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“Homesick Hillbillies” And The Bluegrass Album Of The Year

US Route 23 through Kentucky is officially identified on those brown government signs as the Country Music Highway, but Steve Earle sang about it as the more colloquial “Hillbilly Highway.” The winding north/south route is famous for the many country music stars who grew up within a few miles of its path through coal country, including Tom T. Hall, Patty Loveless, Keith Whitley, Loretta Lynn and Dwight Yoakam.

Another aspect of the highway’s symbolism for the people in the region is its role in a great migration after WWII, from hard lives of subsistence farming and coal mining to the lure of factory and mill jobs to the north, many of them in the 50-odd miles between Cincinnati and Dayton, OH, along the Miami River. That movement of hundreds of thousands of rural people to nearby industrial hubs had a gigantic effect on the evolution of bluegrass music, according to a 2021 book from the University of Illinois Press and album from Smithsonian Folkways Records. Industrial Strength Bluegrass: Southwestern Ohio’s Musical Legacy was named Album of the Year at last week’s IBMA Awards, because it’s loaded with a revelatory sense of place, the story of an overlooked region and gripping new performances of songs that are close to bluegrass fans’ hearts.

An almost brazen thesis supports the project, which involved a team of researchers over nearly five years. “From the late 1940s to the late 1980s, this region was to bluegrass what Nashville is to country music, New Orleans is to jazz, or Chicago is to the blues,” writes historian Fred Bartenstein in the liner notes. “It was here that rural and urban influences first mingled to solidify a vital musical form that continues to thrill audiences worldwide.” It’s easy to be skeptical. Modern bluegrass music was built in Ohio? But listening to the 16 songs and reading the stories behind them, the case becomes pretty convincing.

“It was one of the first metropolitan areas outside the rural South that had a bluegrass platform and had a bluegrass audience that was just waiting to make somebody some money,” said album producer Joe Mullins, an award-winning bluegrass bandleader, broadcaster and native of Middletown, OH.

Joe Mullins (with banjo) and his band the Radio Ramblers

The audience was the diaspora of “homesick hillbillies,” to use Mullins’s affectionate term, working long hours in foundries, mills and factories like National Cash Register in Dayton. The platforms were honky tonks and beer joints across the region, as well as recording operations like Cincinnati’s King Records and radio stations, including national powerhouse WLW and regional signal WPFB, where Joe’s father worked after taking his young family to a new life in Middletown in the early 1960s. That was Paul “Moon” Mullins, a fiddler who’d worked for the Stanley Brothers. In Middletown, he reached audiences with hard country music and relatable talk during morning and afternoon on-air shifts.

The first song sounds like it was written custom for the project, but it dates back to Dwight Yoakam’s 1987 album Hillbilly Deluxe. “Readin’, Rightin’, Rt. 23” reflected the Mullins family story so closely that the singer got emotional the first times he performed it on stage with his band the Radio Ramblers. It’s explicitly about the Kentucky exodus, including the trips the migrants would make back to visit family when they could. “That was a way of life,” Mullins said. “Once a month just about, my mom and dad said it until my grandparents were all gone: ‘we're going to go home this weekend.’ We’d lived in Ohio for 12 or 15 years!”

As the album unfolds, each performance and its attendant track notes by Joe’s son Daniel Mullins adds a layer to the southwestern Ohio bluegrass story. Dan Tyminski, famous for his tenure with Alison Krauss and Union Station, sings “20/20 Vision,” a smash from the early 50s featuring an early collaboration between icons Jimmy Martin and the Osborne Brothers, natives of Dayton. A trio of top vocalists - Josh Williams, Bradley Walker and Russell Moore - gives voice to a medley of songs from Larry Sparks, a second-generation Appalachian migrant who came from Lebanon, OH. Larry Cordle interprets “The Rolling Mills of Middletown,” which is enhanced by the story of its author Tom T. Hall and the impact of Moon Mullins’s WPFB radio. Other artists whose material and stories are enclosed include Jim & Jesse, banjo player and singer Dave Evans, Red Allen, the Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs.

“You can look at so many people that had a significant portion of their career in our area that are now bluegrass Hall of Fame members,” Joe Mullins told me the day before the album took center stage at the IBMA Awards. Meanwhile Daniel focused on the story of the music and media companies that rounded out a complete industry. Especially King Records, which he noted was a hothouse for country, bluegrass, pop and soul, from Hank Ballard to James Brown. The Cincinnati company was a musical dynamo that got music made and distributed faster than today’s digital operations.

“They controlled every step along the supply chain. They printed their own stuff. They took their own pictures. They made their own record jackets. They had their own studio,” Daniel said. “Ronnie Reno said he could remember as a kid going to Cincinnati with (star bluegrass duo) Reno & Smiley, and they would show up and cut an entire record in a day. The next day, they would load boxes of them into their car. There they were that turnkey. He said he heard the song on the jukebox. And by the next week, they would have requests for songs they'd cut the week before.”

The industrial midwest has made news in recent years precisely because it made the news so rarely over the decades before. It’s so-called “flyover country” that too often eludes the attention of coastal media centers. That’s led to alienation and misunderstanding and social disconnections that play out in our fraught national politics. If four decades of historic bluegrass music and business can develop there and still be a surprise and a revelation to us serious bluegrass fans in 2021, then we may well ask ourselves what else we’ve been missing.

Joe Mullins and the Radio Ramblers will host the newly named Industrial Strength Bluegrass Festival in Wilmington, OH in November. Click the image for more information.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org