We're All Here, Even If We're Not All There

It was different being home this year when we should've been at Bean. The wise call was made to postpone due to pandemic. Fest family came to the rescue with videos, photos, stories, encouraging well wishes and donations. But man, the last nine festivals- they all just go by so darned fast! Sort of like baking the perfect cake and inviting friends over to help you eat it. It’s gone before you know it. We all plan year round to make this festival happen and to attend. Our rag-tag team, consisting of and assembled by our festy creator/promoter John Hotze and co-promoter Tom Burkhart, and the rest of us, labor and parlay, each bringing something unique to the table and pass it around to be sampled, flavored, spiced, cut up or whatever it takes to become a presentable part of our big little party in memory of John Hartford. Then we happily serve the results, laid back, piping hot and fresh, to you, our fest family.
The John Hartford Memorial Festival, "The Most Laid Back Festival in America", is just right. Each year it has gotten a little bigger, but not too big- just right. The weather overall has been perfect! The mood is what each of us had hoped for and preached about, “Laid Back”. The entertainment is feeling it too, in the groove with each performance. Jams evolve and revolve around the clock. Familiar faces greet; many of whom only see each other once a year at this reunion of happy, kindred, music loving folks. Unfamiliar faces become familiar. It is easy to see that everyone checks their politics, religions, attitudes and worries at the gate, exchanged for wristbands that transform each recipient into a testimony of living, breathing, laid back musical vessels. Whether we dance, sing, pick, bow, clap, nod, toe-tap or rock our little ones, “Laid Back” happens for four endless, way too short days and nights! How does it go by so quickly, or is it just me?

Looking back at previous festivals, I see I missed so many acts and activities that I’d hoped to partake in. You can”t be everywhere at once. One previous Songwriter's Challenge Contest finalist, Tom Poley, from Tucson, AZ summed it up by saying, “That’s just Festival time!”

I think about all the tunes I’d hoped to jam on and the folks I’d hoped to jam with. I realize, now, I didn’t jam much at all, but man do I ever soak up the spirit! The early-bird, Wednesday evening Main Stage shows  amplified and mixed just right, sets the mood for the entire event- happiness and excitement coming from the front porch of the “House That Bill Monroe Built”, all in memory of our beloved namesake, John Hartford.
You know, in a blog, one gets to express how they feel in the first person. There aren’t really any rules outside of punctuation and spelling, so I feel right at home saying this. You see, one year, on a Saturday evening, I sat about ten rows back from the dance area at the Hartford Stage, with my soul mate Patti, and friends, watching Bawn in the Mash work their string band magic, and I achieved that apex of calm I’d been looking for, that adjusted head trippy feeling that tingles from your brain and tells all the rest of your body that things are the way nature intended for them to be, you know, Nirvana maybe? Hillbilly Groove? Escape from the pressures of the working world? Heaven??? You get it. If you were there, I hope you felt this too. If you weren’t there, I hope you like the sound of this and make plans now! Anyway, I looked to my left at our dancing fest family, silhouetted against the trees in the soft evening dusk, with the stage lights flickering on them like firelight, and I saw a little deeper. I saw folks who were actually able to forget about cares and worries. I saw folks who were able to breathe the music and the mood into their lungs and let it take them to a special spot, free from burden, living in the moment, and I felt that mood all around me. That energy that emanates from all of us, past and present. Magic. Spirit. Fleeting and obscure, but waiting to be tapped and made manifest.

Definition of festival: “a special time or event when people gather to celebrate something.” A celebration for sure. A deliberate gathering of folks getting away, joining the laid back. A hopeful celebration of the musical influence of the Father of New Grass, John Hartford, happening on ‘The Old Home Place’ of the Father of Blue Grass, Bill Monroe.  Going on 10 years in the making, this festival is the fruition of the vision of John Hotze, the dream of Tom Burkhart, the culmination of every good soul who ventured forth with these two, whether volunteers or attendees. 

Thanks for dropping in. Have a look around and enjoy the music and photos, new and archived blogs and explore our official youtube channel as well as our social media pages. Send us your comments, stories and photos, along with your suggestions.

“Will we make it happen again?” We are one big family now, and you are this family, because it couldn’t happen without You. Please keep checking back as we monitor the world for the time we can safely meet again. We’ll be tickled to death to have you help us celebrate life with music, at the 10th Annual John Hartford Memorial Festival and please, Bring Someone You Love! Until then, one big virtual hug!

