Grand Ole Ditch Brings “New Fun to That Old Appalachian Sound”
The Appalachian Festival at Frostburg State University (FSU) was a slice of Appalachia for all to enjoy. For locals, it was a familiar feeling. It was like coming home from a long trip away. For those not native to the area, it was something new and fresh.
Frostburg, rooted right in Appalachia, has hosted the event for nine years. Taking place over three days, from September 18-20, the festival features all elements of Appalachian culture: storytelling, food, drink, dancing and music.
Several stages were located on the upper quad of the FSU campus, and numerous people from the tri-state area went on stage to sing songs and to share stories from their culture. The stages were shared by familiar faces as well as new ones.
Loretta Hummel and Robert Broadwater, who live right outside Frostburg, have been mainstays of the festival over the years, continuing to pass down Appalachian tradition. Ray Owen, a Grammy-nominated bluegrass artist, was also there paying tribute to the late great Pete Seeger.
New faces also came to keep Appalachia alive, and they added their own little piece to the culture. Up-and-coming bluegrass band Grand Ole Ditch performed on Saturday under the tent at the Compton Stage.
Hailing from Cumberland, Md., the band is rising in popularity in the bluegrass scene. They formed in fall 2012 and soon after won the 2013 Watermelon Park Bluegrass competition. The band explains that they are “all about having some new fun with that old Appalachian sound.”
The band derived its name from the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal which was used to carry coal from the Allegheny Mountains to the east coast. That canal, nicknamed the Grand Ole Ditch, was an integral part of Allegheny culture.
“We were supposed to play here last year,” explained Jody Mosser to the crowd, “but a rain storm came and cleared out the venue. We’re happy to be back.”
Grand Ole Ditch’s set began with a series of small instrumental solos, with each member of the five-piece band rattling off licks and riffs. After the instrumentals, the upright bass began thumping away as the jangling ring of the mandolin, banjo and guitars wove together. The band sang, “Take me back to the place where I know where I am from, where the love of a mother’s arms will keep me warm.”
They also played a new song called “Unwind,” a feel-good song about working all week, “waiting on a chance to unwind.” The song began with the dobro-guitar hitting a high note over the low tremolo of the guitar. The music gained momentum and accelerated into a fast paced tune.
Every foot in the audience started tapping along as the band throttled into another instrumental tune, with each member trading solos. Even without lyrics, they sang a song true to Appalachia.
“We went a year with the first lineup,” said Mosser. “Then we had some changes, and it’s been this lineup for almost a year now… The current lineup is really steaming.”
According to the band’s website, the band includes: Ryan Hohing on guitar, vocals and lead beard; Jacob Mathews on upright bass and overalls; Luke Mathews on mandolin, high and lonesomes; Craig Miller on the five-string banjo; and Mosser on dobro and ponytail.
It’s clear that Grand Ole Ditch’s members have a good sense of humor and don’t take themselves too seriously.
Luke Mathews, who studied environmental analysis and planning at FSU, explained, “I was playing guitar for this band, but then we lost our mandolin player, so I had to pick this up quick. I’ve only been playing [mandolin] for about a year.
Miller said, “We’ve had some fun shows this past summer.” The band recently played the second Annual Charm City Folk & Bluegrass Festival in Baltimore, and they competed in the 2014 Telluride Bluegrass Festival Band Competition. Miller explained that they fell short of winning the competition, but “we’ll be back again next year.”
Grand Ole Ditch closed their set with a song called “Allegany Sign,” a song about coming home to Allegany County.
Critics might say that their songs sound like the same song, but to the listener, it’s a familiar, feel-good song that reminds the listener about good times, family, friends and home.
The Appalachian Festival is about passing on and enjoying Appalachian tradition, and Grand Ole Ditch did just that. They had some new fun with that old Appalachian sound.
Grand Ole Ditch is returning to the Watermelon Park Festival in Virginia on September 25. They will return to Frostburg on October 25 to play with the Steep Canyon Rangers at the Palace Theater. On October 31, they will play at Dante’s Bar at 10 p.m.
Picture of band taken by TBL/Brad Kroner.