Applications are now open for the John Hartford Songwriter's Challenge.
Click here to read the 2020 rules and to fill out an application. You'll also find information about our guidelines and prizes.
WE HAVE 16 ENTRY SPOTS LEFT as of 2/22/2020
The John Hartford Memorial Festival expresses our deepest gratitude to each songwriter who has entered our songwriting contests. Your craft is special to us and your music is enriching and enlightening. John Hartford would be honored to know how his music has inspired you and us. After 7 years of contests, we now have 70 John Hartford inspired songs on our playlist and archives, so please give 'em all a listen and read our past winner's profiles.
Congratulations to our 2019 John Hartford Songwriter's Challenge 1st Place Winner, Barker Thompson, from St. Louis, MO with his song Banjo Clown! Barker won $200 and two full fest passes (camping not included) and performed in our Songwriter's Challenge on the Hartford Stage, the House that Bill Monroe built. Scroll on down to read an interview with our 2019 champ, Barker Thompson.
Following is the best of the rest!
2nd- Derek Kretzer, Bluemont VA- Man In A Hat
3rd- Jim Boose, LeCompton KS- If I Could Sing Like John Hartford
4th- Eric Davis, Middletown, IL- Predawn Glow
5th- Robert Thatcher, Signal Mt. TN, and Tom Brown, Dalton GA- The Day the Julia Belle Came to Town
6th- Mace Hathaway, McClelland IA- If I Had My Way
7th- Beth Nelson- Olathe KS- Steamboat Blow That Whistle High
8th- Scott Randle- St. Louis MO- Oh How The River Has Changed
9th- Miriam Allen- Asheville NC- I Would Not Be Here Blues
10th- James Lee Tarbet- Imperial MO- Lost Heroes
2019 Top Ten Playlist
Meet Barker Thompson, our 2019 Songwriter's Challenge Winner
Barker, tell me about yourself
Well I grew up in Jackson, Missouri. Moved to St. Louis when I was about 20. Spent a lot of time traveling around when I was younger, and had quite a few different jobs, but have always been interested in music. So, in '99 I went back to school, originally to learn how to be recording engineer, but found out too late, there were almost no jobs as a "recording engineer" unless I wanted to move. And even then there were no real offers. So, I've been a live sound guy ever since then. I'm 46 now and live with my incredibly cute and sunny wife, who keeps me sane, and my super athlete step-son. I work on my music most days, playing into my meager little set up on my old computer.
How long have you been performing? I've been playing solo for 20 years or more, but don't much anymore. Have played in bands mostly, for around the last 15 years. In one now called The Turtle Dogs.
Do you come from a musical family? Yeah, my granny was a music teacher, and she sang, and played some awesome piano and organ in church while my grandpa, who had a great baritone voice, sang as a regular in their choir. My mom also had a very powerful singing voice, and studied music in college.
Do you have other contest awards? Not as an adult. I'm sure I won some sports trophies when I was a kid, for tee-ball or something, but nothing like this. It's an amazing feeling!
What is your opinion about our contest, that we require a songwriter to use the components we list? There has to be some unique rules, or everyone would enter.
How has the music of John Hartford inspired you? Well I guess you could say I was part of that 90s bluegrass revival, and even though I never really learned to solo in those kind of circles, in the mid-late 90s I lived in a couple different houses where people were always coming by to play. While I had already been listening to Aereo-Plain, one of our roommates at the time had almost everything John Hartford had ever done. He’d collected all the studio stuff, and a lot of live recordings that I haven't seen or heard since. Opened my ears to a world of beautiful yet down-to-earth picking and fiddling, funny lyrics (not on every song, the others are just well written and heartfelt) and great melodies.
I was also lucky enough to see a few of his live shows. A group of us that all piled in the car and went out to Central Missouri State to see one of his shows got to meet him backstage, too. Later we got to pick some tunes with Sharp and Mike Compton at the hotel. I didn't last long with those guys..lol. But that was a fun trip! I still listen to his music all the time, and we cover a couple songs in the band.
Did you begin playing by ear? When I was 6 or 7 my mom sent me to piano lessons, and I tried my best, but I just couldn't learn how to read the music. Then when I was about 11, I really wanted to learn how to shred on electric guitar. I never did. Lessons taught me a couple chords, but no shredding (lol), and no reading music. Got bored with that pretty quick as an 11 year old, so I put it down and didn't pick it up again until I was 18-19. Taught myself since then. So each time, yeah I was just playing by ear. I can't play any other way…unless you give me a lyric sheet with the chords on it ;)
How do you approach songwriting? Usually I have the chord progression first, and then I'll write lyrics to go with it. Sometimes the words come first, and then I'll come up with a set of chords or melody to fit….Sometimes it takes months and even years to get to what I consider to be "done" though.
It’s perfectly normal for a songwriter to have tunes and lyrics “drift through”. Can you remember ever not having a melody drift through your head? No. There's always a tune on my mind, whether it's just in the beginning stages, or just needs a little something else.
What do you do when you’ve finished a song, play it back and realize the tune already exists? Yeah sometimes. But that's just a feeling that can easily fade when you add parts, or instruments, change the rhythm a bit, or just play it a few more times and see what comes..
With “Banjo Clown” tell me how that song happened, please. Well, I've been working on it for some time now, and finally felt it was good enough to enter it in the contest. I could probably work on it for another couple years too, but that's probably just me overthinking.
What goes through your mind right before you step onto a stage? Fear, nervousness and excitement. I have A LOT of fun playing music, but I also worry that I'll forget my own lyrics or miss chords. But nobody usually notices that stuff except me or the guys in the band.
Do you attend or teach workshops? What do you get from them? No. I would like to go to some in the future. I'm a terrible teacher though.
What instruments do you play, which is your favorite? Mostly guitar, harmonica, and ukulele. I play a little blues on piano, or try to. I CAN play a very little bit of clumsy banjo, mandolin, dulcimer, trombone, drums, and an instrument I made that I don't know what to call. It's a real ugly 4-string slide resonator, made mostly of stuff from the hardware store.
It's hard to say one favorite. It's probably a 3 way tie between my wife's grandpa's old original Danelectro (that won't ever stay in tune, but sounds awesome plugged into a small amp), an old banjolele (I have no idea who built, but is beautiful and loud), and my go-to acoustic guitar, a Washburn with a built in Fishman pickup.
What can we expect to hear at a Barker Thompson concert? I'm not playing solo at the moment, only with The Turtle Dogs. But I do have some solo recordings coming out soon, so maybe I'll be doing some solo shows too. In that case you'll hear me doing a lot of blues, bluegrass & folk originals and some people I like to cover are John Hartford(obviously), Townes Van Zandt, Lightnin' Hopkins, Mississippi John Hurt, Paul Simon, Taj Mahal, Son Volt, John Prine and random others that come and go from the list.
I do love harmonies, and have been playing around with multi-tracking at home. A friend suggested that maybe the next step in my evolution should be a loop machine. I don't know. It's not real natural sounding usually, but I've heard people do them justice. Could be fun. At the moment, I've never tried one.
Do you have recordings? Yes. I'm getting ready to start releasing singles within the next month or two, which (most of) will be on my eventual album/cd. Now if I can just figure out how to navigate social media, marketing, copyright and distribution all on my own, I'll be all set…lol