Winding Road Stories: Gay and Bruce Dalzell

By Grant Joy

Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Area’s Sam Jones Model Citizenship Award is presented annually to citizens that exemplify a deep commitment to improving community life in southeast Ohio. The award is named in honor of Sam Jones, a Glouster resident that has operated Sam’s Gym and started the Boxing for Books annual fundraiser. Athens and the surrounding communities have a rich and vibrant music scene. Live shows, open mics, open stages, songwriting workshops, and songwriting circles are as ubiquitous as the famed bricks that comprise the city’s streets and buildings. Because of Ohio University, the music scene is transitory with musicians coming and going, however, two mainstays and prominent figures of the southeast Ohio music community are Bruce and Gay Dalzell. They’ve dedicated their lives around music and in doing so have greatly enriched the social fabric and cultural vitality of the Appalachian Ohio region.

Bruce was born in Athens and grew up playing regional folk music around town at numerous open mic nights in the 1970s. This experience led him to host events at various bars around Athens. According to Bruce, in 1989 Ohio University had changed the Front Room Bar to a coffee house at the old Baker Center. Thus, the Open Stage program was formed. This program allows a safe, supportive, and nurturing space for musicians to perform. Bruce has been running Open Stage every Friday night in Athens for nearly 31 years. Through his efforts, Bruce has created an environment for aspiring musicians to explore for themselves if performing is something they want to pursue in a greater capacity. An early beneficiary of Open Stage is Adam Remnant. Remnant has performed on Mountain Stage in addition to playing at Pickathon and the popular Seattle radio station, KEXP with his band Southeast Engine. Through his commitment, Bruce has helped build a foundation for local musicians to perform. 

Bruce also fills his time by assisting and helping coordinate OU’s Tuesday night Songwriter Circles at the Baker Center. These groups are free and open to anyone. Gay mentioned the circle has a “regional and intergenerational reach as the songwriting circles draw performers from as far Parkersburg.” Bruce sees these songwriting circles as “super important to songwriting [because] typically as you’re just getting started songwriting is a solitary pursuit. You’re forced to sit down with somebody else and give and take and compromise [so that you can] learn from someone else’s attitude. The more perspective that goes into a song, the more likely it will be accessible to more people.” Making music more accessible to people has been a hallmark of Bruce and Gay’s work.

Increasing accessibility of the creative arts to local communities has been a vital focal point for the Dalzell’s. They have devoted significant time to the Circle Around the Square program helping expose underserved children in Nelsonville to the performing and musical arts. The couple had facilitated a Family Open Stage for nearly 20 years through the Athens County Public Library system that according to Gay “was very intergenerational and energetic, as 2 year-olds and 80 year-olds would participate.” Bruce has produced, engineered, and written music for several pieces of poetry from artists at Passion Works Studio, which is a collaborative art studio that supports professional artists with developmental differences. Gay contributed to the project as she sang on two of the CDs that were a result of the project. Their son and daughter made the project even more special, as they provided time and energy helping to write songs and choreograph dances to the songs that would be performed at Stuart’s Opera House. Bruce and Gay see music as an avenue to foster greater community bonds throughout the region.

Watch Bruce Dalzell perform “The Parade”

Bruce and Gay performed with and met one another through the Appalachian Green Parks Project (AGPP) in the mid-1970s. According to Gay, the purpose of the project was to “acquaint people with traditional Appalachian culture through music and drama as a way to celebrate the region’s heritage.” The group interwove the region’s rich history into their performances with scripts about the Millfield Mine Disaster for example. Performers shared traditional folk stories of the region, played traditional folk instruments, and sang Appalachian folk songs that represented the region’s history and culture. The project was quite successful, as the group played in 18 State Parks and performed to over 21,000 Ohioans. Furthermore, AGPP members performed at the Washington Monument in D.C. allowing them to share the rich heritage of Ohio’s Appalachia to a national audience. 

The AGPP is just one example of how the Dalzell’s have used their musical abilities to further broadcast the region’s story to a wider audience. Bruce wrote the soundtrack to A Forest Returns: The Success Story of Ohio’s Only National Forest. The documentary chronicles the story of the creation of the Wayne National Forest through Ora E. Anderson’s oral history of the event, and it was Anderson himself that greatly influenced Bruce’s process of crafting the soundtrack. “Steve, the director, had given me a lot of early footage he had of Ora talking and some of the photos. I already knew Ora from our history at the Dairy Barn, so I could use a lot of that. But, a lot of that just came from my background and just being here [in the area].” Gay, through her Athensbased trio, The Local Girls, also provided music to a PBS documentary focusing on the area’s rural local communities. By lending their musical abilities to projects that tell stories of the region, the Dalzell’s reflect how their music is inspired and influenced by the region in which they live.   

The Dalzell’s firmly believe in the transformative power of music and the ability of music to build a stronger sense of community. This belief is exemplified through Gay’s work through Ohio Health as a music therapist and in her work with Hospice, as she can be let into people’s lives at tender moments. She calls it “quite an honor to share in a beautiful experience [as] music is so comforting and healing. [Music] is a way to bring the family together.” The transformative power of music is also realized through The Dalzell’s devotion to performing together at various area benefits. Their impact can be felt in their hometown of Stewart as they have taught music lessons and led various workshops at the Federal Valley Resource Center. They perform annually at their Christmas Benefit show that benefits the resource center. Gay views playing benefits as a way to “honor all the good work that is going on in the region. When it’s so easy to perform, If we can perform and play music in tribute to all the work that organizations put into their causes, and God knows there are so many wonderful causes, we are happy to do it, we get the easy part.” The couple also performs, individually, at five local community churches as a way to help build community through their music. 

Watch Gay and Bruce Dalzell perform together for “A Tribute to Bob Winters”

Bruce and Gay have extended their talents beyond Southeast Ohio. When the annual Chautauqua Writers Festival expanded to songwriting, a friend had recommended Bruce to help assist and lead the songwriting workshops. Due to his songwriting prowess, Bruce was a natural fit and called the event “one of the greatest experiences of my life.” Gay also has enjoyed major musical success. Gay, as part of the Local Girls, had the “great experience,” as Gay puts it, of performing at the White House on two separate occasions, once for Hillary Clinton’s 50th birthday and then again at the 1998 White House Christmas Celebration. In addition to the Local Girls performing at the White House, the trio has also performed on Prairie Home Companion and toured France, Germany, and Austria. Through their passion and love of music, Bruce and Gay have broadcast their talents to a national audience and in doing so, have exposed a greater number of audiences to Appalachian culture.

Bruce and Gay Dalzell have dedicated their entire adult lives to enriching the fabric and improving the quality of life in southeast Ohio. Bruce and Gay Dalzell have used their love of music as a way to build a greater sense of community, to broadcast the region’s history and culture to a wider audience, and to heal and give comfort to the area’s sick. The Dalzell’s are living manifestations of Appalachian Ohio’s rich culture and generous spirit. Their impact throughout southeast Ohio is as remarkable and significant as the red clay bricks that comprise many of the area’s buildings and streets.

About the author: Grant Joy is an Americorps member serving Ohio’s Hill Country Heritage Area via the Ohio Stream Restore Corps at Rural Action. He hails from Clinton County, Ohio and is a graduate of Bowling Green State university in Cultural History.

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