By Matthew Smith
Matthew Smith is Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Miami University’s Hamilton campus. He has developed and taught a course there on the history of Appalachian culture and history.
On Sunday, May 21, Cincinnati Public Library hosted the last in a spring series of talks and performances exploring “The Bluegrass Music Heritage of Southwestern Ohio.” This event, sponsored by Miami University Regionals Appalachian Studies and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, featured presentations by Katherine Rowell of Sinclair Community College and Jeff Gaver of the University of Cincinnati, who discussed the importance of amateur bluegrass gatherings in expressing Appalachian community in Ohio. Though musicologists and historians have scrutinized the canon of professional bluegrass music, Rowell and Gaver’s study breaks new sociological ground in recognizing and documenting the impact of the music at amateur grassroots. Journalist, musician, and former Cincinnati Enquirer music critic Larry Nager recalled the legacy of early bluegrass venues in southwestern Ohio. Based in Nashville, Tennessee, Nager returned to his Queen City stomping ground, where many remember him as a bass player with the Katie Laur Band. His talk blended recollection and research, exploring the unique bluegrass cultures of Dayton and Cincinnati, and the bars and clubs that featured legendary local artists including Red Allen, the Osborne Brothers, Earl Taylor and others. Afterward folks adjourned to an after-party and jam session at MOTR Pub in Over-the-Rhine, featuring Katie Laur and Jim Tarbell.
The Bluegrass Music Heritage Project intends to document and share the cultural and historical significance of Bluegrass music in southwestern Ohio. A partnership of Miami University Regionals Appalachian Studies, the Smith Library of Regional History of the Lane Libraries, Greene County Public Library, and the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, it draws upon a wealth of enthusiasm, knowledge, and know-how in the region. It has developed a website, initiated an archival collection, and has plans to publish an anthology of writings on the region’s bluegrass heritage. Its oversight committee comprises bluegrass scholar and writer Fred Bartenstein, bluegrass artist Joe Mullins of Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers, collection expert Russell “Mac” McDivitt, Curt Ellison and Matthew Smith of Miami University, Brian Powers of Cincinnati Public Library, Valerie Elliott of Smith History Library, Sam Ashworth of Middletown Historical Society and Shelby Dixon, researcher.
The project’s reference site at http://www.swohiobluegrass.com details over 600 southwestern Ohio musicians, acts, and organizations. Valerie Elliott at the Smith Library of Regional History in Oxford curates an archive of southwestern Ohio bluegrass documents and artifacts. Spring 2017 public programs at Miami Regionals Hamilton and Cincinnati Public Library presented Phil Obermiller, University of Cincinnati; Daniel Mullins, broadcaster, Xenia; Nathan McGee, University of Cincinnati; collector and bluegrass expert Mac McDivitt; a concert of southwestern Ohio bluegrass with Joe Mullins & the Radio Ramblers and guest Bobby Osborne; gospel singer Lily Isaacs; Nashville journalist Jon Weisberger; Dayton sociologists Katherine Rowell and Jeffrey Gaver; and Nashville journalist and musician Larry Nager.
Middletown Historical Society’s Sam Ashworth designed and produced a series of eight beautiful exhibit panels illustrating the southwestern Ohio bluegrass heritage from the Great Migration to the present. This exhibit has been displayed at spring events and recently traveled to the Appalachian Festival at Coney Island, where it attracted much interest. It will be shown at the International Bluegrass Music Association “World of Bluegrass” in Raleigh in fall 2017, at the 41st Appalachian Studies Association Conference in Cincinnati, April 5-8, 2018, and the International Country Music Conference in Nashville, June 2018. It is currently showing at the Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County, 800 Vine Street, through August 10, 2017. The lecture/ performance series is video archived at http://www.miamioh.edu/regionals/app-studies.
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