We all have a passion or a hobby that we are greatly invested in.
For most of us, this passion is something that occupies our time and brings us joy, but rarely does it turn into something that presents us with the opportunity to compete in major events before large crowds.
For Toledo’s Jesse Riley, however, playing the banjo has afforded him some of those privileges.
Most recently, the Oak Harbor native competed in one of the nation’s premiere bluegrass festivals, the Official Kentucky State Championship Old-Time Fiddlers Contest. The event, held earlier this month in scenic Elizabethtown, a town of 28,000 located 45 miles south of Louisville, featured performers of all ages from all over the Midwest and the South competing in musical events featuring the banjo, guitar and harmonica, among other instruments. The contest is held at the picturesque Freeman Lake Park, a location that features 170 acres of water, a disc golf course and some walking trails. (The event has a website, www.kentuckyfiddler.com, as well as a Facebook Page.)
Riley, 70, finished second in the Bluegrass Banjo Division. He was assisted by his son, Troy, 46, who played the guitar to help complement the harmony and rhythm of the Riley’s performance.
“It was held at Freeman Lake on a beautiful state park,” Riley said. “It’s just gorgeous out there. People really turn out (for the event). Then they had the fiddle, guitar, banjo, harmonica and dancing championships for all different ages. I took second in the Bluegrass Banjo Contest, I beat three Kentuckians. I was very fortunate to beat them.
“(But) there is a sense of camaraderie there, too. A kid that I had seen on television (at the Smithville Convention) showed me some diminished cords and we worked on them together. And the judges came out and played with us, too. That’s supposedly the biggest compliment you can receive. (The judges) were telling me that they enjoyed playing with us,” he said.
Riley, who is retired from General Motors and also worked as a barber before that, teaches banjo classes two nights a week in the winter at All-Star Music on Byrne Road. He credits his students with helping him to become better acclimated to playing the banjo.
“My students helped me prepare (for the event),” Riley said. “Whatever I'm working on, they're working on, and it really helps.”
A 1960 Oak Harbor graduate, Riley has three kids – Troy, his son, and two daughters, Kim and Kerry. Troy works at the Jeep plant in Toledo and Kim and Kerry are both nurses. Sadly, Riley’s wife, Mary Anne, a Lambertville, Mich. native, died six years ago. He is also a grandfather to two children, Olivia, 17, and Liam, 11.
Riley is also planning to compete in the Walnut Valley Festival in September. The event, which is held in Winfield, Kan., located 43 miles southeast of Wichita, features acoustic musicians performing with an emphasis on bluegrass. The festival, which was first held in 1972, draws musicians and entertainers from all over the country.
Riley’s love of music comes from his roots, he said. Before moving to Oak Harbor in 1953 at the age of 11, he was born and raised in Waverly, a town approximately 28 miles north of Portsmouth in the southern part of Ohio. Waverly was just up the road from Lucasville, the hometown of American icon Roy Rogers, and it was here that Riley developed an appreciation for singing and playing instruments.
“I came out of Southern Ohio,” he said. “I'm from Appalachia near Portsmouth, where Branch Rickey is from. (The people) get you playing instruments when you're young in the church. I once sang Amazing Grace at the end of a funeral when I was young and since then, I've been singing all my life.
“We moved to Oak Harbor in 1953 after my father died,” Riley said. “The school and the people were phenomenal, they treated me so well. I've been in Toledo since ‘64.”
After moving to Oak Harbor, Riley became friends with others who had a great appreciation for music. Along with Bill Oliver, Jimmy Thompson, Charles “Buddy” Andrews and Norm Witt, Riley formed the band The Trojans, a group that performed at a number of area bars and restaurants in the Sandusky area.
After turning to bluegrass in '64, Riley performed a number of gigs and even met Jerry Garcia and Bob Seeger. More recently, Riley has performed at the Ottawa County Fair and at the Apple Festival in Oak Harbor and currently can be seen playing gigs in Toledo.