The Business for Bluegrass

July 2012

By: Steve Bonapfel

I've been with FSE since 1995 as a stationary engineer and general mechanic. It has, and continues to be, a great way to provide for my family and I thank the good Lord for it. But as great as work is, it sure is good to have a hobby. I've had a bunch of them, but one has taken me on a ride I didn't expect: bluegrass music.

I didn't grow up around music any more than any other kid in the 70s, and my taste was normal. I liked the Beatles, Beach Boys, Stephen Wolf, Cooper and Merl Haggard. Then I discovered how good simple music could sound when a preacher from Morrow, Ohio came by our little church with an old Martin guitar. He and his wife sang and, since that very minute, it was the best music I had ever heard.One Iota playing in Ireland

I discovered bluegrass when I got my first car. I loved hearing it, but had no plans to learn music, even though I wished I could someday. That day came in 1988. I earned my boiler operator's license and it gave me a boost of confidence. I was looking for another challenge and, for the first time in my life, I had a couple hundred dollars to spare. I bought a cheap guitar and started teaching myself chords. It was awful for a month or so, but then came that first song and, after that, it was all fun. Patience was a new tool I never had when I was younger. It was the key to learning.

Around that same time, I was working with Ralph Gosney. He told me about his kids playing music and he gave me some tapes of Tony Rice, and another new friend was picking banjo for some no-name singer by the name of Alison Krauss. Ralph introduced me to the local jam sessions and I started learning fast: guitar, fiddle and singing a little too. I was happy playing behind others. I didn't really want to be seen or heard, just playing for fun.

In 1999, a little bluegrass gospel group came to our church and they asked me to play fiddle for them. I told them I'd give it a try, but not to "expect much." Well they took me at my word and fired me after a year. Another group picked me up and fired me after nine months—I was working free of charge. Go figure. Guess the fiddle wasn't my best instrument. Ha!

One Iota in IBMA Nashville in 2006Regardless though, these early bands got me out of my shell. I learned a lot and some good musicians came to me saying "if you ever want to start your own band, count me in," including a young lady named Lisa Shaffer. Wow this girl could sing. As a matter a fact, she was so good she got signed by Lyrics Street Records in Nashville as soon as we finished our first album.

But it was too late; the band was off to a fast start. Our CD got on the radio on WOBO 88.7 FM near Cincinnati and then more. I started writing my own songs, which surprised some folks, including me. That got us invited to Nashville to the International Bluegrass Music Association's annual convention in 2006. Only 12 bands get this chance each year. That got us a bunch of exposure across the USA and around the world. Music, still a hobby, sort of became a small business at this point...very small. Thank God for the day job. Since 2001, we've made four albums and had songs chart nationally at No. 21 and No. 23, and in Europe in the ECMA charts top 40 about six times. I feel like Slim Whitman. One of my personal highlights was being on WLW with my band during rush hour alongside of my all-time-favorite radio personality,One Iota performing live on WLW radio with Gary BurbankGary Burbank. Burbank was a hoot.

The band totally changed personnel several times since its start back in 2001. I have been blessed to play music with many great, local musicians and some of my big-name heroes too. We mostly play local, but we've had some nice gigs at Renfro Valley and Dollywood, did a weeklong tour in Canada and a two-week, 14-city tour in Ireland in 2010, and an IBMA showcase in Nashville in 2009 and 2011. I've had DJ friends from Australia show up at my house for a tour of Cincinnati.

There is a worldwide fan base for Kentucky music. I can't say I've made a lot of money at it, but I have made a lot of friends and it continues to be a great experience. I started my own band, so I could be fired and called it "One Iota" because we started out with pretty low expectations. It has been a nice surprise. None of this would have happened without help from a lot of friends. We never know how long anything will last. In fact, I still consider it a hobby and try to keep all things balanced. So far, it's working pretty well.