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Akron’s history comes alive through music in podcast, performance series

Justin Tibbs
The Akron Heritage Music Project is an eight-part interview, live-stream, podcast and performance series that tells the story of Akron's historic sites and moments through music.

From its deep roots in punk rock to a thriving jazz scene centered around Howard Street, Akron’s history can be traced through the music that it has birthed through the decades.

Last year, the Akron Heritage Music Project worked to tell the story of Akron’s past by linking notable places with sounds from artists who are active today.

The project resulted in eight parts that each include a podcast, recording session, livestream performance and interview with a local musician to highlight a particular historic site or piece of Akron’s legacy.

Kevin Richards, founder and artistic director of Roots of American Music, previously created a similar project called the Ohio Heritage Music Project that paired an artist with a certain historic place within the state’s borders.

Richards incorporated a live element to the concept, bringing along Clint Holley’s Earnest Tube mobile recording unit to capture a musical performance at the site.

Once the Ohio Heritage Music Project was complete over the course of a year, they narrowed their focus to Akron and received funding from the GAR Foundation and Knight Arts Challenge to proceed with the $60,000 project.

Producing the project during a pandemic

Holley said the original idea was to travel to various spots in Akron and record on-site, just as they’d done with the prior project.

When COVID-19 hit in 2020, all progress on the Akron series was stalled. They picked back up the following year, rethinking how they'd pull it off virtually.

Kevin Richards
The pandemic forced the Akron Heritage Music Project creators to shift from traveling with a mobile recording studio to streaming virtual concerts from Akron Recording Company, itself a historic location in the city.

“We had to cram eight podcasts into eight months in 2021,” Holley said. “And so we really got on the ball, and it became a real team effort.”

Holley said he conducted much of the research on places of significance in the city and would supervise the live-streamed performances.

Justin Tibbs, musician and social media director for the Roots of American Music, lined up the artists who participated in the project.

“It was a really incredible process of learning why the musicians do what they do and what's their inspiration for a lot of the music that they create."
Justin Tibbs

Richards made connections with community partners.

“We really all had to really do our share to make sure that these things got done once a month, and it became it became quite a heavy lift,” Holley said.

While $35,000 of the funding behind the project came from Akron foundations, the project organizers had to find the rest on their own.

Richards said the original plan was to put on eight public concerts, one of which would be a punk-rock show at a decrepit factory to capture the grit of the 1970s Akron Sound.

“All of that went away with COVID, so we had to relocate or focus centrally out of Akron Recording Company, which is a historic building. It's an old soap factory. It's at least 100 years old,” Richards said.

Akron Recording Company provided a space to record the virtual concerts and podcast interviews.

Tibbs said Ben Patrick, who runs the recording studio, was enthusiastic about the live-streaming component of the project.

“I'm very thankful that he let us use this facility there to do all the livestreams and some of the interview process over there. You know, he had a great crew behind him, and it came out great,” Tibbs said.

He said he, Holley and Richards would bring in the musicians who participated in each episode and do a soundcheck in the facility.

Holley would conduct interviews in a separate part of the recording studio.

“It was a really incredible process of learning why the musicians do what they do and what's their inspiration for a lot of the music that they create,” Tibbs said.

Developing the topics

The original Ohio Heritage Music Project used the historical recording method of direct to nitrocellulose lacquer, which his how music was captured direct to disc in the 1920s and ‘30s.

Richards and Holley took this recording method on the road to capture stories and music from places throughout the state.

The stories and live musical performances were turned into podcast episodes hosted by Holley.

One notable episode included telling the story of abolitionist leaders the John Rankin House in Ripley.

Tennessee musician Amythyst Kiah, recognized for her song, "Black Myself," provided the music.

Another episode focused on Cleveland’s 78th Street Studios and its connection to legendary comix creator R. Crumb.

Music in the episode included Tim Easton, Spyder Stompers and Sugar Pie.

The Akron project highlights the same range of historical moments and places, from the birthplace of Alcoholics Anonymous to Sojourner Truth’s "Ain't I A Woman” speech.