Ernie Hill

"Just Over The Ridge" New EP from Lizzy Plotkin and Natalie Spears

Former JHMF Songwriter's Challenge Finalist (2015) and JHMF performer with Free The Honey, Lizzy Plotkin, (right) with fellow JHFM performer (2018) and duet partner, Natalie Spears, (left)

Former JHMF Songwriter's Challenge Finalist (2015) and JHMF performer with Free The Honey, Lizzy Plotkin, (right) with fellow JHFM performer (2018) and duet partner, Natalie Spears, (left)

Tonight, live streamed show at Steve's Guitars at 7:30 PM MST:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wW6EHOexxNw

I first met Lizzy Plotkin at the 5th John Hartford Memorial Festival, 2015 Songwriter’s Showcase. Lizzy placed 2nd with her song “Crooked Child” and performed with Free the Honey. At JHMF8, in 2018, Lizzy and Natalie Spears performed as a duet and introduced us to a fresh and original approach to Americana/Roots music. Now, two and a half years later, both Natalie and Lizzy are as concentrated as ever as musical soul-mates, performing artists and instructors. These two have combined their gifts to release a debut EP, “Just Over the Ridge”. This tastefully mastered recording gives us 6 original songs, beautifully performed. They are joined by Courtney Hartman( Della Mae) on tracks 3 and 6. This album is rich! Their marriage of vocals and strings flows steadily and gently from one tune to the next. Just who are Lizzy Plotkin and Natalie Spears? Click here to read the entire interview.

Lizzy grew up in Nashville, Tennessee, as her mother would say, "Learning music in utero". Her father, Stephen Plotkin, who grew up in Pittsburg, PA moved to Nashville to be a professional musician in 1978, after his time at Berklee College of Music during the advent of the jazz strings program. He quickly landed a job touring with the Stella Parton band and making a go of it in the hay-day of Nashville's Country music scene. Stephen passed on after battling cancer when Lizzy was two. At age four, Lizzy asked to take lessons and her mother enrolled her in a Suzuki class. Lizzy says she has not put the fiddle down since. Lizzy Plotkin’s place-based songwriting and fiddling is as exuberant as is it graceful. With reverence for the natural world and a humble, yet wise human perspective, Lizzy shares with listeners her joy and connection through original story, melody and voice. Read Lizzy’s complete bio at https://lizzyplotkin.com/bio/    

“Born and raised in the heart of Washington DC, Spears took after her father, a Jazz and Classical pianist, and began playing piano at age five. By fifth grade she was schlepping her upright bass on the school bus, playing saxophone in her school band, and taking drum lessons. Music fell by the wayside after high school but in her early 20’s, Spears stumbled upon American Roots music. While playing bass in an Old-Time string band, she became enamored by the driving rhythm of the clawhammer banjo, and since then, has dedicated herself to learning the instrument and its history. Her past projects include the Carbondale based band, Pearl & Wood. The band released their debut EP, Pearl & Wood, back in the summer of 2019. As a multi-instrumentalist, Spears also plays with a variety of bands spanning a range of genres. She has toured throughout the United States and has performed at the John Hartford Memorial Festival (Bean Blossom, IN), Blackpot Festival (Lafayette, LA), and Mountain Fair (Carbondale, CO) to name a few. Spears has also shared the stage with seasoned musicians like Peter Yarrow, Drew Emmitt of Leftover Salmon, Red Molly, Martha Scanlan, The Railsplitters, and many more.” Read more about Natalie at  http://nataliespears.com/welcome

To read the entire article and interview with Lizzy and Natalie, click here.

I give six out of five stars for Lizzy Plotkin and Natalie Spears “Just Over the Ridge”. Folks who know and play string music will appreciate the layers and textures woven into each track, along with smooth and easy vocals and harmonies. While I love each track, and Natalie’s Tennessee is bound to be a chart topper, certainly is in loop in my mind, my old-time heart is fed righteously by Lizzy’s fiddle tune,Through the Window. The bassy fiddle, old time double stops, fresh runs and melody, so masterfully accompanied by Natalie’s melodic and creative clawhammer banjo pay complete tribute to our mountain music, and also give you a great idea of what you’ll hear when you see these ladies live. Folks, this recording is rich!