Bob Lucas sits in his country house near Zanesfield, Ohio, and plucks a string on his gourd banjo. “I’ve spent half my life tuning...and the other half playing out of tune.”
It’s a typically entertaining comment from the talented multi-instrumentalist and the writer of big songs for Alison Krauss, The Newgrass Revival, and other artists. His online bio describes him as a “glory shouting, sweet singing, banjo picking, guitar thumping, old-time fiddling, songwriting rounder with a desire to share a sense of musical wonder any way he can.”
Now, he’s sharing how he wrote “Momma Cried” on the banjo. Recorded by Alison Krauss and Union Station and sung by Dan Tyminski, Lucas created the song for a play about Frances Slocum, a Quaker girl kidnapped by--and then lived happily with--the Miami people on the American frontier.
Unlike other bluegrass and roots music songwriters, much of Lucas’s catalog consists of songs written for plays and theatrical productions during a long relationship with Mad River Theater, located near his rural home.
There was a moment when Lucas considered taking the more conventional path and moving to Nashville. He called someone who had done just that for advice. But when he explained he already had a salaried position writing songs for the theater, he was advised to stay put. “He said, ‘Don't move to Nashville. What you got going is what everybody here wants,’” Lucas recalls. “So that was that. I told my wife we won't be moving to Nashville because what we got is what we want.”
Unlike other banjo-playing songwriters, Lucas is not Southern but thoroughly Midwestern, having grown up in Holland, Michigan, idolizing his brothers- all singers- and listening to Calvinist hymns.
“It was all very powerful,” Lucas remembers. “Choirs and big organs. And then I grew up with these barber shoppers. My brother Don’s quartet was a barbershop quartet straight up. But they sang very modern arrangements.”
The storytelling Lucas grew up with influenced his songwriting. “My best friends on the planet are guys who like to sit around, have a little bourbon, and tell stories. They collect stories and things that happen to them and think, “Oh, this is gonna be a good one to tell!”
Lucas worked at a YMCA camp when he was a teen. “There was a guy there who could really play the banjo. And I wanted to do that. I wanted to be able to play the banjo and play not necessarily a million notes, but the right ones.”
The songs on Banjo for Lovers, Lucas’s latest banjo-centric album, reflect his musical curiosity. He employs several strumming and picking styles and complex chord progressions not often heard in bluegrass, pairing his effervescent banjo with electric guitar.
As a teenager, Lucas moved to Bloomington, Indiana, to hang out with a brother. He soon taught music lessons, wrote songs, and played in local bands such as The Not Too Bad Bluegrass Band with singer/guitarist Jeff White.
Lucas also recorded an album for an obscure label in Bloomington. Sam Bush and John Cowan of The Newgrass Revival were working in the same studio when the engineer listened to a test pressing of Lucas’s album.
“So, he puts the needle down at various spots, and the first thing that came out was ‘When the Storm is Over.’ I was not there when it happened, but Sam told me later he jerked his head around and said, ‘Who is that?’”
The Newgrass Revival recorded the song, and 50 years later, Lucas figures it’s probably his best-known tune. “It’s still being performed. Bela Fleck did that as an encore across the nation recently with his Bluegrass Heart tour.”
Lucas first knew Alison Krauss when she was a kid from Champaign, Illinois, playing in a band with her brother. Years later, Lucas’s friend and former bandmate Jeff White needed some songs for an audition with Krauss. Lucas played him an original composition, “The Road is a Lover.” Krauss recorded that song and two more tunes: “Daylight” and “Momma Cried.”
“Both of the records my tunes are on went Grammy,” Lucas says. “It was just crazy.”
For almost 30 years, Lucas wrote for Mad River Theater Works, which began in 1978, creating plays that explored Ohio history. In 40 years, the company has staged 30 plays on national tours, often presenting them to young people at schools and educational institutions. The plays have explored many social issues in stories focused on historical characters and chapters, including Jackie Robinson, the Underground Railroad, Rosa Parks, the Freedom Riders, Casey Jones, and Frances Slocum.
“When I started having a chance to work for Mad River, they were doing all these shows about race relations,” Lucas recalls. “Anything that had to do with where Europeans and either Indigenous people or African people--where those two cultures came together--was what I wanted to talk about in my writing.”
Lucas not only wrote music for these productions but was often onstage, portraying characters and singing the songs he had written for them.
“I really like the music from Freedom Riders. I'm not blowing my own horn, but there are a lot of very strong songs. And my catalog is full of songs about these characters that I really don't have firsthand knowledge of, but I felt things that they really needed to say to clarify their position.”
Lucas continues to write and perform. In “So” on Banjo for Lovers, the singer looks at his life and declares, “I've sopped up the gravy and tasted the wine.”
Lucas admits that album is autobiographical. “Here's the way it is with me. I don't have a big pension. I have lived my pension. I've done what I could with my life and my time. I've trekked through the world high and low, and I have sopped up the gravy and tasted the wine, and I've loved it. So, I got no regrets.”