by Tom Rhea
May 30–June 1, 2013
It often happens in music history that a performer's music written in one era remains popular into another, more recent era. This popularity is particularly appropriate in the case of bluegrass artist John Hartford for whom songwriting was a finely calibrated craft. His most notable hit, "Gentle on my Mind," became such a success (in versions recorded by Glenn Campbell, Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin and others) that besides winning four Grammys, it ushered in an era of financial freedom for Hartford. And what he did with that freedom established the legacy that is still celebrated today.
Bill Monroe is credited with the creation of Bluegrass music, but his generation of musicians came of age in the Grand Ole Opry of the Forties and Fifties. By the early Sixties, they were nearly swept into oblivion by rock and roll and a slicker, more commercial country style. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album "Will the Circle be Unbroken," released in 1972, bridged the generations by featuring the likes of Roy Acuff, Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, and Vassar Clements. It brought the classic Bluegrass style to the attention of millions of listeners, and more importantly, influenced a generation of performers.
John Hartford pushed at the boundaries of classic Bluegrass forms and instrumentation during decades of creative experimentation. From the music recorded on almost 30 albums, he is known today as the father of the "New Grass" movement. The vitality and longevity of his musical legacy is proven by the fact that he won Grammys in three different decades, the latest in 2001 for his work on the wildly acclaimed soundtrack album for the Cohen brothers' movie, "O Brother Where Art Thou." Along with innovation, Hartford maintained an archivist's respect for the history of his chosen musical genres. He contributed to the soundtrack and the narration of Ken Burns' "Civil War" series, and he even wrote a biography on fiddler Ed Haley.
John Hartford's music and spirit will be celebrated once again over Memorial Day weekend at the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Park in Bean Blossom, for the 3rd Annual John Hartford Memorial Festival. The festival will welcome over forty musical acts including headliners such as Great American Taxi, Larry Keel & Natural Bridge, the Rumpke Mountain Boys, Town Mountain, Mike Compton and the Hillbenders. (YouTube video of many of them can be viewed on the festival website.) In addition, festivalgoers can compete in the Song Writing and the Old Time Fiddle Contests. Acts will be divided among three concert stages over the weekend. Discounted tickets may be purchased until May 15.
One of the main organizers of the festival has been John Hotze. Hotze met Hartford while still in high school when they both were attending a Flatt and Scruggs concert in Nashville. Upon striking up a conversation, the pair realized that each lived within a few miles of the other in St. Louis, Missouri. As a beginning rhythm guitarist, Hotze played dates around the area with Hartford in a trio they formed that lasted until his high school graduation. They met infrequently after he entered college, joined the Navy, started a family, and began his career in electronics, computers, and the aerospace industry.
Fame took Hartford away to Nashville and LA, but his singular bond with the Mississippi River led him to pursue a pilot's license to navigate on the river. Hotze met him one evening as he brought the Julia Belle Swain steamboat into port. Hartford won his third Grammy in 1976 for an album of songs about the river, "Mark Twang."
In the aftermath of Hartford's death in 2001, Hotze began a memorial website for his friend and years later thought of an appropriate way to honor his memory. He suggested to some friends that they float a canoe up the Cumberland River past John's last home in Madison, Tennessee, and then have a picking party at the campout. The idea caught on and grew into an event after another friend, "Nash" Phil Harris, arranged for three or four fairly well known bands to play to an audience of 50 to 100 people. When Dan Dilman came on board in 2010, he pitched the idea as a festival event to his Dad, who happens to own the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Park. The idea of the festival was well suited to the history of music in the area. The first John Hartford Memorial Festival opened on June 1, 2011, the ten-year anniversary of John's death.
Much more information is available on the Festival website at <www.johnhartfordmemfest.com>, including a breakdown of ticket prices, a full roster of artists and events, and a guide to camping in the area. For information about the Bill Monroe Memorial music Park and camp site availability go to <www.beanblossom.us> or call the park office at 800-414-4677.