Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Road Trip Music: Ohio

A place of change and challenge, testing and opportunity, successful experiments and failed ones, exploring new ways of living and seeing how familiar ones would work beyond the edges of civilization: this was the Ohio River Valley in the early years of the American republic. As the Great American Road Trip winds through the state of Ohio, the soundtrack comprises a set of songs about the people who ventured to that frontier, and how they faced the challenges the found there. It is an album called Wilderness Plots..

Tim Grimm was in a bookstore one day, and came across a pocket sized book called Wilderness Plots, by Scott Russell Sanders. It was a series of short one and two page vignettes of moments in people’s lives from the early days of the Ohio Valley which Sanders had created from his notes from research for a novel set in the Ohio county where he was born. Drawn by the vivid stories, Grimm started hearing songs in them. He took the idea to a group of songwriters he knew, a group who met regularly to exchange ideas and share progress in their writing. Tom Roznowski, Michael White, Carrie Newcomer, and Krista Detor were the other songwriters in the group.

All of them live in the Ohio Valley, in southern Indiana, so both place and story resonated with each of them. Each is a professional musician, a songwriter who values both word and melody, but their styles and interests are varied. They decided to use stories in the book as workshop challenge, at first. Over time, that evolved into the idea of an album.

In the songs, Roznowski tells of the dreams of a man who looks at the wilderness and sees bustling cities rising; White sees people both afraid and intrigued as they marvel over recent inexplicable discoveries; Detor tells of a couple finding their way and testing their marriage at the edge of the wilderness, and, in another song, gives voice to a woman’s hopes for her children in a time of great change; Grimm looks at the life of an itinerant preacher who struggles with mending his own faith while he mends shoes to make a living; Newcomer, in two very different songs, finds a woman caught in the hard changes frontier life sometimes brings, and another who risks standing up to make a things different.

It’s a project filled with memorable people, situations both serious and funny, and connections of history and present day, in styles which move across the range of Americana music . The nineteen cuts on the album make a fine bit of listening for travels through Ohio, and chances are, you’ll remember the characters and the songs long after the album ends.

Though their schedules do not often permit them to perform together, the songwriters have done concerts based on the material on the album. Seeing one of these, producer Susanne Schwibs at WTIU at Indiana University had the idea to make a television program. It’s framed loosely as a songwriters in the round session, filled with interesting music, great ideas on songwriting process, and thoughts on the intersections of landscape and history in the Ohio Valley. It is available as a dvd.

you may also wish to see
Music Road: Voices: Carrie Newcomer: faith and laughter

video of an ensemble piece from Wilderness Plots

This is part of The Great American Road Trip, in which I’m partnering up with A Traveler’s Library to add musical ideas to the book and film suggestions for journeys through the regions of the United States which you’ll find there. Stop by and see A Traveler’s Library what has in mind to inspire travels through Ohio.
For more about the road trip (and a look at some great road songs) see Great American Road Trip: Music begins

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posted by Kerry Dexter at


Anonymous Alexandra said...

I was curious what you would have to say about Ohio. What a great idea! Ohio is such an interesting state, when you think about the role it plays in national elections. As for me, I always think of Chrissie Hynde of the Pretenders, singing about going back to Ohio where the fields have turned into shopping malls .... Cannot remember all the lyrics, but it is a lament, really to what modern Ohio has become.

3:45 PM  

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