Noah Crase, one of the most exciting bluegrass banjo players I’ve ever heard and a key architect of the southwestern Ohio bluegrass scene, died April 13 at the age of 75. Crase was one of the pioneering bluegrass banjo pickers in the Dayton area, and many younger pickers learned the music listening to him at bars like Tom’s Tavern, Little Mickey’s and the Mermaid.
Crase was born December 10, 1934, in Barwick, Kentucky (in Breathitt County), but his family joined the great northern migration of that era and moved to Middletown in 1949. Crase lived in later years in the Franklin-Springboro area, where he spent his career as a mail carrier working out of the Springboro post office.
Crase met Red Allen and Frank Wakefield at the Hilltop Inn in Franklin in the early 1950s, and he soon became deeply involved in the bluegrass world of the Cincinnati-Middletown-Dayton axis. He played and recorded with numerous people in those years in addition to Red and Frank, including Jimmy Martin, Carlos Brock, Dorsey Harvey, Dave Woolum and others. Crase left Ohio to play banjo with Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys in two separate stints in 1954-55 and 1956. Unfortunately, he never recorded with Monroe.
Some of Crase’s best music of the 1960s and 1970s came in the company of Paul “Moon” Mullins, fiddler and legendary DJ on WPFB in Middletown. Crase played with Mullins in the Valley Ramblers (which had a weekly TV show on Dayton’s WKEF-TV), the Nu-Grass Pickers and, beginning in 1973, the Boys from Indiana, which was originally known as Noah Crase, Paul Mullins and the Boys from Indiana.
The Boys from Indiana was a powerful, dynamic and highly entertaining band in the mid-1970s, and Crase was a big part of the band for the first couple of years, playing on the albums We Missed You in Church Last Sunday and the highly popular Atlanta is Burning. Crase more or less retired from playing in a band in 1976, though he periodically picked up his banjo in later years for occasional shows, including The Dayton Bluegrass Reunion, Cityfolk’s 1989 bluegrass concert extravaganza, where he joined Mullins, guitarist Don Warmuth and bass player Bobby Gilbert for a reunion of the Valley Ramblers.
Crase will also be remembered for his original banjo tune “Noah’s Breakdown,” recorded in 1957 and released on the flip side of Dave Woolum’s Sage single “Old Age” (immortalized on the 1976 Rounder album Early Days of Bluegrass, Vol. 2) and the song “I Can’t Go On This Way,” recorded by the Traditional Grass.
I can’t say that I really knew Noah Crase, but I chatted with him several times over the years, at the old Living Arts Center in east Dayton and at bluegrass festivals where he was performing. He was always exceedingly gracious and friendly in those encounters, polite when I asked endless questions about the early days, modest when I gushed over his playing on old records. He also had the coolest sideburns in bluegrass.