By Derrick Weisbrod ~
John Hartford Memorial Festival, The Most Laidback Festival in America, started in 2011 and featured The Infamous Stringdusters headlining the inaugural event along with names like Tim O’Brien, Danny Barnes, and Larry Keel & Natural Bridge as headliners. They also featured Rodney Dillard and a lesser-known Greensky Bluegrass on the lineup along with many other great acts.
My first experience at John Hartford Memorial Festival (JHMF) was in 2017. I was looking for events in the Midwest to attend to help with marketing our smaller Pickin’ On Music series (the 2017 event being the second Pickin’ On The Courtois). I was in the process of learning more about music festivals by helping Ryan and Niki with promoting their event. Ryan told me about a young artist named Julian Davis. He said he was a phenomenal flat picking guitar player with a deep love of bluegrass. I figured while I was at this event I’d see if by chance I could run into him. My wife and I found a little hilltop camp spot in the woods adjacent to the artist camp where we could tuck a small backpacking tent on one side of the golf cart trail and our easy up on the other side of it. We were satisfied to know we would have shaded sleeping conditions for the morning. We heard this event was known for late night campfire picks which I had really grown to like since attending my first Pickin’ On The Courtois in 2015.
With camp being setup, I grabbed my flyers and we headed out to mingle and chat up our event. On the first day we ran into a young lady named Peyton who was carrying around a fiddle. I was seeking to talk with potential pickers to come and join the Pickin’ On The Courtois in September 2017. While talking with Peyton I mentioned this young guitar picker, Julian Davis, I was seeking to meet as he was on our flyer to play later this year. She played off the conversation and took a flyer. We continued to walk around chat people up. We made our way to a lot of different shows as there were many stages including the historic Bill Monroe Main Stage, the HIPPIE Hill Stage and I believe the renegade stage in the largest RV camping section. The 2017 JHMF featured Steep Canyon Rangers as the top billing headliner who we had not had a chance to see prior to this event. We caught thier set and later saw one of the performers at a campfire pick practicing dobro with some attendees. That was humbling to see. We saw The Traveling McCourys w/Jeff Austin performing The Grateful Ball which was the number 2 headlining spot that year. Wow, it was really nice to see Jeff Austin playing with such a talented group of musicians. Other notable acts included Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Vince Herman of Leftover Salmon, Molly Tuttle, Old Salt Union, Larry Keel, Chicago Farmer, Mountain Sprout, and The Tillers. We really liked The Tillers, they were as surprise for us as we never heard of them and they really blew us away!
During a main stage set on Friday night a young man walked up to me and introduced himself as Julian Davis. His friend Peyton had texted him that I was wanting to meet him if he was there, so she helped make that connection. What a kind gesture! We talked briefly about JHMF, Pickin’ On The Courtois and his experience thus far as a musician. And about as quickly as he showed up to introduce himself he was back to exploring the festival. This was the start of our personal and eventual business relationship. Another person I met for the first time was Vince Herman. Late in the night, after all the stages were shut down, my wife and I found we were both in need of a loaded baked potato. He happened to be in line ahead of us, so a brief introduction chat was had and I was feeling really good about the encounter. The entire weekend experience at JHMF sold me 100% on this being an event I will do everything in my power to not miss again. Just the late-night campfire picks are worth it let alone the huge inventory of talent on display across all the stages.
So as 2018 rolls around and tickets are secured. Same game plan as 2017, get there and secure a hilltop spot adjacent to the artist camp. Success! By this time I had worked with Julian on a couple projects and knew he was going to be there. So we hung out a lot more this year. We had the great fortune of camping across a small valley from The Short Round String Band who serenaded us with their John Hartford practice set which allowed us to stay in the shaded tent in the heat of the Indiana summer as we were cozy and being entertained all at the same time. After their practice wrapped up, we went out and scored some grub from the vendors en route to catch as many shows as we could. This year the Infamous Stringdusters were back as the top billing headliner. Jeff Austin Band was the headliner billed in the number two spot and they performed the entire Steam Powered Areoplane set from the Bill Monroe Stage, what a treat! That was the first time I saw Kyle Tuttle play banjo and Max Johnson on bass. Jeff had leveled up on recruiting these amazingly talented musicians for his band. Max Johnson can straight flat pick a bass like it’s a six-string guitar. I’ve never seen a bass played that extraordinarily. This was also the first time I met Jeff Austin. He was on stage wrapping cables after the set so I walked up there and introduced myself. He was very pleasant to chat with. We got to enjoy the tunes of Split Lip Rayfield, The Danny Barnes Trio, The Tillers, John Stickley Trio, Horseshoes and Hand Grenades, Hot Buttered Rum, Hen House Prowlers, Chain Station and Billy Strings. I am sure we saw a ton of other acts but those are the ones that really stuck out. Julian and Billy Strings tooled around on a golf cart hitting up campfire jams all over the place the night Billy was at JHMF. That was something special to see with those two young talents playing guitar together. With all the golf carts at this event, it is not uncommon to have a huge jam session get overtaken by listeners who get a text from a friend to roll over to a certain campsite. So it is common to suddenly have a camp pick go from having a handful of folks picking and a few standing around the pick to listen and then blow up to be dozens of people and golf carts. They also shrink just as fast as word of another pick is going on that “you can’t miss”!
