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Culture Couch is WYSO's occasional series exploring the arts and culture scene in our community. It’s stories about creativity – told through creative audio storytelling.

Southwestern Ohio Bluegrass Central For The Mullins Family

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courtesy of Daniel Mullins
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Joe (L) and Daniel Mullins at the site of WPFB. The Mullins family has been instrumental in keeping bluegrass music thriving in Southwest, Ohio.

These was a time in the 1940’s and 50’s, when people arrived from Appalachia daily in Dayton in buses and cars. They came in hopes of jobs at factories such as National Cash Register, Frigidaire and GM. Many brought guitars, mandolins and banjos and settled in East Dayton. A new book and CD, Industrial Strength Bluegrass tells this history. Dave Barber has the story of the Mullins family, one of the families that sits at the center of this story.

They called it Route 23 “the road to the factories.” It winds through Kentucky and crosses the Ohio River.

"The album has a song Readin’ Writin’ and Route 23 that was really what they were taught that if you wanted a future and don’t want to die in these mines or work on a farm all day you need to move to OhIo and get a factory job. I’m a third-generation migrant. I’d still get a little flack when I was in school about having southern roots. But we’re three generations removed from that," says Daniel Mullins who wrote a chapter in the book. He, his father and grandfather have given bluegrass a home on Ohio radio. "And to look at that time how many families were looked down on because they were hillbillies. And learning more about how papaw could instill in them a sense of pride...and a sense of community and seeing how he could create that place for them. I gained a lot greater appreciation for it."

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courtesy of Daniel Mullins
Fiddler and broadcaster Paul “Moon” Mullins

One of book’s central figures is the grandfather of the Mullins family. He was fiddler and broadcaster Paul “Moon” Mullins. His programs from WPFB in Middletown went south to Cincinnati and north to Dayton. And his band Traditional Grass would introduce his son on banjo, now one of the music’s pre-eminent musicians. Joe produced the CD for Industrial Strength Bluegrass. He and his son Daniel now carry the spirit of WPFB forward at WBZI in Xenia, including his dad’s gospel program, a beacon for transplants who settled north of the Ohio River.

"It goes right back to those Appalachian roots," says Joe Mullins. "There are neighborhoods that I grew up in where there's a hillbilly church on every corner and I say that with all the affection in the world cause that's who I am. I grew up going with my mom to the Grand Avenue Church of God in Middletown. They had one of the ministers from that church on radio live every day for 15 minutes on WPFB when I was growing up. The first 30 minute segment of my dad's afternoon radio program in the 60s and 70s he called it 'Hymns from the Hills.' Dad produced a bluegrass gospel album for Jalyn Records in Dayton in 1966 titled 'Hymns from the Hills.' He sold so many of those things he bought my mom and dad’s first new car with that album. He bought my mom's first washer and dryer with that album. Because people had such a fire in their soul for that mountain music that sang about their salvation experience or sang about momma and the old country church."

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Industrial Strength Bluegrass was edited by Fred Bartenstein and Curtis W. Ellison and published by the University of Illinois Press in January. The CD was released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings in March.

Music Featured in this story:
Joe Mullins & The Radio Ramblers - "Readin', Writin' and Route 23"
Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver - "When He Blessed My Soul"
Dan Tyminski - "20/20 Vision"
All selections from the CD Industrial Strength Bluegrass

Support for Culture Couch comes from WYSO Leaders Frank Scenna and Heather Bailey, who are proud to support storytelling that sparks curiosity, highlights creativity and builds community.

Culture Couch is created at the Eichelberger Center for Community Voices at WYSO.