Review By Ashley Feller
The fifth annual John Hartford memorial festival was held at The Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park in Bean Blossom, Indiana. The official kick off was Thursday at noon with an opening ceremony on the Hartford stage. The festival is the creation of John Hotze who was a personal friend of the legendary songwriter John Hartford. John Hartford was one of the most renowned songwriters of all time and is loved by millions. John Hartford is famous for the Glen Campbell’s hit “Gentle on My Mind” which has since been recorded countless times by other artists through the years. As a large influence on the New Grass music movement many musicians admire him with great respect and continue to play his songs. Before his death of Lymphoma in 2001 Hartford had recorded more than 30 albums ranging in a variety of styles. The festival does an excellent job of casting bands that continue Hartford’s legacy.
JHMF takes place at the famous Bill Monroe Memorial Music Park. This park is famous for the Father of Bluegrass’ own two day festival which began in 1967. The JHMF features three stages. The main stage which is The Hartford Stage, The Hippie Hill Stage, and The Boogie Tent. Each stage allows plenty of room for dancers to boogie and there is also a seating area for everyone to bring their chairs. No chair? no problem, there are also hay bales in front of The Hippie Hill and The Boogie tent. The park is visually stunning. Rolling hills with soft green grass and tall shade trees provide for beautiful midwestern scenery.
The festival grounds span 55 acres with lush green grass and flower beds. The campground includes primitive camping as well as RV sites with electric hookups. With the the hilly terrain it was a pleasant surprise to learn that the festival offers a free shuttle to take campers anywhere they would like to go in the park! There is also a nice array of vendors which include homemade crafts, Italian food, Mexican, BBQ, fresh wraps, old fashioned candy and even ice cream!
One of the best things about this festival is how kid friendly it is. The festival’s Kid’s Lot aka The Cuckoo’s Nest. Kids lot is a fun place for the kids to do hands on activities such as making luminaries, hat pins, and cardboard cylinder owls. There’s also frisbees, and bubbles to play with! They also offer excellent face painting. It was so much fun to see the kid’s light up with excitement as faces were decorated. The Cuckoo’s Nest staff and volunteers are some of the friendliest folks around and you’re guaranteed to come out smiling if you pay them a visit.
Some musical highlights for the weekend include Wisconsin’s own Horseshoes and Hand Grenades. Their three part harmonies are unbeatable and their hot licks are absolutely stellar. They have the ability to genuinely connect with their audience between their high energy and song writing. This band delivers New Grass to a higher level and it will be exciting to see where these boys go in the future. Another was the famous New Riders of the Purple Sage which played all their hits including Peter Rowan’s Panama Red. Another favorite was Hot Rize featuring Red Knuckles and the Trail Blazers. Hot Rize was one of the first Newgrass Bands to hit the scene in the early 1980s. While performing live Hot Rize transforms into their alter ego band Red Knuckles and The Trail Blazers which has a more western swing sound.
Veteran festival attendees don’t go to festivals solely for the stage performances. They all know some of the best jam sessions take place in the campground. Its an opportunity for musicians to step outside the box and jam freely with others from different bands. The amount of campground talent is unbelievable. Since the musicians are not under the pressure of performing its their outlet to let loose and play in a more liberated environment.
This year was the first year to include music on Sunday. First off was The Misty Mountain String Band from Kentucky. The band played an array of old-time tunes as well as paying homage to John Hartford with a smooth rendition of Gentle On My Mind. Closing the festival was The Flea Market Hustlers from the Nashville Tennessee area. This band’s unique style of jam grass is sure to make you wanna dance! The band played an eclectic set of songs not typically heard in traditional bluegrass. Some included songs penned by Tupac Shakur, and Metallica. Midway through the set they invited up members of Wisconsin’s Sloppy Joe to join the jam. It was without a doubt the best way to end the weekend.
John Hartford Memorial Festival has earned the title “Most Laid Back Festival in America” because it truly is. It is a wonderful environment for families and music fans young and old. The festival staff are absolutely wonderful and believe in preserving the legacy of John Hartford. The festival is a positive celebration of expression and remembrance. Don’t forget to add this wonderful event to your festival itinerary next year, you’ll be tickled to death to be there.