When 2019 comes around, we repeat our same behavior. Secure tickets when they go on sale. Arrive as early on day one of the event as possible to manage around work schedules. This year we had been gifted a reserved space in the trees on the opposite side of the artist camp where we usually camp. We also were fortunate to have our friends from Pickin’ On Music Festivals there with us. This year we were in a camp that had a lot of camp picks popping off and it was closer to the vendors and stages. Yet another stellar lineup from the promotors of JMHF featuring Tim O’Brien Band, Della Mae, Vince Herman and Friends, The Great American Taxi, The Hillbenders, Larry Keel Experience, Special Consensus, Armchair Boogie, The Matchsellers (playing their new and wonderful concept album “Bluegrastronauts”), The Sweet Lillies, The Mighty Pines and The Tillers (yay!), and Fireside Collective. Our friends, The Squashers, were in the band competition this year so we made sure to make it to that to support and cheer them on. They also camped with us adding to the pickin’ vibe at camp all weekend. How fun! Again, we are sold on this event and can’t wait until 2020.
When 2020 rolls around the pandemic squashes our plans for a four-year run of attending JHMF, so we opt to start hosting our own smaller events for the summer and hired friends to come play our 63 Five Survivor’s Ball events. As the summer wraps up optimism starts to build as you see Billy Strings doing drive in shows and signs of live music outside of what we are promoting are sparking. Unfortunately we get to 2021 and the JHMF we knew and loved was not ready for a huge crowded event so they bring in a few smaller regional acts to perform. We got an RV spot and brought the kids to tool around the venue. They met John Griffin again after my step-son had sold him some “Larrys” at the inaugural Peaceful Bend Music Festival a couple weeks before this event. Saw a couple bands and explored a much less crowded venue space. It was nice and even more laidback than usual, but it left me motivated to get my 2022 tickets for the bigger, pre-pandemic JHMF experience.
So when 2022 rolled around we learned the event was no longer going to be at Bean Blossom but was still going to be located in southern Indiana. Julian Davis & The Situation were scheduled to play a couple sets at the new venue. By this time, we had been working together for a number of years and ended up camping backstage in the artist camping. We had the luxury of having Chad “Gravy” Graves from The Hillbenders join Julian Davis & The Situation for our two sets. He and I rode out together and got our jam camp set up before the rest of the band members arrived. The venue was quite spread out when compared to Bean Blossom. There was a lot of flat camping. Plenty of RV space. Just spread out far enough to make it hard to get to all the spots in the campground to scout for picks. Regardless we had a blast. Leftover Salmon headlined with support from Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, The Dillards, The High Hawks, The Great American Taxi, Henhouse Prowlers, One Way Traffic, Miles Over Mountains, and Lily B Moonflower. As excepted, the talent was top shelf and the vibe at the stages was excellent! Everyone was happy to be back to JHMF. I even helped a buddy get Rodney Dillard’s signature on some albums he had collected!
I left JHMF 2022 wondering what they would have in store for us in 2023. A couple months ago I saw a message on Facebook notifying JHMF fans that there will be no 2023 event. There was not a lot of information about why and if there will be a 2024 event. I’ll know when that weekend comes in June when JHMF usually is held, I’ll be longing to be there. It is always fun running around handing out flyers for Pickin’ On Picknic hosted in St. Clair Missouri (save the date for this year’s event: July 6-9, 2023), talking to people from all over the Midwest, making new friends, and most of all listening to the impromptu pickin’ jams, never knowing what talented up-and-coming musicians you might run across!