The Songwriter's Challenge

The John Hartford Memorial Festival expresses our deepest gratitude to each songwriter who has entered our songwriting contests. Your craft is special to us and your music is enriching and enlightening. John Hartford would be honored to know how his music has inspired you and us. After 7 years of contests, we now have 70 John Hartford inspired songs on our playlist and archives, so please give 'em all a listen and read our past winner's profiles.

Congratulations to our 2019 John Hartford Songwriter's Challenge 1st Place Winner, Barker Thompson, from St. Louis, MO with his song Banjo Clown!

Barker wins $200 and two full fest passes (camping not included) and along with our top five winners will perform in our Songwriter's Challenge on the Hartford Stage, the House that Bill Monroe built! Our top 10 will be added to our digital playlist showcase on May 25th, 2019 along with an interview with our 2019 champ, Sam Thompson!

Following is the best of the rest! 

2nd- Derek Kretzer, Bluemont VA- Man In A Hat

3rd- Jim Boose, LeCompton KS- If I Could Sing Like John Hartford

4th- Eric Davis,  Middletown, IL- Predawn Glow 

5th- Robert Thatcher, Signal Mt. TN, and Tom Brown, Dalton GA- The Day the Julia Belle Came to Town

6th- Mace Hathaway, McClelland  IA- If I Had My Way

7th- Beth Nelson- Olathe KS- Steamboat Blow That Whistle High

8th- Scott Randle- St. Louis MO- Oh How The River Has Changed

9th- Miriam Allen- Asheville NC- I Would Not Be Here Blues

10th- James Lee Tarbet- Imperial MO- Lost Heroes                                                                                                                                                                    

Our 2018 top ten represented 8 different states and Canada!  The following top five listed songwriters appeared in our 2018 Songwriter's Showcase on the Hartford Stage, The House That Bill Monroe Built! 

Songwriter's Challenge Winners and Top Ten Playlist Archive
2017  2016  2015  2014  2013

2018 John Hartford Songwriter's Challenge Top 10 Winners and Playlist

Meet Will Kimble, JHMF8 Songwriter's Challenge Winner!

2018 John Hartford Songwriter's Challenge Winner Will Kimble
photo by Kevin Fishel

2018 John Hartford Songwriter's Challenge Winner Will Kimble photo by Kevin Fishel

Will and his band, Song Challenge Showcase on the Hartford Stage!

Will, tell me about yourself, what you’d like the readers to know.

I am two years away from the big five-oh with a beautiful wife of 20 years and two amazing children - a 13 year-old French horn / trumpet player and a 10 year old soccer stud.  I have been building mandolins full time for 15 years and also rebuild flathead Ford transmissions two days a week.  I like to pick on the guitar and mandolin.  

How long have you been performing?

I have been playing music most of my life, although I didn’t start until my late teens. So 30 years off & on.  I have been singing about 10 years and wrote my first (singing) songs about 5 years ago.  Never thought it would happen, but I embraced it when it came along.  

Do you come from a musical family? 

My parents both loved music and my dad would play guitar and sing most every night.  He also could make anything, and he built all kinds of guitars and mandolins while I was growing up.  Eventually he helped me build my first mandolin and continued to help me build mandolins until he passed away a few years ago. Mom is still doing great and loves music!

Do you have other contest awards?

I generally don’t enter contests, but there is something special to me about the John Hartford Memorial Festival Songwriting Contest - I guess because I love John’s music so much.  I did place 5th back in 2014 with a song called “Sternwheeler Blues”.  And I have enjoyed watching my buddies Scott Carnder & Jeremy Francis win.  I guess I have played in a couple mandolin contests over the years.  Also won the district high jump as a senior back in 1987, think I jumped 6’ 7”…

How do you feel when you don’t win a contest?

Well the most important thing is I don’t write these songs for the contest - I write them for me.  I think about John Hartford and his music a lot, so sometimes these kinds of songs pop out and I cherish them.  I win every time I get to sing them. A song is so amazing the way it touches people and has a life of its own- kinda like a mandolin. Of course, it is easy to get caught up in the process, distracted with thoughts of “my song is better than that song” or whatever.  But it is all a judgment call, something that is impossible to quantify.  So why get wound up one way or the other?  I am just glad to have another song in my repertoire.  

What would you tell other contestants who do not win? 

It is powerful to set and achieve goals, and I think entering a song in a contest is a fantastic achievement.  You have a new song in your repertoire and you are moving forward with your craft.  There is no accurate way to “judge” songs, so don’t take it personally and just enjoy the process.  Keep writing and keep looking for ways to share your songs along the way.  


How has the music of John Hartford inspired you?  

I came to John Hartford’s music through the side door, as a fan of Mike Compton’s mandolin playing.  Mike has been my favorite mandolin player for 20+ years and I felt like the time he spent playing with Hartford really showcased the breadth of his abilities.  And, a favorite mandolin player is a big deal when you are building mandolins for a living!

One of the things I first noticed about John’s songs was that he was able to write new songs that sounded old.  Think on that for a minute, there is a lot to chew on.  

I also admired the variety of songs he wrote, the originality of the subject matter, the flexibility of the song forms, and his ability to be irreverent while still touching your heart.

And I need to thank my buddy Mike Jones, a former bandmate who introduced me to a bunch of Hartford’s music by bringing it into our band.  He also loaned me a CD of Good Old Boys, and I still remember driving home from band practice that night with the stereo cranked up and tears rolling down my face.  That one really gets me.    

Did you begin playing by ear? 

Although I have studied music theory & harmony pretty thoroughly, I do play by ear and am not very good at reading music.  

With “Paddleboat Shuffle” tell me how that song happened, please. Why Paddleboat and not Paddle Wheel? Just curious.

