July 31, 2003
’YSO host spins love of bluegrass
Most local residents know Fred Bartenstein as a reasonable, low-key organizational consultant, the guy often called in to facilitate public meetings and local conflicts. He’s the picture of calm, the one in the middle who keeps people on track and lowers rising tensions and deepening voices.
But Bartenstein has another life, and there’s nothing reasonable or low-key about it. It’s a life fueled by his lifelong passion for something not often associated with straightlaced organizational consultants, or with CEOs, which he used to be. More than anything, Bartenstein loves bluegrass music.
“It’s a gift I have, a knowledge I have,” Bartenstein said in a recent interview. “I had the good fortune to have been involved young with bluegrass at a central place where a great deal of music was happening. Now I’m trying to teach the rich story of where the music came from and where it’s going.”
Bartenstein has recently begun sharing his love of bluegrass in a local venue. Since early July his radio show, “Banks of the Ohio: Music from the Homeplace of Bluegrass,” has aired each Saturday evening from 6 to 9 p.m. on 91.3 FM, WYSO public radio. The show took the place of the long-running “Bluegrass Breakdown,” whose host, Aaron Harris, recently left the station to return to school.
Produced in the WYSO studio or in Bartenstein’s home studio, “Banks of the Ohio” has for a year been broadcast on BluegrassCountry.org, a 24-hour Internet music stream from WAMU in Washington, D.C. The show is also an outreach program for the International Bluegrass Museum in Owensboro, Ky.
While villagers may be unfamiliar with Bartenstein’s bluegrass expertise, through his Internet program bluegrass fans worldwide know his name. Regularly, he hears from listeners from many countries and continents, from Australia to Ireland, from a farmer in Kansas to a woman living alone in a remote cabin in Alaska.
“It’s really fun — it’s addictive — to know that something I’m doing is reaching all these odd corners of the world,” said Bartenstein, who answers all e-mails.
Bluegrass music is currently experiencing a resurgence, Bartenstein said, explaining that he believes many people find in it a heartfulness lacking in some other music forms.
“Bluegrass evokes a sense of the genuine in an era where a lot of art is about image or pose,” he said. “It talks about nature and home and family in ways that resonate with people. Bluegrass songs tell stories.”
When they hear bluegrass for the first time, many people feel an immediate attraction to the sound of the music, Bartenstein said. The “keening” quality of bluegrass seems to connect to some at a deep level, he said, and sounds similar to bluegrass can be found throughout the world in music as diverse as Hungarian folk music and Japanese koto music.
“There’s something about the rhythm and the sound of the banjo, mandolin and fiddle together,” he said. “It’s a driving, exciting rhythm. It appeals to people viscerally.”
Bartenstein can’t remember the first time he heard bluegrass — he just always remembers loving it. Raised in New Jersey, he spent summers on his grandparents’ Virginia farm, where he remembers hearing Red Smiley and the Bluegrass Cut-Ups every morning on the radio. His father and an uncle played in a guitar-mandolin duo, and a cousin from Tennessee taught Bartenstein at a young age the songs of the famous Carter family.
His years at a private New Jersey high school coincided with a thriving bluegrass scene in New York City, where, in Washington Square Park, Bartenstein played bluegrass-style guitar with musicians such as Tex Logan, Bob Applebaum, Pete Wernik and David Grisman. While still in high school, Bartenstein hosted a bluegrass radio show out of Lexington, Va., where he also gave the farm report.
Bartenstein’s connection with bluegrass became even more personal when he attended at age 15 the nation’s first bluegrass festival, which took place in Fincastle, Va. His love for the music deepened even after an experience that might have turned off some fainthearted music lovers, recounted in an article on Bartenstein in Bluegrass Unlimited magazine.
Sitting around jamming with other musicians, Bartenstein was confronted by a drunk who stumbled toward him and waved a gun. The drunk insisted the musicians play “Foggy Mountain Breakdown,” and threatened to “blow our heads off” if he didn’t like it, according to Bartenstein. Thankfully, the music met with the man’s approval.
Through a series of coincidences, at the next year’s festival, Bartenstein was called upon to emcee the show. For the next several years he helped run a variety of bluegrass festivals, working as program director, emcee and sometimes running the sound as well, the magazine reported.
When it came time to attend college in the late 1960s, Bartenstein chose Harvard University, largely due to its location in the middle of a thriving bluegrass scene in Boston, according to the magazine.
“It was a strange time to be doing bluegrass but then, as now, it was my community,” Bartenstein said. “It was a college subculture and compared to the drug scene, it was a healthier, smarter and generally a much better alternative.”
His love of bluegrass also shaped Bartenstein’s professional plans, when he chose in 1975 to settle in Dayton partly due to the city’s reputation as a place that drew bluegrass to an urban area. Bluegrass proliferated in the Dayton area when Appalachian natives looking for work began settling here, bringing along their preferences for mountain music, he said.
After Bartenstein decided he didn’t want the life of a professional musician and chose to work in the corporate world, he held a series of high-visibility jobs, as the director of the Victory Theater, Books & Company and the Dayton Foundation. But he maintained his passion for music and hosted a series of bluegrass radio programs at stations such as Dayton’s WONE, WYSO and WBZI in Xenia.
Having one foot in the corporate world and the other rooted firmly in bluegrass often made Bartenstein feel slightly schizophrenic, he said. Once he was walking down the street in Dayton, dressed in a suit and tie, when he was stopped by an acquaintance who was a business executive. The man marveled that he had just heard a man on the radio, with the same name and same voice as Bartenstein, hosting a bluegrass show. The man never even considered that the radio host might actually be him, Bartenstein said.
The discomfort of leading a double life diminished after Bartenstein and his family — his wife, Joy, and two daughters — moved to Yellow Springs in 1990. Purposefully getting off the corporate fast track, he opted to train as an organizational consultant, and has since worked with many local and regional businesses. Bartenstein said he especially appreciates the variety of his latest work and having the opportunity to spend more time with his wife. He also appreciates being able to live almost within view of cornfields in a town he considers lively and stimulating.
And of course, there’s bluegrass. His flexible work schedule gives Bartenstein more free time, but his bluegrass passion eats that time right up, he said. Currently, he estimates that he spends about 20 hours a week working on his WYSO show, including researching material, programming, writing promotional copy, editing and doing post-production work.
“I haven’t figured out a way to make it pay diddly,” he said with a shrug. “It soaks up a huge part of my week.”
But Fred Bartenstein doesn’t really sound as if he minds all that much.
“I feel like I have a wonderful life,” he said. “I live in a beautiful place and I do work that I love. I’m always learning new things.”
And he gets to sit in his Wright Street house in Yellow Springs and share his lifelong passion for bluegrass with people all over the world.