By Mike Templeton

There are those artists and writers the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition recognize as absolutely central to the cultural life of Greater Cincinnati, and Katie Laur is one of those people. Katie Laur has a new collection of her writing out, Red Dirt Girl: Essays and Stories published by Orange Frazer Press, and she will be reading from this collection with Yvette Nepper at a special Word of Mouth Cincinnati at MOTR Pub, 1345 Main Street, on April 30 at 6:00 PM. In advance of this special occasion, we take a brief look at Katie’s new collection.

Throughout Red Dirt Girl: Essays and Stories, Katie Laur introduces us to (or reminds us of) a cast of characters that range from her close family to the musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, and oddballs that have populated her life from childhood to the present day. I am proud to say that I made it into the dramatis personae. In “Street of Dreams,” there I am, on page 195, captured by the pen of Katie Laur behaving like a grumpy old fart. I would take this as an opportunity to deny it, but I know it is true, and so does everybody else. Yet, I am proud to have made the cut among the patchwork of astounding people who form the quilt that is Red Dirt Girl. This particular story is filled with people I know well, and Kaldi’s Coffee House, the centerpiece of the story, holds such magical memories for me and everyone who ever congregated there for coffee, drinks, bluegrass, and jazz. It is also in this story that Katie Laur describes the effect of meeting younger women artists whose energy and creativity intersects with and re-inspires her own. This is a common theme throughout Red Dirt Girl as Katie’s life follows twists and turns in which she creates an artistic space for herself while absorbing the artistic energy of everyone she encounters. Red Dirt Girl is brimming with memories like this, and a great many people will find people, places, and musical memories they hold dear.

 Nothing about these stories and essays falls prey to the tricks of nostalgia. Katie Laur does not reach back to find some kind of state in which things were just better. That said, she does not shy away from observing that the changes our city, and the world beyond, have undergone have not been without losses and irreparable consequences. There are numerous stories that detail life in Over-the-Rhine, for example, stories filled with artists, musicians, poets, and eccentrics, but this is the Over-the-Rhine filled with families and communities who faced real struggles and real hardships. We no longer have what Katie describes as “that magic, freewheeling, raucous world that was Over-the-Rhine” (197). We do not even have Over-the-Rhine anymore; we have “OTR” and a pseudo-cultural life that bears no resemblance to the world the big-money developers promised. Katie Laur makes it clear that we have lost some things that were precious, even if the old Over-the-Rhine was not always the tidiest of places.

Cover of Red Dirt Girl by Katie Laur

These stories run from Katie’s earliest years in rural Tennessee up to the present. The stories of her family taking the “Hillbilly Highway” to Detroit for work are history lessons in how people were shaped by the hardships of the Great Depression and World War II, and how the promise of industrial labor was a blessing even if the work was miserable. Within these childhood memories, the tight-knit bonds of rural people are what hold life together for Katie and like a spiritual glue, music is always present. From her father’s singing to the early forays into singing with her sister and cousins in talent shows, Katie remembers that “(s)inging was a joyous kind of tension release we experienced that grew out of something we’ve been doing all our lives, and we knew we did well” (37). It is during this time that music becomes something nearly transcendent. On a drive back to Tennessee to alleviate an otherwise dreary Christmas, Katie remembers riding in the front seat with her father listening to WSM on the radio, the station that broadcast The Grand Ole Opry. As her father became frustrated with the station fading in and out, Katie recalls that “it might come back right away or maybe not, but we knew it was out there, like a big star, guiding us back to Tennessee in the cool dark night” (34). The music remains “out there” at all times throughout Red Dirt Girl.

For many people Katie Laur is of course known for music. A large section of the book is devoted to her many years playing bluegrass and touring with The Katie Laur Band, and then later as the voice of WNKU’s Music from the Hills of Home. It is impossible for me to summarize all that Katie recounts of these times. The touring, the many people, famous and not so famous, the broken-down cars, and the pure magic of some of the finest musicians the world has ever known—all of this threads through these stories. It is crucial to understand that Katie Laur’s career path in bluegrass is exceptional not only for her music but also because she blazed a path for women in what was a male-dominated musical form. Katie Laur created the path that has since become a road.

Perhaps most striking about these stories and essays is they ways they digress, meander, and bring back into focus ideas and themes that far exceed the obvious. In “On the Road Again,” ostensibly about touring with her bluegrass band and visiting Alice Lloyd College in the 1970s, we are given the observation that could summarize the book when Katie tells us that “life is impossible and wonderful all at the same time” (131). She describes music “as rich as Sunday Dinner,” and “guitar playing as delicate as calligraphy.” These are the small turns of phrase that allow us to see just how Katie Laur observes much more than most and distills these observations is ways no one else can.

There is one small moment where the entire collection appears to be condensed into a simple question. In a cemetery in Tennessee for the final arrangements for her mother, we see the “lead-colored afternoon light” and begin to feel the loss. It is here that her “old fascination with roads” comes to the fore of her mind, and she asks the question: “How did a path become a road?” (77). If you are Katie Laur, you blaze the path and build the road. Yet it is a question that every story and essay in this collection explores in the most far-reaching ways but never answers. The path and the road remain open, and this is a question we are all invited to explore in Red Dirt Girl.  

I have had the good fortune to write many things for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition. To have the opportunity to write about the work of a dear friend, and someone who has been and remains such an inspiration to so many people, is a rare and perhaps singular privilege. There is far more to say about Red Dirt Girl than space allows. For instance, if you do not know anything about Pester Flatt, I cannot help you.

Katie Laur will be reading from Red Dirt Girl: Essays and Stories with Yvette Nepper at Word of Mouth Cincinnati at MOTR Pub, 1345 Main Street, on April 30 at 6:00 PM. Yvette Nepper has her own ties to Appalachia. Yvette’s grandparents migrated from Somerset, Kentucky to Dayton, Ohio during the first part of the 20th century. Yvette’s Kentucky roots are always pulling her toward Appalachian artists who have a shared appreciation for things like iron skillets and creeks. Yvette is the author of the chapbook, 26 Poems for Grownups and Children, as well as the poetry zine, You’re the Same Age as I am, I Love You.

Red Dirt Girl: Essays and Stories by Katie Laur is published by Orange Frazer Press. It can be purchased through the publisher’s website here:

For information on Katie Laur’s appearance with Yvette Nepper at Word of Mouth Cincinnati, the link is here:

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the forthcoming The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available later this year from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iskra Books. 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.

One thought on “Katie Laur reads from Red Dirt Girl: Essays and Stories on April 30

  1. Mike — Thank you for a thoughtful, perceptive review of my book, Red Dirt Girl. It is the kind of indepth examination of the work that any writer would be happy to get because the reviewer pays attention and offers insights that are new to the writer. Mark Flannery sent the review to me tonight; I hadn’t been aware of it. I’m glad you’re writing; I look forward to reading more.

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