I have long been a fan of John Hartford so one can only imagine my excitement when I saw a Facebook Post, four years ago, advertising the 1st John Hartford Memorial Festival. My heart sank a little when I realized it was around a 1000 miles away from our home in rural NW Arkansaw. There was no way we could pull it off the first year. By chance, I met John Hotze, the festival’s creator and his friend, Jeff Mankins, at another event. Jeff convinced me to come ck it out. So I got involved as a writer for the festival, and my wife/editor Patti and I packed up and headed out to JHMF 2, returned for JHMF 3, and will soon be setting up for JHMF 4. We aren’t going to miss out on this event. You see, we attend several music festivals around the country throughout the year. Each a little different from the others. Some way too big, some way too loud and crowded, but there’s always a band or artist we want to experience live, so off we go.The John Hartford Memorial festival, held at the Bill Monroe Music Park, in the rolling hills of Beautiful Brown Co., IN, is just right. Laid back, easy feeling, welcoming. A “never met a stranger” kind of groove. Old Hippies, young Hippies, Bluegrass purists, touch of Country, touches of Jam Band, all Newgrass, inspired by the music of John Hartford. His spirit is everywhere here. Spirit?
The late, legendary Bill Monroe built this park at Bean Blossom. When you drive in, just past the Bluegrass Museum, (hey, if you buy a festival ticket, you can tour this place free! See Dolly Parton’s dresses!) you’ll see old trucks, street signs named after bluegrass folk, and as you roll up the first hill, just east of vendor row where the showers, food and crafts are set up, you’ll see the House that Bill Monroe built, the Main Stage. This is home to the longest running music festival in our nation, the Bill Monroe Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, going on it’s 48th year! The park hosts numerous events throughout the year. Coming up in a few weeks, the John Hartford Memorial Festival.
Our first year, I did a little emcee work, but mostly was a tourist. Each stage had it’s own personality with the great bands who performed there. I made friends easily. Most of the musicians camp so when they aren’t performing they’re out and about listening appreciatively, and jamming. The feeling I got was spiritual, really. About a thousand folks attended so it wasn’t real crowded. At the pavilion, which faces the main stage, I was introduced to John Hartford’s daughter, Katie, and her family. Katie has her father’s eyes and son, Liam, looks like his grandfather. She and husband, Eric Hogue, run www.johnhartford.com. They set up a store at the park pavilion, and offer access to all sorts of John Hartford paraphernalia, such as vinyl albums, cds, T-shirts, stickers, and they’re more than happy to talk and visit. This experience was just a tip of the iceberg for the good feeling we enjoyed throughout the festival. The music was varied, cross-genre, everything from Bluegrass, Songwriter, Old Time Stringband to Jam band. Saturday night featured an all star jam on the Main Stage including Jamie Hartford. Jamie is John’s son. He’s a great songwriter and musician, and a really nice guy. With two festivals behind me and a third on the way, I’m pretty amazed at how a handful of folks are able to put on such a feel good event, and attract so many kindred souls. I’m now part of the “team”, taking on many of the writing duties and organizing the Songwriting and Fiddle Contest. I’ve learned a lot in a short time. Mostly, that when a love for something becomes a vision, and there’s drive behind that vision, it becomes manifest. That’s what has happened with John Hotze’s vision for his late friend, John Hartford. This “laid back” feeling is what is in the air at this festival and it’s what I leave with: a good, laid back feeling, ready to take on the world again.
My wife, Patti, and I, upon meeting John Hotze, were challenged by him to write a song for the festival. I write lyrics and melodies and Patti makes them work with a word here and there, or a word less. John liked the song, which we call the festival theme song, “Tribute to John Hartford” so, I got to perform it at JHMF III to kick off the songwriting contest. I got to stand on the front porch of the house that Bill Monroe built and feel the energy. Awesome! This event also opened the door to meet even more wonderful folks who attend the festival.
They say that smiling releases endorphines. I was on endorphin overload from three days of 24/7 smiling! Having attended as a touristic music lover, I can’t recommend the John Hartford Memorial Festival enough. This country is experiencing a barrage of jam band festivals with line-ups reaching way up there above fifty, usually the same bands appear and travel the circuit and these shows are pretty much alike. This festival is different. You can feel that it’s not about money at all. It’s about preserving the legacy and showcasing the results of the influence that the music and spirit of John Hartford has had on a whole bunch of music folks. The John Hartford Memorial Festival offers some headliners, some national touring, up and comers and it gives regional and local artists an opportunity to be heard. Man, that region has way more than it’s fair share of talent. Texas should be jealous!
As a festival worker, my attitude is the same. Laid back, appreciative, genteel spirited and fun! A thousand miles or not, we’ll be back!