Karen Walters reinvented herself by reinventing Cuyahoga Valley’s independent music scene

Karen Walters is a lifelong resident of Peninsula, Ohio, located in the heart of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. She worked in advertising for 17 years before her job got sent to the Dominican Republic. “I decided I didn’t want that commute!” she laughs.

While looking for a job she decided to keep herself busy by volunteering for the Peninsula Foundation, an organization dedicated to historic preservation in Peninsula and the Cuyahoga Valley, where she was told she could clean the G.A.R. Hall.

“It was all wood and had all these amazing natural acoustics,” she says of the 1888 building. “It was used primarily for weddings about 12 times per year and there was a lecture series once a year on the Civil War, but other than that there was nothing else going on there.” One day when she was cleaning she was singing loudly and thought to herself, “‘If I can sound like that in here’…It makes you sound like you can really sing!”

So Walters asked the president of the Foundation if she could start a music series at the G.A.R. Hall. “She looked at me like I was crazy! They let me do something on the patio though. The first show had about 15 people and seven of them were family, but I didn’t give up.” As summer became fall the music series moved inside, and it soon became a live music staple in Cuyahoga Valley.

Walters is now the Special Events Coordinator of the Peninsula Foundation. The music showcase she created, Voices in the Valley, is held every Friday, most Saturdays, and the occasional Sunday, bringing in local and national touring musicians with a leaning towards traditional roots music. The space is small, with a capacity of 140 people, so every performance feels intimate. On weekend afternoons in the summer it expands out onto the patio with a low-key local singer-songwriter showcase. “You feel like you’re up close and personal with every musician who comes through,” Walters says.

The series has been going on for three years this July. “I’m pretty proud of it,” Walters says. “It feels like it’s this secret gem in our area. One musician says that every time he plays there is feels like the Grand Ole Opry of the northeast.”

While the Hall does have a full liquor license – which certainly creates a stronger draw for people looking for something fun to do when they want to go out on the weekends – Walters emphasizes that this is a listening room, not a bar. “[The artists] are the focus of the show,” she says. She also tries to book local acts to open for the national touring groups to help them grow their following. Everything about her efforts to build and sustain a local music community is very grassroots; advertising is mostly word of mouth with her knocking out doors, passing out flyers, and posting to social media. The artists also help a lot; it is all a collective effort to build awareness of the local music community.

Walters explains that as a nonprofit organization, the Peninsula Foundation is very passionate about supporting artists and putting their money where their mouth is. “Many people say they’re into supporting art, but to support art you have to support artists,” she says matter-of-factly. “We treat the artists well. We feed them. We always pay them. We support the artists who make the art. Part of our mission is to bring awareness to that. You wouldn’t ask a performer to come to someone’s house and perform and not pay them, but for some reason that exists with music – there’s this thought that this isn’t how they make a living, especially when they’re first starting out.”

In a further effort to help support musicians, Peninsula allows them to use the Hall to record whenever it is available, and they are also able to record live shows. They have a sound engineer who “might as well donate his time for what he charges.”

Additionally, there is an open mic event for singer-songwriters every third Thursday hosted by Erik Urycki of The Speedbumps. Urycki credits Walters for helping promote and propel forward the independent music scene in Northeast Ohio: “She’s a huge asset to the community and no one knows her. No one realizes [the reason] they keep getting to go to these awesome shows [is because of her].”

Walters is also a member and trustee of the Peninsula Area Chamber of Commerce, and through her work with the Chamber she helps organize five music and cultural events per year, including Music on the Porches held every September – during which a whole mini music festival is held on the porches of businesses and residents in Peninsula, drawing in a crowd of about 3,000 people.

While it would seem like she has a lot on her plate, Walters graciously laughs it off. “It doesn’t feel like a lot! I guess because I enjoy doing it so much; it definitely doesn’t feel like work. It feels like a calling.”

Though she spent 17 years on the graphic design side of advertising – work she still does through her own boutique agency, Crooked River Creative – music has always been in her blood. Her father and brother were both bluegrass musicians and even started the Stumpy Basin Volunteers 35 years ago, a hometown band which still plays today. “[Voices in the Valley] kind of gave them a resurgence. [Before that started] there wasn’t really a place in the area that serviced local musicians anymore.”

She says her work in the local music scene allows her to combine all of the things she is passionate about. “I just feel like it was supposed to happen. It’s kind of fun to be in your forties and get to reinvent your life – okay, that door kind of slammed shut, but now I get to use all these skills and passions,” she says. “It was the right time and the right place. The music community here in Northeast Ohio really reps you and supports you. There are great people who listen to live music here and great people involved who promote it who want to help you promote it. The musicians themselves I can’t say enough good things about. They’re just a really devoted group of people and for the most part they all really want to work together and support each other.”