“Just When You Think It Can’t Get Any Better Then It Does” John Hartford in “Joseph’s Dream” from Nobody Knows What You Do.
The John Hartford Memorial Festival Planning Committee; We are a rag tag group of like-minded people from all walks of life, who each have something unique to bring to the table. I won’t go into much detail about everyone, for privacy’s sake, but I will tell you a little about how I got here and why I’m tickled to death to be here. I have been a freight delivery guy for about 25 years. I have to have a way to support my music habit and still have health care and a roof over our heads. My wife, partner and soul mate of 29 years, Patti, shares my love of music. Yes, I pick and still perform some; guitar and fiddle, and I write songs. I don’t try too hard though. Long ago I lost my starry eyes thanks to exposure and reality, and allergies that messed with my voice to the extent that an emergency room M.D told me I had Multiple Sclerosis. I’d just won a major songwriting contest at the Walnut Valley Festival in Winfield KS, back in the days when it was a real contest and not a showcase as it is now. The late Dick Renko, the manager of Trout Fishing in America, the man who also got them nominated twice for Grammy Awards, called me to set up a deal. By then I couldn’t even get a “heck yeh!” out of my throat. Tests cleared me of MS, so I went through several steps with the medical world, including a relaxation-anti-anxiety clinical psychologist who was really helping but at $120 an hour and me with no insurance, well, go figure. I got into Chi breathing which seemed to help, and at times, I had a voice so I continued to gig. It was while I was playing at an herb festival that this lady approached me and said, “You’re having trouble exhaling, what’s your problem?” I said, “As far as I know, I’m dying.” She gave me a bottle of Red Root and Osha Root extract in a 75% alcohol base and bingo, I had my life back. I had allergies. Now, a little over the counter Loratadine and I’m good, and thirty years older. During that time of musical self-doubt, I wrote songs, stories, articles, and took in as much music as I could and I listened to myself. Playback is a mother. I can hold my own in most jams and I can still do three sets in a smoky bar, but I have also come to the reality that to “make it” in music, the deck is pretty well stacked. So many variables exist that have to fall in place, then there’s the gatekeepers. The folks who are so ready to sign one to a contract and bind one up for years, to keep the market from being overcrowded. Times have changed, though, to the lay-musician’s favor, thanks to the Internet. Anyone can now be a star thanks to YouTube, Facebook, Reverb Nation, Band Camp, the list is long. So now you know who I am, a trucker/author/freelance-writer/contest organizer/singer-songwriter/devoted husband and father, cat and dog lover, festival volunteer and Planning Committee member for the John Hartford Memorial Festival which is happily going into it’s 5th year!
As festival workers, Patti and I have attended the Walnut Valley Festival, Winfield KS, for over thirty years. I’ve been a staff writer in media for them for around 23 or so years. We also organize and run a songwriting contest and four instrument contests for the Yonder Mountain String Band’s Harvest Festival, here in Arkansaw, which is where I met Jeff Mankins of the Steam Powered Preservation Society, who led me to John Hotze and our association as dedicated volunteers for the John Hartford Memorial Festival, which is why you are visiting this site. Patti and I organize the Songwriting and Old Time Fiddle contests which I host. I also coordinate the emcees, write and help edit content for this website, write most of what this festival publishes as press and media, and make a pest of myself with constant nagging and input. I love this festival. I love the groove, the laid back feeling, the mission, the folks involved, the folks who attend, the space, the music. I love it all, so does Patti. Never mind the 800 mile trip and the fact that the addition of this festival, the 3rd that we volunteer for, has maxed out my vacation time and we spend quite a bit to get to Bean Blossom. I’m really lucky that Patti and I share so much love for many of the same things. I’m really lucky that I have the gift of blab and can put it down as text. If not for this gift, I would still be writing on truck stop restroom walls.
Why volunteer? Why not just buy a ticket and kick back? Well, how many affluent freelance writers do you know? One? That’s what I thought. Love will find a way. After attending the Walnut Valley Festival a few times, I knew it was an event I would attend year after year, albeit an expensive one where we spend no less than 13 days, more on that later. I was listening to a local NPR DJ do his Saturday night two hour acoustic Roots music show and he mentioned Walnut Valley. I realized he did this every show and played music from artists who had been featured there. I set up an interview and submitted it to the festival which publishes two magazines a year and a magazine format festival program. The festival published the article for the winter magazine, hired the DJ as an emcee and the following September, Patti, ( who is my editor, too!) and I, received two press passes in the mail. A light went off. I offered up services and became a staff writer for the Walnut Valley Association, a stepping stone leading to my life being involved with festivals. I still pick up trash and encourage everyone to do the same.
