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Your backstage pass to Northeast Ohio's independent music scene.

Josh Compton tells the story of Tuscarawas County’s rich history through song

Josh Compton poses outside with an acoustic guitar
Deanna Compton
Hailing from Tuscarawas  County, Josh Compton writes folk songs that share the struggles and triumphs of some of the region’s earliest settlers. His new album, "The Big Trail & Other Ballads of the Tuscarawas," has been more than a decade in the making.

Sugarcreek native Josh Compton works as an elementary school art teacher in Dover, but when he isn’t busy teaching, he’s crafting folk songs about his hometown’s history.

Compton, who releases music as Brother Joshua, started writing his new album, "The Big Trail & Other Ballads of the Tuscarawas," about a decade ago while taking a photography class at Kent State.

“I would come home on the weekends, and I would travel back roads of Tuscarawas County and take pictures for the photography class, going to the different landmarks,” he said.

Photographic journeys through the region’s backroads inspired the artist to explore landmarks and their historical significance.

Now a county road, the “Big Trail” referred to in the album’s title was once a route Native Americans used to travel from the Great Lakes to the Ohio River.

Each track on the album unveils a chapter of resilience and perseverance woven into the fabric of Tuscarawas County's history.

“I was getting older, and I didn't have these ambitions of going out into the world,” Compton said. “I was making a home, and I wanted to know what that home was. I wanted to know where we came from.”

Writing from folk music traditions

Compton began writing music when he was 22, initially inspired by lauded folk singer-songwriters.

"My earliest songs were really bad Bob Dylan impressions,” he said. “Then I kind of followed the roots music trail that branches off of Bob Dylan.”

Compton released his first album, “Awake Awake,” in 2012. The album documented his personal journeys and relationship to spirituality.

As he expanded his musical exploration, Compton pulled ideas from Biblical stories, field recordings, Appalachian culture and local lore.

Keeping in tune with folk music tradition, Compton wrote his songs to relate to his hometown’s culture and folklore, with laments related to wars and his take on triumphant hymns.

“I have ideas for other volumes. There's so many other actual individual people that I would love to write about, and I've started writing about."
Josh Compton

On his album, Compton has three iterations of the song “Jesus, Still Lead On,” an old Moravian hymn.

“The idea of the song having faith in the midst of what the Moravians went through, kind of coming overseas and starting new lives, I saw it as a sort of an anthem,” he said.

Compton’s music serves as an ode to the county's storied past, starting with the founding settlements of Moravian missionaries David Zeisberger and John Heckewelder, along with converted Christian Native Americans.

During the Revolutionary War, Zeisberger and Heckewelder were arrested, many of the converts were either murdered or forced out, and the villages were destroyed.

Compton’s 17 songs weave through the story of the arrival of the Zoar Separatists in the early 1800s, followed by the building of the Ohio and Erie Canal, a man-made waterway linking Lake Erie to the Ohio River.

Tuscarawas County was on the canal’s route, but the canal system was abandoned with the rise of railroads and a massive flood in 1913.

“Everything was just kind of reset, it seemed, in the county, and the flood washed away the rest of what was left of the canals,” Compton said.

“The Big Trail & Other Ballads of the Tuscarawas” was a collaborative project, and Compton brought in other musicians from the region to flesh out the album’s sound.

Coby Hartzler of the Dover-based band Coby and the Prisoners provided guitar and vocals and produced, engineered, mixed and mastered the songs.

“Then as it went along, I would think of different people that might be able to play on a certain song or sing along on a certain song,” Compton said.

The musician brought in sister duo Kodachrome Babies to lend vocals to the track “Picks & Shovels.”

The album embodies the spirit of collective storytelling and shared heritage, again aligning with folk music traditions.

Using his music as a teaching tool

Compton debuted his new music at the Dover First Moravian Church on Jan. 20, where he held his album release show.

Musician Josh Compton stands outdoors
Lauren Miller, Glitter and Grace Photography
Josh Compton works as an elementary school art teacher and comes from a lineage of educators. His new Brother Joshua album is rich with historical information and will be used as a teaching tool.

“The pastor, John, at the Dover Moravian Church has been really supportive of this project. On one of the bonus tracks, he does a little spoken word.” Compton said. “The Moravian history is a big part of this album, so it all seemed to work that way.”

The album has started to gain attention for its potential as an educational tool and piece of living history that offers a window into the region’s past.

“I've had a few teachers come up to me and say how this could be just a wonderful tool for just teaching through playing songs and talking about them afterward,” Compton said.

Compton comes from a lineage of educators, with his grandfather teaching, coaching and driving the school bus and his father and uncles working as educators as well.

"Teaching was definitely in my family history," Compton said.

While he maintains a low-key approach to sharing his musical endeavors with his students, Compton's assemblies and occasional performances offer glimpses into his musical world.

“I've done, like, assemblies at school where I played guitar. So, they know that I play guitar and play music, but I don't think it’s probably their style and what they're into,” he said.

Compton said the Dover Library put his CD in its collection and wanted a copy for its historical catalog as well.

“I'm really beaming about it,” he said.

Staying rooted in Tuscarawas County

Compton said he hopes to write more songs about the region's history, including the Native Americans who called it home.

“I have ideas for other volumes,” he said. “There's so many other actual individual people that I would love to write about, and I've started writing about."

Compton said his Brother Joshua project is all about exploring his place between two worlds: that of his West Virginia grandparents, who immigrated North, and his Ohio grandparents, who grew up in the Midwest.

As Brother Joshua, the musician will perform songs from “The Big Trail & Other Ballads of the Tuscarawas” at the Dover Library on May 7 at 6:30 p.m.

Expertise: Audio storytelling, journalism and production
Brittany Nader is the producer of "Shuffle" on Ideastream Public Media. She joins "All Things Considered" host Amanda Rabinowitz on Thursdays to chat about Northeast Ohio’s vibrant music scene.