“I believe Duke Ellington stayed at the Mathews Hotel. Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, all these great African-American artists would perform in that Howard Street area in Akron.”
Kevin Richards

“We made a list of, I don't know, probably about 20 different topics,” Holley said. “And then we started to narrow it down.”

Richards said the first idea he came up with for the Akron Heritage Music Project was the story of Howard Street and its vibrant jazz and blues scene.

“Before the freeways came in and just knocked down all the neighborhoods, that was the place to go,” Richards said. “I believe Duke Ellington stayed at the Mathews Hotel. Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, all these great African-American artists would perform in that Howard Street area in Akron.”

The resulting episode featured interviews with Joe Mosbrook and Theron Brown, with a performance by the Tommy Lehman Quintet.

Kevin Richards
Akron musicians Theron Brown, Tommy Lehman, Chris Coles, Jordan McBride and Zaire Darden are featured on Episode 2 of the Akron Heritage Music Project. Interviews and a live performance were hosted within the Akron Recording Company studio space.

“Tom and I have worked together in the music scene for a really long time, being in the Acid Cats,” Tibbs said.

He said he was given each episode topic in advance and was tasked with finding local artists who accurately fit the theme and a specific genre of music.

“I was like, ‘I'm your man.’ I know the scene pretty well,” Tibbs said.

Tibbs is known as a prolific jazz musician in Akron, playing in bands such as JT’s Electrik Blackout, The Angie Haze Project, The Speedbumps, Thieves of Joy and more.

“We did try and do something that was appropriate to each one of the topics,” Holley said. “And, you know, like the Sojourner Truth, one that was one of my favorites where we did all female singer-songwriters.”

Liz Bullock, Bethany Joy, Angie Haze and Cathalyn from The Katy were the musical guests for the episode, “Sojourner Truth - Searching For Truth.”

“We brought in those four, and we had them do like a singer-songwriter kind of thing,” Tibbs said. “And they also went in a round, so I think they did like two or three songs apiece. And then at the end, they did one song together … it was like a really cool episode that feels completely different from all the other ones that we've done.”

Supporting Akron artists 

Richards notes the episode “Readin’ - Writin’ - Route 21” as a standout, as it highlights how troves of laborers from West Virginia and Kentucky ventured to Akron to find jobs 100 years ago.

“Being able to pair that [episode] with a honky-tonk and a country music band like Cory Grinder and The Playboy Scouts, you know, that was a great match, but it just took a lot of thought and time,” Richards said.

That episode, which was released in September 2021, was the last in the eight-part series.

Kevin Richards
Honky-tonk band Cory Grinder and The Playboy Scouts performed for the last episode of the Akron Heritage Music Project series. The finale focuses on the migration of people from Kentucky and West Virginia to Akron to work in its rubber factories.

Richards said he felt great about providing an opportunity to pay local musicians for their performances during the pandemic.

“I'm amazed what a team we were. Clint and I, Justin Tibbs, George Blake behind the scenes and all the folks down at the Akron Recording Company. I mean, it was a lot of work, but we pulled it off,” Richards said.

Holley added that funds were paid to Akron Recording Company as well, which had been hit financially by the pandemic as musicians embraced home recording or otherwise went on hiatus.

“Kevin was handing the musicians a check every time they played, and sometimes they said, 'This is the first time we've played with other human beings in a year,’” Holley said. “So it was it was a really great illustration of how I think that's all supposed to work, where the money really did reach the people that needed it at that particular time.”

Roots of American Music hosts another series in Cleveland called Lift Their Voices, which highlights artists and leaders from marginalized communities in the region.

The next Lift Their Voices concert will take place Wednesday, Feb. 16, at BOP STOP.

Vocalist and writer Kari Rutushin will perform prewar style acoustic blues, jazz, rags and stomps, alongside string-band artists Ray DeForest, Jack DiAlesandro and Richards.

The evening’s topic will cover immigrant populations that built subway systems in the 1900s.

Find event details and tickets at themusicsettlement.org.

Amanda Rabinowitz is the host of “All Things Considered” on Ideastream Public Media.
Brittany Nader is the producer of "Shuffle" on Ideastream Public Media. She joins "All Things Considered" host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene.