New book examines region’s roots in bluegrass history

Bluegrass is often thought of as mountain music. While its roots are in Appalachia, a super-charged, urban strain of the American roots music was developed by southern transplants in northern cities like Baltimore and Dayton. The genre’s regional history is the focus of “Industrial Strength Bluegrass: Southwestern Ohio’s Musical Legacy.”

The book, published on Jan. 25 by the University of Illinois Press, was edited by Fred Bartenstein and Curtis W. Ellison. Contributors include Phillip J. Obermiller, Lily Isaacs and Daniel Mullins. The chapters are dedicated to topics such as the Appalachian migration into the urban centers of southwestern Ohio, the importance of regional radio stations and the distinctive qualities of Ohio bluegrass.

“Most of the bluegrass world today celebrates Baltimore-Washington as the capitol of bluegrass,” Bartenstein said recently, speaking over the telephone from his home in Yellow Springs. “They are the other poles of urban bluegrass where the sound really came together but Cincinnati-Dayton was first. Our work establishes the important and prior role of southwestern Ohio.

“Certainly, ‘Industrial Strength Bluegrass’ is a lot heavier researched and more comprehensive than the books on bluegrass in Baltimore and Washington,” he continued. “We had multiple authors and spent a whole lot of time with the fact checking and the coordination of it all. I’m convinced we’ve told the definitive story of what this region has done.”


Bartenstein, who was born in Virginia, grew up on the East Coast. He moved to the Miami Valley in 1975 because he loved the bluegrass being generated in this region. He is not only a musician, longtime record collector and self-professed amateur scholar of music history, but has also been a festival director, concert emcee, disc jockey, author, editor and overall champion of bluegrass music. Bartenstein is the current president of the International Bluegrass Music Association Foundation and teaches country and bluegrass history at the University of Dayton. With that background, it’s no surprise he co-edited the definitive book on the subject.

“I’d like people to know about it artistically,” Bartenstein said. “I’d like the people who are interested in Dayton to know that among the amazing facts about the city is that it was the hotbed in which bluegrass developed from a primitive form into essentially its modern form. I’d also like the Appalachian aspect of it to receive respect.

“There is this belief that Appalachian migrants are somehow less worthy, less capable and less accomplished,” he continued. “When something great comes out of the huge Appalachian population in our region, it’s either a surprise or people tend to diminish it. There was a time, and thank God it has long passed, when there was open, active prejudice against the quote, ‘hillbillies.’ Now, in 2021, that legacy is almost forgotten.”


“Industrial Strength Bluegrass” champions that Appalachian heritage by stressing the influence the southern migration into northern metropolitan cities had not just on the music but also on broader culture.

“It was important to establish the great migration because if you don’t understand that, it’s really hard to understand why bluegrass would prosper and develop in this region,” Bartenstein said. “There was this huge migration of people from the south, both black and white, and Dayton was a major recipient community of all this energy. All of these folks are by definition entrepreneurial because they can pick up and leave to find a new life, a better life, in the north.

“They’ve already sorted themselves out to be the most outgoing, the most progressive, the most ambitious,” Bartenstein continued. “So, when they get together and you get a critical mass in an urban area as big as Cincinnati, Hamilton, Middletown, Dayton and Springfield, there is no place in Appalachia that is that big.”


Bartenstein co-edited the book with Ellison, a retired professor at Miami University. It was Ellison’s suggestion to base the chapters in “Industrial Strength Bluegrass” on a series of commissioned public lectures from musicians, scholars, journalists and historians.

“Together, the different lectures tell the story of this rich musical history,” Bartenstein said. “The modern public in the area knows the Cincinnati-Dayton region was the capitol of funk, but I don’t think the role of bluegrass is as well known. Now, with this book, we’re going to be putting this piece of history back out about how Dayton and the 50-mile radius around here was a major contributor to important American roots music forms.

“I’m completely convinced classic bluegrass music is still going to be respected and appreciated 1,000 years from now,” Bartenstein added. “It’s not fair to say the quality is equal to Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, but it will be in that collection of the high points in musical culture from the world. No matter what the market is for bluegrass in 2021, it is ultimately very significant. I devoted four years of my life to fooling with this book because I’m convinced bluegrass music from this region is of great consequence.”

Royalties from “Industrial Strength Bluegrass” will be donated to the Southwestern Ohio Bluegrass Music Heritage Archive located at the Smith Library of Regional History in Oxford.

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