Ten years ago, America's kids were being spoon-fed prefab music by Britney Spears and the Backstreet Boys - in other words, fluffy, ephemeral stuff without roots or history. It didn't seem like a propitious time, but that was the year Kevin Richards, head of Cleveland Heights' Fairmount School of Music, launched Roots of American Music (ROAM), a program that drew on the talents of his many musician friends to introduce area school kids to America's history and culture through its roots music.
"Our focus is on the preservation of what roots music is, its diversity and ethnicity," says Richards. "Everything is so homogeneous, but [through our programs] kids get exposed to zydeco, bluegrass, blues."
Now, almost a decade later, ROAM has expanded beyond classroom programs and school assemblies. Not only is the group, according to Richards, "twice as big as we were a couple of years ago, with twice as many programs," funding from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Ohio Arts Council, and Cuyahoga Arts and Culture has allowed the group to hire a full-time development director, Sheela Das, to create a new website (rootsofamericanmusic.org), produce a DVD and offer programming that reaches out to the community beyond the classroom.
The Ohio Arts Council's Innovation Program, for example, is funding the upcoming DVD The First Voice Project. With music by "Ohio artists who have made significant contributions to their musical genre," it features such familiar Northeast Ohio players as jazz pianist George Foley, blues singer Kristine Jackson, mandolinist Bill Lestock and blues singer-guitarist Austin Charanghat, as well as artists from outside the area.
ROAM's Masters of Guitar series at Nighttown has exposed the community to musicians in specialized traditional genres such as bluegrass and jazz. "It's sold out four times," says Richards of the shows, featuring the California Guitar Trio, the Hot Club of San Francisco, Appalachian guitarist Wayne Henderson and, on October 16, jazz guitarist Martin Taylor. "It generates a little revenue, but it also showcases the partnership between Nighttown and ROAM, and creates a connection between ROAM and the community."
ROAM's upcoming benefit at the Beachland Ballroom with legendary Youngstown rock trio Glass Harp serves the same dual purpose. Looking for a bigger name than the locals who've headlined the benefit previously, ROAM put out feelers through Rock Hall Vice President Jim Henke to Glass Harp, which reformed in the late 1990s and has performed sporadically ever since. This year's event will include the Ballroom concert and a VIP event in the Beachland Tavern, featuring music by the George Foley Trio.
Glass Harp - known for its spontaneous, virtuoso performances that draw on classic 1960s rock like the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and the Moody Blues - doesn't exactly fit ROAM's definition of "roots" music. But the group was happy to lend its talents to the cause, though it was hoping to focus more on recording new music than playing gigs for the time being.
"Jim Henke called and asked if we would do it," says bassist Daniel Pecchio. "He's been great to us since we released our Carnegie Hall CD [Live! At Carnegie Hall, a reissue of the group's 1972 concert at the New York venue] in 1998, and we played there twice. I felt bad about saying, 'No, we're taking some time off.'"
He says the group will play a 90-minute set, its content, as always, to be determined on the fly: "Our song list is pretty extensive, with the old stuff, new stuff, [singer-guitarist] Phil [Keaggy's] solo stuff. There's always something we're trying out onstage for the first time.
"When I go onstage, I'm playing with two world-class musicians I've basically known since I was a kid," says Pecchio. "There's no place else I can do that. It's like driving a Formula One car. And we have a great time. We have more fun with each other than any time since our first year together."