February 2007 Issue
Cincinnati's Katie Laur brings traditional American music to local and national audiences.
There was a time when singer Katie Laur occupied a unique position in the state, if not the nation. To hear Laur tell it, touring the country with her bluegrass band, playing gigs on "A Prairie Home Companion," producing a series of vinyl records - well, a woman just didn't do this kind of stuff.
"There were maybe two women fronting bluegrass bands," Laur recalls of those heady days performing with The Katie Laur Band on the rowdy nightclub circuit. "I was blessed to be a woman pioneer."
Laur points to her beloved bluegrass as a unique American sound, capturing the movement of an entire population escaping the rural South. "Everybody was moving, looking for jobs and money. Bluegrass encapsulates that shift of a generation, from the country to the towns. It's the sound of stress. It's the rhythm of a factory assembly line. It's the tinny sound of trying to tune in a radio station while driving through Ohio. That's why I became devoted to it."
There is the band's Jeff Roberts on banjo, Buddy Griffin on twin fiddles and Bill LaWarre on mandolin, all traditional bluegrass instruments, to be sure. But then you also hear in The Katie Laur Band's music a hint of the blues, some jazz, even some gospel in one of the group's favorites, "Steamboat in Heaven."
Through it all, Laur's distinctive vocals resonate. In tunes such as Merle Haggard's "If I'd Left It Up To You" and her own "When Earl Taylor Played the Mandolin," the singer/songwriter laments lost love, lost opportunity, nostalgic journeys and newly discovered hope, all framed by a lonesome melancholy.
Born in 1944 in Paris (Tennessee, that is), Laur settled in Cincinnati in 1966 - if "settled" is ever a word you could use in connection with the singer. Yes, she had a "real" job for a short while, as a secretary at General Electric. But then the road beckoned. Laur crisscrossed the country, playing smoky bars and reckless taverns. "It was a wonderful life, traveling on the road, but it sure doesn't make for a lot of peace of mind."
Ultimately, Laur would always drift back to Cincinnati's Main Street and its collection of bohemian nightclubs and coffeehouses, most notably her favorite, Aunt Maudie's. Laur even titled her most recent album "Main Street," and some shops on the drag proudly stock the CD. Laur herself still lives in a walk-up apartment inside the Main Street entertainment district, never more than a heartbeat away from the musical scene she loves.
From day one of her career, "I did make a living out of it, if you can call it a living," Laur recalls with her signature throaty laugh. "I recorded four albums with The Katie Laur Band, including a jazz album."
Laur's career reached its zenith in the early '80s, when her band appeared multiple times on Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" broadcast. "Garrison always put us up and cooked for us," she recalls.
Laur capped her career with a 2005 induction into the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Kentucky. "Once you're in the museum and have got that kind of recognition, it's hard to know where to go next," she laments.
These days, she's scaled back her gigs even as she works on a memoir and plans a reunion of The Katie Laur Band. "In the summers, I work pretty much, but just outdoors. I am past playing inside bars, with all the smoke, the late hours, the stressful environment. I'd rather wait for the family festivals and fairs."