There is no shortage of great musicians within the urban Appalachian community. Music is one of the central features of cultural identity, and bluegrass long ago emerged as a defining feature of Appalachian culture. There are a few members of the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition who have been known to pick up a banjo or a guitar, and an interest in bluegrass among people involved with UACC is to be expected. But someone like Fred Bartenstein has taken his interest in bluegrass music and made it a field of study.
Fred Bartenstein comes from Rockbridge County, Virginia. Although his father’s job in New Jersey took him away from the hills, there were the summers and holiday: “We went back every summer to the dairy farm in southern Virginia. We were never completely removed.” The ties to Virginia and Appalachia led Fred to focus on the music of the region. Growing up listening to the radio and getting his fill of what was then called “Hillbilly music,” Fred was hooked on bluegrass from an early age.
What we now call country music was once contained under the generic, and disparaging term of hillbilly music. “It was in the late 1950s that musicians like Bill Monroe and many of those who worked with him who sought to reclaim the music of Appalachia at the same time that the Nashville mainstream was trying to rid itself of any rural association. Nashville was emphasizing acts that did away with fiddles and banjos, people like Bill Monroe were creating a niche that relied heavily on the rural sounds of Appalachia.” The mainstream of what we now call country music was moving away from the rural sounds even as the founders of emerging bluegrass were capturing those sounds to create a unique genre of music. Bill Monroe, one of the architects of bluegrass as we know it, was well-known for his “Bluegrass Boys,” and this is how we came to have bluegrass as a distinct musical form as it continues today.
“It was musicians like Ernest Tubb and Roy Acuff who led the movement to rid the musical movement of the name hillbilly music because of its negative associations.” It turns out it was some old-style Appalachian musicians who took issue with the negative stereotypes attached to Appalachian culture and Appalachian music. With the name bluegrass, the music of the mountains became associated with the region more than the mean-spirited stereotypes that came from outside.
Fred Bartenstein told me more about the history of bluegrass than I can get into this article, but of particular interest is the central role of Cincinnati in the evolution of this distinctly Appalachian musical genre. Fred explained that the migration of Appalachians to Cincinnati and the growing influence of urban Appalachians were the driving forces that made bluegrass an international phenomenon.
As the Appalachian migration led people from Appalachia to Cincinnati, and the growing influence of urban Appalachians took hold of the public imagination, “Cincinnati became the most significant contributor to making bluegrass internationally known. Local Cincinnati television and radio made bluegrass rise to what it is today.” Fred is emphatic on this point, explaining that “Cincinnati’s urban Appalachian community simply does not get the recognition it deserves.” The urban Appalachian influence in greater Cincinnati made bluegrass an internationally renowned musical form.
Fred Bartenstein came to all of this quite naturally. As a young man he played bluegrass music. He spent a number of years spinning records on the radio. He even played with Cincinnati’s own Katie Laur. “Katie asked me to join a group called Bluegrass Inc. that was intended to promote and preserve bluegrass music in the Cincinnati area and beyond.” Fred had aspirations of continuing as a bluegrass musician until he got to hear Harley Allen play. “Harley was just so much better than I. I knew I needed to find another way.”
Thankfully, Fred Bartenstein never strayed far from bluegrass and Appalachian culture. He has spent decades studying the history of bluegrass and Appalachian culture. His work has never been a passing interest, but rather, a dedicated scholarly project that traces bluegrass and Appalachian culture from all over the Appalachian regions to the rise of the urban Appalachian populations in Cincinnati and elsewhere. He maintains a comprehensive website that is a legitimate scholarly archive of bluegrass complete with a list of books for further reading and links to other archives of the history of bluegrass and Appalachian culture.
As the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition works to preserve and promote Appalachian culture through resources like the Frank Foster Memorial Library, we certainly welcome the work of people like Fred Bartenstein who are engaged in the work of documenting and promoting. Urban Appalachia touches nearly every aspect of life in greater Cincinnati, and through the work of Fred Bartenstein, we now know that urban Appalachians have spread our influence across the globe.
Fred Bartenstein’s website can be found at: https://www.fredbartenstein.com/index.html
Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in downtown Cincinnati with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city snapping photos. She looks up at that the grandeur of the city, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.