Jamie Hartford & Friends (Jamie in flowered shirt) David Ferguson – bass, Mark Howard – mandolin, Larry Perkins – banjo, Pat McLaughin – guitar. photo by Jimmy Riddle
2nd John Hartford
by Mark Blackwell
They’re a-havin’ another John Hartford Memorial Festival over at the Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park in Bean Blossom, Indiana from May 31 through June 2. I’m glad somebody came up with the idea because it’s a fittin’ place to celebrate his life and music. Back 40 years ago, the 1971 Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival was the best one they ever had. I know because John and his band (Tut Taylor on Dobro, Randy Scruggs on bass, Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, and Vassar Clements on fiddle) were there—and I wasn’t.
For those who may not know or remember, John Hartford was a Grammy Award-winning, multi-instrumentalist, idiosyncratic, old-timey, Bluegrass, songwriting, steamboat pilot. Some most recent accomplishments included the score for the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? and performances in the “Down from the Mountain” concert tour. He also narrated and provided music for Ken Burns’s Civil War documentary series.
John started out playing banjo and fiddle in Bluegrass groups in Missouri when he was still in high school. After attending Washington University in Saint Louis he moved to Nashville, Tennessee to break into the music business. He DJ-ed, played session jobs, and wrote songs in his spare time. After achieving some success with an album called “Earthwords and Music,” which featured his song “Gentle on My Mind,” John moved to Los Angeles.
He was on television in the late 1960s with the Smothers Brother’s Comedy Hour and the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. Campbell had a certified hit with “Gentle on My Mind” and a gazillion other folks recorded versions of it. While still on the west coast Hartford played on the Byrd’s album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.” He was even offered his own television show. But, with the royalties from “Gentle on My Mind” coming in, John felt free to leave Hollywood.
He left to get his steamboat pilots license and chart his own course on the Mississippi, Illinois, Ohio, and Cumberland rivers and through music and life in general. Just as it was important for John to get out of Hollywood, it was important for him to explore his own forms of music. In 1971, he recorded an album with the band he brought to Bean Blossom, entitled “Aereo-Plain.” Sam Bush said, “Without ‘Aereo-Plain’ there would be no ‘Newgrass’ music.” It was the catalyst for a lot of young acoustic musicians to explore and stretch the boundaries of traditional music and to breathe new life into Bluegrass.
Hartford continued his experiments in music with people like Doug and Rodney Dillard, Sam Bush, Marty Stuart, and Jerry Douglas. John later developed a solo act in which he sang, switched off on banjo and fiddle, and kept time by clogging and shuffling his feet on a piece of amplified plywood. Sometimes, he would just walk off stage while he was fiddling and stroll through the audience. It was a fine performance—I was lucky enough to see him a few times in different venues.
In the 1990s Hartford changed things up again, touring with his son Jamie and putting together the “Hartford String Band” with Bob Carlin, Mike Compton, Larry Perkins, Chris Sharp, and Mark Schatz. With this band he recorded an album entitled “Good Old Boys” which features a moving, ten-and-a-half-minute ode to Bill Monroe called “The Cross-eyed Child.” It was also about this time that he recorded his album “Retrograss” with Mike Seeger and David Grisman. In all, John recorded more than thirty albums, wrote hundreds of songs, and left a legacy of smiles wherever he performed.
John Hartford was diagnosed with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in the late 1980s but he continued to work on his songwriting and performances. Even as his condition worsened he recorded several albums of fiddle music and contributed to the O Brother and Civil War films. John passed away eleven years ago on June 4, 2001. He was 63 years old.
So, 41years after John Hartford first performed at Bean Blossom, it is fitting to honor his achievements in music and life with a festival. And the lineup is truly honorable: Danny Barnes co-founder of the Bad Livers, John’s son Jamie Hartford, Mike Compton, master mandolinist and legendary fiddle player Darell Anger, along with other national, regional, and local acts. About 50 bands will be performing on three stages: the main stage, the Hippy Hill stage, and the Boogie stage. There will be several bands from Brown County and the Indianapolis area. It will be a three day celebration of traditional Bluegrass, Newgrass, Jamgrass, Country, and plain old American Folk music.
The tickets for all three days are only $60 (not including camping) if you get ’em early. If you can’t make for the whole shebang, the tickets are $25 for single day tickets. If you wait to get your tickets at the gate they run $90 for the three days or $35 for single day admission. This all takes place at the Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park so there’s plenty of great music, good camping, hot showers, and flush toilets.
Tickets can be purchased on the festival website
<www.johnhartfordmemfest.com> or by calling
(314) 315-3670. For information about the Bill Monroe Memorial music Park and campsite availability go to <www.beanblossom.us> or call the park office at