the haunting “He Walked the Forbidden Trail” and the sorrowful “O’ Goshen.” (photo by Ken Blaze)

“I got into field recordings and different folk songs that traveled from Scotland over into the Appalachian Mountains,” Compton recalls. “I got into that really deeply for a long time, and I think that’s a big part of where my sound comes from. … Listening to a lot of those old field recordings of Alan Lomax and stuff like that; I felt a kinship.”

The history-centered approach to “The Big Trail” also feels like a distant cousin to the one singer-songwriter Sufjan Stevens employed in his acclaimed 2005 album “Illinois,” which drew inspiration from locales across the state as well as people tied to them. Compton’s approach, however, feels older and rootsier. 

He recorded “The Big Trail” over the course of two years at the New Philadelphia home studio of Coby Hartzler. An accomplished musician in his own right, Hartzler engineered, mixed and mastered the album and plays in some capacity on most of the songs. Seven other musicians make appearances as well.

The album was a way for Compton, who lives in Dover, to explore not only the county where he was born but also the one where he and his wife, Tessa, have chosen to make a home with their two young daughters.
      “The Big Trail & Other Ballads of the Tuscarawas” cover from musician Josh Compton

Josh Compton, who records and performs as Brother Joshua, released “The Big Trail & Other Ballads of the Tuscarawas” in early 2024. (photo courtesy of Josh Compton)

Compton began researching significant historical moments from the history of Tuscarawas County as a hobby, and Tessa says he didn’t share his idea for the album until he decided to begin seeking grants to help defray the cost of making it. He received contributions from the Tuscarawas Arts Partnership, Tuscarawas County Center for the Arts and the Appalachian Community Fund.

“He’s definitely someone who has long vision,” Tessa says. “He isn’t afraid to take the time it takes. He’s not necessarily in a rush, but he’s also not a perfectionist, which is his greatest asset as a creator I think.”

Compton wrote “The Flood of 1913” in 2004, but he penned most of the songs on “The Big Trail” between 2019 and 2022. It unfolds in chronological order after “Silver Frost” with the song “Fifty Steps,” which begins with the visit of surveyor Christopher Gist in 1750 and ends with the 1761 arrival of Protestant missionary Frederic Post, who was given a garden measured at 50 steps by the Native people he preached to.

The life of Moravian missionary and Schoenbrunn founder David Zeisberger figures into the hopeful “Schoenbrunn Song,” the haunting “He Walked the Forbidden Trail” and the sorrowful “O’ Goshen,” while “Picks & Shovels” and “Garden of Separatists” tell of the village of Zoar, which was settled in 1817 and still exists today.

“The Iron Horse is Coming!” and “Roll, River” herald the arrival of trains and factories that once served as marks of modernity. Throughout the album, versions of the old Moravian hymn “Jesus, Still Lead On” serve as brief and interesting musical interludes, while the final song, “The Big Trail,” documents a drive Compton took in college on a road that follows a pathway carved out long ago and traveled by many.
      Close-up of musician Josh Compton playing guitar (photo by Ken Blaze)

Josh Compton penned most of the songs on “The Big Trail” between 2019 and 2022, although one dates as far back as 2004. He recorded the album over the course of two years. (photo by Ken Blaze)

The album’s bonus tracks include “Heckewelder’s Ride,” telling the story of a pivotal trip on horseback to deliver important news about American victories during the Revolutionary War. The song features a spoken-word section performed by John Wallace, the pastor of Dover First Moravian Church.

“Josh uses the music to make your imagination come to life and turns around to teach you history in a way that is exciting and faithful to the story,” “Wallace says.

One of the most poignant moments on “The Big Trail” is a nearly three-minute recording of birds and cicadas that instantly evokes Ohio summer evenings. Titled “Gnadenhutten,” it serves as a remembrance of the 90 unarmed people of the Delaware tribe (also known as the Lenape) who were massacred by Pennsylvania militiamen at the Moravian mission settlement at Gnadenhutten in 1782. Compton recorded the natural sounds at the site himself, creating a prayerful moment that rings with reverence for what happened there.

“My hope is to sometime in the future do other volumes of this project,” he says. “At one point, I’d hope to help somebody else do a Delaware side of the story. I put this song in because it’s a very important piece of our history, but I didn’t feel like I’m the one to tell that story.”  

“The Big Trail & Other Ballads of the Tuscarawas” is available to stream on Amazon Music, Apple Music and Spotify.