By Ernie Hill
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 Annual John Hartford Memorial Festival. My heart sank a little when I realized it was around a 1,000 miles away from our home in rural NW Arkansas. 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 Mankin, at another event. Jeff convinced me to come check 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 County, 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 New Grass, inspired by the music of John Hartford. His spirit is everywhere here. Spirit?
I’m a big rough country man, with a creative streak, a musician, a writer, but, I have a very sensitive side. I pick up on energy. I’m telling you, when I walk in certain areas, I feel the energy of those who have tread the ground before me. This park is loaded with that type of energy; Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Carter Stanley and of course, John Hartford. I have to pause with my steps and be silent and feel and smile. Weird? Heck yes! I don’t deny it, I soak it up and move on.
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 and 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 its 48th year. The park hosts numerous events throughout the year. Coming up in a few weeks it will be the John Hartford Memorial Festival.
Our first year attending the festival, I did a little emcee work, but mostly was a tourist. Each stage had its 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. 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 her son, Liam, looks like his grandfather. She and husband Eric 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, and 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.
Katie Harford and her family with festival promoter John Hotze
The music was varied, cross-genre, everything from Bluegrass, Songwriter, Old Time String band, 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 3 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 endorphins. I was on an 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 50, 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 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 acts, up and comers and it gives regional and local artists an opportunity to be heard. Man, that region has way more than its 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 ten thousand miles, we’ll be back!
Ernie and Patti Hill