Why am I going here with you all? I want you to appreciate the goals of the John Hartford Memorial Festival. You see, the Walnut Valley Festival hosts around 17,000 people on six hundred acres of fairground and park. I’ve seen as many as 20,000.
It usually doesn’t feel crowded in the campgrounds, but at times it is really crowded. We arrive 13 days early for the legendary “Land Rush”. You get in line, get a number and two days later you proceed in orderly fashion to your coveted spot (hopefully), then run like hell to get a hookup. Once you’re set up, you chill and it all comes together, but it is stressful. Yonder Mountain Stringband’s Harvest Festival, a third the size of Wakarusa, same venue, same owners, is not quite as crowded but sometimes it feels like it, and it’s a really loud festival with stages bleeding over each other. Great line-up, year after year and the folks who own this festival really know how to throw a party, but it’s so big that it can feel impersonal. Bonaroo. Man-a hundred thousand people and a lot of marijuana. So many bands that one can’t possibly catch every act one would like to see. You camp where you park so you can’t build a festy family. That’s the trouble with mega festivals and 50 plus band line-ups. Not to discourage one from attending these great big events at all. Do you see any wiggle room? If you like up close and personal, there’s the John Hartford Memorial Festival. The first year was sparsely attended and our founder, John Hotze, even though losing his own money, stayed determined to carry on. That’s where we all come in. Mr. Hotze is a visionary, a successful entrepreneur from St. Louis, a musician, an avid music lover and supporter and lifelong friend of the late John Hartford.
Patti and I began to write and dabble in media for this festival between the first and second years. Year two was better attended but also fell short of breaking into the black but it was encouraging with the planning team growing and ideas coming in. Year two caught the attention of Louisville business man, Tom Burkhart, a master wood worker, a people person with natural people managing skills, able to see a situation and make snap decisions, also a John Hartford fan, a great supporter of music and like John Hotze, laid back. Tom realized the importance that John Hartford’s music has on so many musicians today, so much that he literally bought into the festival and now is half owner. Year three, we saw the light through the fog and year four put the festival just over the hump, not in a profit way though, you see, John Hotze never wanted this to be a money driven venture. His vision, now shared with Tom Burkhart, and our volunteer planning committee, is for this event to be sustaining and to remain relaxed, laid back, keeping the ideal alive that was and is John Hartford, through music and educating the public about the life and legacy and importance of the late rebel trend setter. Sure, John Hotze would love to recoup his losses and retire. John is 74 years young, rugged, a cancer survivor, with a true zest for life. John said he wanted to create a party atmosphere and showcase some of the legendary musicians who played with John Hartford, like John’s son Jamie, Larry Perkins, Mike Compton and this year, The New Riders of The Purple Sage. He also wants to provide up and comers a stage, regional acts a stage, old farts like me an opportunity to showcase a song. (Each year I kick off the Songwriter’s Showcase with a song written by Patti and me, “Tribute to John Hartford” and this will be the second year for kicking off the festival on Thursday morning with a solo fiddle medley of Star Spangled Banner and Wolves a Howlin)
A festival like this, well, it would be nice to keep it a little known secret, but that bird has done flown. It would be nice to create a large, like-minded family of festy folk. Well, that is possible. It’s what we’re aiming for and we’re almost there. You see, we realized that word of mouth is our best friend. We could’ve spent a bunch on advertising or hiring a professional media company. We’re trying to spend as little as possible and still provide the best for our people. We’ve talked about an advance ticket sales cap of 2500 to guarantee wiggle room and we’re going to see what it takes to feel cramped without getting there. Know what I mean? See what I’m saying? We are not going to let the festival get too big. This is where you come in. Think of the ideal family reunion, or the ideal party, where the groove is right, a kindred spirit takes over and “laid back” happens. A place where smiles abound, kids and dogs play, where folks say “You’re welcome” instead of “no problem”. You can make this happen. Invite your friends. If all of our veteran attendees bring one extra person with them, then we’ll be real close to reaching our goal and we’ll know about how much growth we can take. Patti and I really feel like family with this cool bunch of folks. We’ve made so many new and lasting friends. The John Hartford Memorial Festival Family would like to add you to our family tree. “Just When You Think It Can’t Get Any Better Then It Does”.