Good questions.  I woke up in the middle of the night with the line “it’s the paddle boat shuffle on the O-hi-o” in my head - that was the serendipity, the gift.  No idea where that came from but I couldn’t wait until morning so I could say the words out loud. I knew it would just be fun to say.  I typed that line into the notes section of my iPhone and tried to go back to sleep. I lay there thinking about some of John’s “sound” songs, like the good old electric washing machine or the song with all the car crashes where he asks you to “sing along.”  And I thought I could hear the river and the paddle wheel turning while I repeated “it’s the paddle boat shuffle on the O-hi-o.”  Clump, clump, clump…

The next day I am already thinking it should be a Hartford-style tune, because that is what I like and obviously it is about a steamboat.  John is steering a steamboat up the river, doing the paddle boat shuffle, it is a peaceful summer day and there’s nowhere else he would rather be.  So, I need a river town in Ohio, and I think of Portsmouth because my dad was born there.  I jot down “gotta pull it into Portsmouth by tomorrow don’tcha know.”  Kind of a mouthful, but the rhythm works and I like the attitude - seems like something John might say.  Still haven’t pulled out the guitar.  

So, I have a feel for the rhythm of the words, and I get the next gift: “the years go flying by but the days are nice & slow.”  Hmm. I guess I was trying to describe what life is like when you love what you do, you are at peace with yourself and not in a hurry to change. This is how I feel about building mandolins, and how I imagine John felt when he was on a steamboat.  

So, there’s the words to the chorus and now I get out the guitar.  I can kinda sing the melody at this point and am pretty good at hearing the chords that should go behind it. It comes together quickly and I play it for a while.  

I worked out the verse on the guitar by playing the chords and humming a melody.  Took me several days to write two verses, and a few days later I added a third.  Probably wrote the words to the verses on scraps of paper while building mandolins - no guitar necessary. The verses work like a little puzzle, with the end of the first line becoming the beginning of the third line.  

“Hey John, why you gone so long

Shuffling up the river to the paddle wheel song

So long, keep moving on

keep the wheel turning ’til the daylight is gone”

That is pretty much how this one came about.  I had the “echo” vocal in mind from the beginning but didn’t worry about it until I went in to record.  We recorded this song at my friend Trina Emig’s home studio about two weeks after I wrote it.  She plays the killer Hartford-style banjo on the kickoff by the way.  

What goes through your mind right before you step onto a stage?

Like most people I have anxiety before performing, nothing too severe.  I worry about forgetting words, and I worry about missing strings on my guitar with my picking hand.  I worry about breathing and not tensing up.  But lately I have been making myself take a deep breath, and I think to myself “here is my chance to invite people into my little world for a while, to share songs that are part of me and are important to me.”  I think that helps me focus on the task at hand, which to me is getting the songs across.  

Do you attend or teach workshops? What do you get from them?

Sometimes I do attend workshops, the one I have been most involved with is the Monroe Mandolin Camp.  Mike Compton leads this camp and I attend as a luthier, there to make sure everybody’s mandolin is playing well.  Means a lot to me to be a part of this event year after year, honoring Bill Monroe’s music and mandolin style.  

What can we expect to hear at a Will Kimble concert

If you catch me in concert it will be with my band Rivertown Darby, and you will hear a mix of original songs balanced with traditional bluegrass numbers and songs from John Hartford, Doc Watson & Norman Blake.  Or you might see me playing as a duo with my buddy Trina Emig on banjo & mandolin.  

Do you have recordings?

I have a 6 song EP called “Rivertown” from back in 2013 that is all original and performed live in a studio (no overdubs).  And “Rivertown Darby” is working on a full length CD in Trina Emig’s Boopsie Studio (where we recorded Paddle Boat Shuffle).  I think I have tracked 7 songs already and have 5 more in mind?  A realistic goal for us would be to have it finished by the end of the summer.  

What is your performance schedule like?

I am super busy with kids & such, so my preference is to play once or twice a month.  Sometimes it works out that way and sometimes it doesn’t!

What advice do you have for beginning songwriters and musicians? 

Wow.  For beginning musicians, I think it is important to internalize the sounds of your heroes - the ones who make you want to play.  My daughter loves Miles Davis, and I am encouraging her to memorize songs & solos from a half dozen points in his incredible career.  Could be Doc Watson, Sam Bush, etc.  Commit them to memory, be able to play them fluidly without thought.  Practice technique in order to build up to and achieve this goal.  Learn how to make the sounds, and then use this as a base to build on and move forward from.  


And as simple as it sounds - for songwriting I think you should learn and perform songs from artists you would like to emulate.  It was also an eye opener for me to write down a whole bunch of songs.  When I looked at my giant stack of papers, I realized they were all pretty much “this long” with “this many verses” and the lines were all about “this long” and so forth.  But the MOST important thing for songwriting is to be open to it - grab those fragments out of the ether when they appear.  The rest is all just putting puzzle pieces together.  


Do you have any advice for old folks like me?  

Haha, yeah.  Don’t tell yourself you can’t dance.  Don’t tell yourself you can’t sing.  Don’t tell yourself you can’t write songs - I didn’t write a song until my early forties, and I never thought it would happen for me.  But if you can write one, you can write as many as you want!

Our first Challenge Winner, Scott Carnder with Lauren Schloemer, 2015 winner Jeremy Francis, and host Ernie Hill performing in the Showcase on the Hartford Stage(main stage)- The House That Bill Monroe Built.

Our first Challenge Winner, Scott Carnder with Lauren Schloemer, 2015 winner Jeremy Francis, and host Ernie Hill performing in the Showcase on the Hartford Stage(main stage)- The House That Bill Monroe Built.