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Back in the Day

By Katie Laur · July 2nd, 2008 · Living Out Loud
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By the time you read this column, I'll have been inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Museum (IBMM) in Owensboro, Ky., which is right across the road from Rosine, the birthplace of Bill Monroe, considered the father of Bluegrass music.

Bill was buried in Rosine as well. That's why the Bluegrass music industry is centered there.

Rumor has it that Bluegrass is growing so fast in popularity it will eventually have to move to Nashville with the rest of the homogenized Country music industry.

Oh, not yet, not yet. For now, it remains close to its roots and close to the staff that's worked so hard to bring the museum to this point in time.

I'll be inducted into the IBMM with the first 60 "Pioneers of Bluegrass." Filmmaker Joe Gray has spent two summers interviewing me and filming my memorabilia: photographs, the stories written about me, my recordings.

In Owensboro, I'll see a lot of musicians I haven't seen in 20 years, including three legendary fiddlers who worked with Monroe, especially his last great fiddler, Kenny Baker, who best understood Monroe musically.

Kenny was born in one of those counties in Eastern Kentucky where fiddle players seemed to sprout like tobacco crops. Being a musician got him out of the coal mines, he told me one dark night at Beanblossom, Ind., when he was taking a breather from a jam session.

Fiddlers have to keep their bow arms loose and fluid, and that takes constant practice, so by midnight Kenny, Ricky Skaggs and Buddy Griffin were playing around the campfire at Monroe's Beanblossom Festival long after the stage show had shut down.

They played "Gold Rush" and "Roanoke" 'til they were ready to drop from heat and fatigue. The band bus was threatening to leave, but still they played on.

Eventually, one of them would break into a harmony part, a perfectly pitched musical third above the lead line, played on an instrument with no frets.

I believe many classical violinists might look up to some of these self-taught musicians. To me they were giants.

After the Bluegrass Museum, I'll go to Dayton to be awarded the Ohio Heritage Fellowship in ceremonies at Dayton's Cityfolk Festival. The same night, I'll perform with banjo player Tony Ellis from Springfield, Ohio, who won the same award a couple of years ago.

It feels nice to be recognized by my peers, yet something about it drags at my heart like a fiddle bow without enough rosin.

My best years as a Bluegrass musician are over. Though I still enjoy getting out and doing the occasional concert or show, my main work is done now.

I'll miss standing around the campfire at Beanblossom listening to the fiddle players test their mettle. The years when I traveled around the country in a Ford van with Buddy and Jeff went by too quickly, almost like a dream you can't quite grasp.

It might surprise you to know that Cincinnati, Middletown and Dayton have been important places for the development of musical talent. Musicians came here from Baltimore, Eastern Kentucky, Virginia or West Virginia and stayed because we had King Records, where they could work as sidemen. We also had radio stations that paid for live music, and Cincinnati's Musician's Union Local 1 was the first such union in the country.

The late Leo Underhill, a Jazz DJ, used to talk about the early days of broadcasting in Cincinnati. He preferred spinning Jazz to Country music, but radio stations weren't as specialized in the 1950s as they are now. The same station that brought you Frank Sinatra could also program Country and Bluegrass.

Leo told me that nobody who was anybody in Country music ever came through Cincinnati without stopping to "shake and howdy" with the DJs at the local radio stations.

"Hell," Leo said, "Cincinnati was Nashville in those days."

The Osborne Brothers migrated to Dayton from Hyden, Ky., and got famous when they recorded "Rocky Top," a banjo-blazing, high-tenor singing Bluegrass record that's still the fight song at the University of Tennessee.

Red Allen lived in Dayton, too. He was originally from Pigeon Roost Holler, Ky., and he recorded one of my favorite Bluegrass songs, "The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake."

His son, Harley Allen, who started out playing in a Bluegrass band with his father and brothers, used to sleep on my couch when he was in Cincinnati. Later, he moved to Nashville to work as a songwriter. Nowadays he's a millionaire.

Singer Karin Bergquist told me she used to drive out to Georgetown, Ohio, every Sunday afternoon when I had the Sunday afternoon shift at WNKU (89.7 FM) because she loved to listen to the show and that's the only way she could get the signal.

Like Karin, I used to drive to Cincinnati-Dayton Road in the afternoons to hear Moon Mullins broadcast from Middletown. In those days, Moon was the only DJ who played Bluegrass, and he was an icon.

When Moon didn't like a new record, he'd break it in two or scratch it with the needle and say, "That'll be enough of that."

Back in the day, he was irascible, cranky, funny and knew exactly what he wanted to hear -- but those days are now gone.

I think if you wait long enough, everything changes. I used to be a musician, scratching out a living playing on the road. Now I'm in a museum.

To all the folks who listened to the Katie Laur Band "back in the day," thanks for your support. Thanks for the laughs. Most of all, thanks for the memories.


Contact Katie Laur: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

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