Kent, a small town with big music

Abigail Miller

It’s January 1974, and the Kent State Undergraduate Student Government has booked the up-and-coming artist Bruce Springsteen to perform on campus. To popular music fans at the time, it might not have sounded like a big deal. But to students at Kent State, they could sense Springsteen’s super stardom before major radio stations ever thought to put his tracks on rotation.

It went something like this — he played his show in what is now the Student Center ballroom, and then afterward attended a college party on North Depeyster Street. This almost unbelievable, but true story is only a chapter in “Small Town, Big Music,” a newly published book by Jason Prufer, a senior library associate at Kent State.

Prufer, 44, grew up hearing different stories about legendary acts gracing the stage in his hometown from members of his community, and came to learn they were true while digging into newspaper archives.

“When I was in my mid-’30s, I decided to just plunder the Daily Kent Stater to see what actually was here and what actually matched with the tales that I had heard,” Prufer said. “From there, it was finding the people who had been involved.”

The book’s first part pays tribute to all of the legendary acts that graced the Kent State campus from the ‘60s all the way to the new millenium. It highlights the performances and offers first-hand accounts from students and members of the community who attended the concerts and after-parties, as well as includes photos and clips straight from the Daily Kent Stater.

Prufer attributes Kent’s ability to land upcoming superstar acts, like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Stevie Wonder, to one thing, and one thing only — its students.

“College kids know what’s cool first,” he said. “I had never heard of Bruno Mars until he played the M.A.C. Center, and then after that, I never stopped hearing about him. All of a sudden, he’s doing the halftime at the Super Bowl, and he’s got all these hits and everything. But, at the time he played in the M.A.C. Center, only the cool college kids knew about him.”

In its second part, the book acts as a showcase for all the local acts that got their start performing in Kent, only to go on and make it big time. Artists like Joe Walsh and The Black Keys embody these chapters, as it recalls their humble beginnings in local bars downtown.

“The other half of the book is what happened here organically, what came out of the ground here that created a splash,” Prufer said. “There were four examples of that: there was Joe Walsh, you have Devo, you have Chrissy Hynde and then you have The Black Keys.”

On Friday, the Kent State University Press held a launch party for the book’s release. Attendees included Bob Lewis, the founding member of Cleveland-based band Devo and a Kent State alumnus; Richard Underwood, the founding member of the Measles;  and, of course, Joe Walsh, in cardboard-cutout form.

Joe Walsh, a long-time member of the Eagles, and at one point in his life, a Kent resident, agreed to write the book’s foreword after a chance encounter with Prufer in 2017, while Walsh was visiting the Kent State archives for research regarding a May 4 project.

“They (Joe Walsh and Jason Prufer) spent an hour going through the manuscript and all the great content that went into the book,” Interim Dean of University Libraries Ken Burhanna said at Friday’s launch party. “By the end of the meeting, Joe had already agreed to write the foreword.”

In the foreword, Walsh recounts taking a train to Kent from his hometown of Montclair, New Jersey, and compares Kent’s artistic community in 1969 to Ernest Hemingway’s Paris of the 1920s.

While the book works to highlight Kent’s outsized mark on music history, it’s more so a love letter to Prufer’s beloved hometown.

“I was a 16-year-old Roosevelt High School student, and I remember my friends saying, ‘This town sucks, nothing ever happens here,’” Prufer said. “I want someone to hand all those other 16-year-old kids my book and say, ‘What do you mean nothing ever happens here? Look at this. This happened here. This was incredible, and guess what? This town is fertile enough for all this stuff to happen again.’”

Read KentWired’s Q&A with Prufer here.

 Abigail Miller is a feature writer. Contact her at [email protected].