North meets South at the Ohio River. The water, and both sides of the valley that it winds through, are rich in stories and traditions. Rick Lisak, a native Ohioan, and Kentuckian Zach Rowe, spent the last three years using that well of life to create their latest album, “Songs From The Ohio River Valley”. The stories inside the music tell of people who live close to the earth and water, whose world can be hard, but also full of love, promise and purpose. We hope that you will live inside these songs, and play them over and over again. 

Learn More

Upcoming Shows

Tuesday, March 3rd, 2020 @ 7pmRiparian Book Launch 
Xavier University, Kennedy Auditorium
3800 Victory Pkwy. Cincinnati, OH. 45207


Cincinnati, OH, USA


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Words & Stories

Breaker Boy

  In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century before child labor laws were instituted, young boys were employed in Kentucky and West Virginia coal mines. One of their duties was to sit on a bench above a conveyer belt that brought the coal out of the mine, and pick out shale before the coal went down a shoot to be broken and washed, then taken away to heat homes and fuel industry across America. These “breaker boys” worked ten hours a day, six days a week, continually hunched over breathing in coal dust. This led to developing a permanent hump back by fourteen, and suffering from the onset of Black Lung Disease. If a boy fell asleep, or lost his balance, and fell down on the conveyer belt, most likely he taken down the coal shoot where he met certain death. These young men, earning a sixty cents a day, performed this work proudly and bravely to help support their families.


Little Bobby Owens was a breaker boy below

Where the sun never shines and miners dig for coal

Boys reach down as the rocks roll by

Pickin’ out slate, tossin’ it aside

Bobby always had a smile, that’s the way he was.

Even under the cane of a mean old breaker boss

Made the boys laugh with a dance and song

For a while their pain and sorrow were gone.

Lay him down where the green grass grows

Where the bluebirds sing, fresh wind blows

Kiss the face just one more time

Of a little breaker boy from the Tipple mine.


When the boss stepped away, Bobby stood on his seat

As the coal rushed by underneath his feet.

He was showing the boys a dance that he learned

Bobby tripped and fell below where the breakers churned.


Found him in the washer, all torn and broke

Not a dry eye can be found when Bobby’s name is spoke.

Where the boys reach down, fingers rough and cut

For sixty cents a day, and a lung full of dust.

Grinding Wheel

This song is about how desire takes over a man’s life, and causes him to become involved with a controlling woman. Painfully, he finds a way to break free.

Mark Twain once said, “A man can do anything except keep his fingers out of a hole in his pants.” Truer words were never spoken. Enough said.


Hot summer night I followed her down

White, white dress fell to the ground

Lay beneath the Georgia pines

In the cool of the needles, and the heat of the wine.


As I felt her breathe, I started to feel

Hoping that maybe there’s something so real

But she’d whittled me down on her grinding wheel.


Wheel grinding, red sparks flying 

 Meant to shape me, never stopped trying

To make me into what she’d seen

Or read about in a magazine.


Never admit to being wrong

Bend the truth, she was that strong

Does a sinner sin if she can’t see

The lies she tells, then has to believe?

I’ll ask Jesus when I shake his hand

Think I took as much as any man.

What she wanted I could never find

 Maybe it was changing, changing all the time.

As I felt her breathe, I started to feel

Hoping that maybe there’s something so real

But she whittled me down on her grinding wheel

If Wishes Were Horses

(Lisak, Rowe and Sallee)

   Our friend, Darrell Sallee, contributed some of the lyrics on this one.  Ever been arrested and put in jail? If you have, I bet you never thought it would happen to you. The musician/family man in this song didn’t. All he was doing was selling small amounts of marijuana to keep food on the table for his family. What could possibly go wrong?


Never think you’re gonna get  caught

Til they’re puttin’ on the cuffs in the parking lot.

Now I’m sleepin’ on a cold, steel bed.

Oh, dear Lord, I’m better off dead.


Playin’ music in a bluegrass band

Dreams die slowly inside a man.

Pay the price, what can I say,

Hand to mouth, and day to day.


If wishes were horses, I’d ride away.

If wishes were horses, I’d ride away.


Sellin’ some bags, ten bucks a pop

Keepin’ food on the table, my ass outta hock

Tried to get ahead, but I reached too far

Now I’m starin’ outta these coal black bars..


Pretty darlin’, don’t give up on me.

Don’t take the kids back to Tennessee.

Seen hard times, we’ve cried a lot

Don’t you turn your back, you’re all I got.

