Locals Only: Blue Moon of ... Northside?

Musician Ed Cunningham has made Sundays at Northside watering hole The Comet a Bluegrass haven

The Comet in Northside is a little off the beaten track for me, but the Sunday Night concerts, instituted by bandleader Ed Cunningham, are a must for any local music lover. Cunningham and his nephew, bar-owner David Cunningham, started the ball rolling with regular Sunday afternoon Bluegrass from 4 to 6 p.m. a couple of years ago. Back then you could have shot a cannon through the room. But as word of mouth grew, the audience did, too, and nowadays you're lucky if you can find a seat.

The Cunningham family, one of Cincinnati's most powerful blue-collar families (they're from Mount Adams before Mount Adams was cool) has a lot of experience in the bar business. Older brother Bill has tended bar for at least 15 years at Arnold's downtown, while his wife, Shirley, was the manager of Arnold's. Their Uncle King was a well known singer and bar entertainer in the '50s, and Ed Cunningham, at 40, has played more bars than he cares to remember. When Ed's and Bill's nephew, David, bought The Comet, the whole family pitched in, and nowadays it's one of the hottest taverns in town.

Less than a year ago, Ed Cunningham began his series of recorded live concerts at The Comet quite accidentally when he bought a Tascam portable DAT machine. He began plugging it into the PA head to see what kind of recordings he could get of the Sunday night sessions.

"Live music just kind of floats off in the air, and then it's gone," he said. "It's just natural to want to capture a little of it."

Before long, he had begun recording Folk performers like Dave Pinson, Wayne Clyburn, local mandolin player Bill LaWarre, and a young woman Bluegrass singer and flatpicker named Terry Boswell, who died shortly after the recordings were completed. The recordings he made were rough, but he found himself liking their home-made quality.

"It's like a quilting bee," he says with a smile. "You have all your friends over and make something. Or you shoot a couple of rolls of film and hopefully get one shot that captures the magic." As one local columnist said, Eddie is making his own "audio documentaries."

"The minute I heard that it clicked," Eddie said. "That's exactly what I'm trying to do. It's my way of trying to document musicians in Cincinnati who are playing now."

His first project, last year's Sundays Live at The Comet, featured a wide variety of Bluegrass and Appalachian artists, about 20 of them in all. The second project, Dr. Twang and Stainless Steel, features Ed singing 12 Country songs he wrote which cover the spectrum of material in Country music: "Don't Hit Your Wife on Mother's Day;" about spousal abuse; "Waiting for Redemption," about a man whose family is killed in a car wreck; "The Cigarette Girl," written about a downtrodden older woman who is out of a job in Reno, Nevada; and "The Cheating Line." The only song on the disc he didn't write was Hank Williams' "Settin' the Woods on Fire." The songs ring true, because they are true. If the rest of the Stainless Steel band isn't quite up to the quality of Ed's vocals (he's one of the best Country singers you're likely to hear), the CD is enjoyable anyway because of its integrity.

Meanwhile, his nephew, David Cunningham, does the artwork on the discs and sells them at The Comet (they're on the B-Side label) and at Shake-It Records in Northside. Their current project, which is tentatively titled Twisted Roots, will include cuts by the Ass Ponys, the Wolverton Brothers and Dallas Moore, who will perform some of his "Outlaw Country" material.

It's hard work sifting through all those DAT tapes for just the right cuts, much less setting up equipment (which they do in the basement of The Comet, then run the wires up through the floor). Why do they keep on doing it? Cunningham's view is that spontaneity and soul have been squeezed out of Country music by sterile studio recordings. Now that music is a business, the looks of the artist, the songs they record, and the image they present are carefully programmed. According to Cunningham, everything is as heavily processed as refined sugar.

"The cloning of superstars dilutes the grit of the music, too," he says.

We all know this, but it's taken Cunningham to make a stand, which he does once a week on Sunday evenings at The Comet. Is he as strong or influential as Syd Nathan who started King Records? He is at least as good a songwriter and singer as the late Jimmie Skinner, whose mail-order record company used to stand on Vine St. in Over-the-Rhine. He applauds individual record companies like J-Curve for their efforts, too.

"All of these elements," he says, "create a sense of community in the music world, and we need that if we're going to put Cincinnati on the map."

Strong words, but can he produce? Well, the answer so far is yes.

Meanwhile, Ed Cunningham sits in a basement under The Comet on Sunday evenings, recording two hours of live music from various bands, waiting for redemption, as the song says, and hoping he'll strike gold.

THE COMET (4579 Hamilton Ave., just north of Northside) hosts Bluegrass sessions Sundays at 7:30 p.m.

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