Funny Thing About Time 

This song speaks to the irony of how time passes imperceptibly, and only appears when we are forced to reflect on what is lost, and what might have been. When it begins, love seems everlasting, but as we reveal ourselves, the feeling can fade away. When it does, the pain of staying together becomes greater than the fear of going your own way.  And, in the midst of love and loss, finding guidance and strength outside one’s self is suspect. It’s funny.


There’s a funny thing about time

Always think you have some.

Then sand ticks through an hourglass

You find out you have none.

All that’s left of us

Are photographs and frames

Funny thing about time.


Funny thing about love

You always think it’s here to stay

 Then pictures full of colors

Red and yellows fade to grey

 As you watch them go   

You learn painfully slow

Funny thing about love       

Is my young experience coincidence or providence?

I’m waiting for a sign

I look for my fortitude, without faith or certitude

I proceed as being blind


Funny thing about pain

Seems like it’s my best friend

When were crushed by the weight of us

Moment’s made to make it end

All that’s left of us

Are photographs and frames

All that’s left of us      

Are photographs and frames

Funny thing called pain        

Delta Queen

 In the 1850’s, many homesteaders started their journey with a trip down the Ohio on a riverboat to St. Louis, Missouri, a jumping off point for wagon trains heading west. I’m certain the river also provided a quick escape from the law, debtors, and ill-fated relationships. Here comes a confession. Naming the song, “Delta Queen” is anachronistic. The first “Delta Queen” was built in 1927, and we had in mind a different time in our history when we wrote this song. 


She’s the Delta Queen, she rules the water   

Rollin’ on the river like Neptune’s daughter

Come on board, we’re leaving today.

St. Louis bound, come sun or snow.

Sleep on the deck, or get a room below.

Hear that whistle call, We'll be on our way.


Big wheel’s turnin’, Delta Queen gonna go, 

St. Louis bound, On the Ohio.


Got your money sowed up in your vest,

Wife’n kids, you’re headin’ west.

You’re safe with me I swear, on my mother’s stone.

Gotta girl you wanna forget?

Wager your shirt and lose the bet?

Or you got an itch to start over again?


Big wheel’s turnin’, Delta Queen’s gonna go,

St. Louis bound, On the Ohio.

Smokestack burnin’, Muddy water gonna flow.

She’s the Delta Queen On the Ohio.


Wanna work for supper and a cot?

Need a strong back to keep the boiler hot

With a sense of humor, and a singin’ voice.

Hannah's Ghost

     Until the end of the Civil War, crossing the Ohio River meant freedom for southern slaves. Bounty hunters on both sides of the river were waiting to catch those willing to risk everything to escape bondage. This is a tragic tale of Hannah and her two young sons trying cross the river from Kentucky to Ripley, Ohio, a town known as a beginning of the Underground Railroad. This story is fiction. The heartbreak, tragedy and evil that was

slavery, is not.


Hannah and her children were runaway slaves

Followed the Drinkin’ Gourd, hid in the day

Farmers never saw them, their workers wouldn’t tell

They’d give them corn meal, and water from the well.


She found the Ohio, knew they’d be free

Hannah hid her boys by a Sycamore tree

Told them to wait there, not make a sound

Bounty hunter’s close, they could hear his dogs howl.

Hannah, she swam where the river runs wide

Leaving her children on the other side

 "Wait, oh my darlings, I’ll be there real soon.

I’ll come by the light, the light of the moon."


She waded in the water towards fire she could see

Found a piece of driftwood, when the river got deep

Crossed the Ohio, right at Ripley town

Ran house to house ‘til a boat could be found


Hannah had a gold locket, she gave to the man

Said, “Come save my children, fast as you can”.


Hannah, she rowed where the river runs wide

Calling to her children on the other side

 “Wait, oh my darlings, I’ll be there real soon.

I’ll come by the light, the light of the moon.”


She found her boys together, washed up on the sand

Took her breath to see them, layin’ hand in hand

Hounds musta chased them, that’s why they drowned

In the bottom of the boat Hannah laid her boys down


She didn’t speak a word as they rowed from the shore  

Her reason for living wasn’t there anymore          

Looked at her boys, let out a cry

Threw herself in the water, but her soul never died


Hannah’s ghost wanders where the river runs wide

Meeting her children on the other side

 “Yes, oh my babies, I’ve come back to you

I’ve come by the light, the light of the moon.”

Sadie’s Song

         In the Ohio Valley at the beginning of the Nineteenth Century, there were Methodist preachers called, “Circuit riders”. They traveled from settlement to settlement on horseback, eventually staying in one place when people built a church for them. This song is about a woman, Sadie Miller, who longs to escape her dire circumstances, falls in love with John Hardy, a circuit rider, and takes her chance at happiness.


Sadie Miller was a bird with a broken wing

Quiet as a fish in water.

Thin as a rail with coal black hair

She was known as the Miller’s daughter.


Momma ran the store, daddy was a drunk

Whiskey made him out a fool

Sadie cried at night, “If this is my life,

How can God be so cruel?”


John Hardy was a preacher man

A Methodist circuit rider

Came to town to spread the good Word

Fell down with the scarlet fever.


John took a room above Miller’s store

His sickness, it got worse

Doctor didn’t wanna come around

Sadie took to bein’ his nurse.


She gave him lemon oil water,

Vinegar apple cider

Fell in love when his fever broke

Answered her prayers when John spoke.


Come away with me

We’ll find a home and a family

Down in the valley of the apple trees

Come away, come away

Intro (Repeat):


  John said, “The People in Charleston,

Built an arbor of brush and board

They’ll make it into a church

If I stay and preach the Good Word.”


One night they slipped away

Ran John’s pony ‘til break of day

Down the trail of Johnny Appleseed

To the valley of the apple trees


Come away with me

We’ll find a home and a family

Down in the valley of the apple trees

Come away, come away.

 Flood of '37   

     Ohio Valley sharecroppers made a living by raising crops on someone else’s property. After harvesting, the profits were split between the landowner and the sharecropper. Normally, the worker and his family were given a place to live on the owner’s land. Most sharecroppers were law abiding, religious people.  Sometimes, because of their social rank, they were forced to endure injustice. This is the story of a young man for whom a massive flood of the Ohio River in the winter of 1937 was providential by playing a crucial role in the righteous demise of an evil man.  


God’s hand came down from heaven

In the flood of thirty-seven

Saved my soul, and washed my sins away


Growing gold leaf on a stretch of land.

Owned by a judge, a cruel, corrupted man

Harvest time, he shorted our pay

Daddy fought for what he could in the righteous way.


He went to the judge’s house

To beg and plea a fair amount

The man then pulled a pistol, held it up

And shot my father down,

The sheriff spared him of any blame

The two men shared the same last name

Another sharecropper who disappears

In a dark and desperate way.


An Ohio winter,  did what I could

To care for my mother by cutting fire wood.

I planned for the spring and prayed for the sun

To keep from starving,  sold my father’s guns.


When the floodwaters rose

With the January snow

The judge came to collect from my mother

What he thought our family owed

He touched my father’s wife

So I grabbed my harvest knife

Then I struck him in his shoulder

And I took his very life.


No one saw us in the dark

As we rode down from the hills

To the raging river

By the drowning whipper wills

I know he killed my father

With my mother  have his way

I pushed him in the water

And watched him float away


We planted gold leaf on the judge’s land that Spring 

And I believe in the truth of these words that you hear me sing.

God’s hand came down from heaven, in the flood of ‘37

Saved my soul and washed all my sins away

River Rat

      Working on the Ohio River can be hard and dangerous. The river can take you before a sound can leave your throat. Those who are not deterred tend to be tough, hard working, independent, and perhaps a bit eccentric. They live to the rhythm of the water, and enjoy the freedom the river brings, while accepting her sometimes harsh terms.


I’m a river rat, live on a barge

Stay away from where I’m still at large.

I’m Kentucky coal that’s Pittsburgh bound

 I’ll be drinkin’ tonight in a steel man’s town


Started riggin’ rope when I was nine

Traded school for a towing line

That’s what cha do when you’re a car thief’s son

My face looks like a country map

Got teeth missin’, but they’re in the back

Gotta guitar, let me play you a song


Loved a woman in my younger days

Tried to change my river ways

So I left her bed for the rollin’ water.


‘Cause I’m a hard-headed, whiskey drinkin’

Poker playin’, simple thinkin’/Slow walkin’, soul shakin’,

Trash talkin’, trouble maker


I’ll be drinkin’ tonight in a steel man’s town

I’ll be drinkin’ tonight, ‘cause I’m a hard-headed, etc.

We’re All Going Home

     Where is happiness? One place is, in the unconditional love for people outside ourselves, and in the love they send back your way. It’s a bright moment when you realize time and love are irreplaceable. Take my hand, we’re all going home.


Oh, my friend

Life’s a journey

Someday will end,

Someday will end.

Always be patient

Always be kind

Let your hatred

Die on the vine.

Take my hand, we’re all going home.

Take my hand, we’re all going home.


 When I was young

I thought just of me

I had no feeling

I couldn’t see.

Then I shared myself

For someone’s sake

Happiness lives now

In the life we make.


Time and love

Cannot replace it.

Learning to live

Cannot be taught.

What I was missing

Was a reason to live

‘Til I stopped taking

And started to give.

Chorus (repeat):

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