John Hartford Memorial Festival: A Primer

The John Hartford Memorial Festival (May 30 to June 2) is billed as “The Most Laid-Back Festival in America” and you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone who has gone and would disagree. The 8th annual bluegrass and camping festival nestled up in the rolling hills of beautiful Bean Blossom, IN, has quietly put together one of the summer’s best bluegrass festival lineups–and it all takes place just 2 hours from Cincinnati.

What sets JHMF apart? You get the big-name bluegrass bands that frequent the larger summer music festivals without losing the true campground feel. You’ll find campfires, picnic tables, abundant shade, abundant space in the campground and plenty of room to lay out or dance underneath beautiful trees surrounding the music stages. The folks at JHMF work hard to make it seem like a few thousand people just spontaneously show up at a campground to peacefully enjoy bluegrass music for a weekend–but it’s all by design, and it’s pulled off exceptionally well.

The main reason I’m excited to head out to Brown County the weekend after Memorial Day though is the music. Whether you’re a newcomer to bluegrass or a seasoned veteran, the jam-packed lineup is a lot to navigate. We are all excited for the headliners Billy Strings, Infamous Stringdusters, and Jeff Austin Band. But here are my 7 can’t-miss JHMF acts to circle on your schedule:

  1. Circus No. 9 is basically a master’s class in bluegrass-fusion. Their banjoist is young prodigy, winning a National Banjo Championship before turning 18. Their mandolin player is the 2016 RockyGrass champion and their bassist holds a bass performance degree from UT, located in their native Knoxville, TN. They’ll blend jazz, rock, and more into head-spinning bluegrass sets on Thursday at 6 (Hippy Hill Stage) and Friday at 12:30 (Boogie Stage).
  2. California’s Hot Buttered Rum was one of the first bluegrass bands I heard. It was about 2003, and a friend had a sampler CD (I think from Bonnaroo) with “Well-Oiled Machine” on it: a song about touring the country on a bus that’s fired by restaurant frying-oil waste that remains one of my favorite songs. HBR tells stories through beautiful melodies and impressive musicianship, and I’m looking forward to finally seeing them live Saturday at 8 (Hartford Stage).
  3. The Jon Stickley Trio is definitely a unique act at this festival. The trio of guitar (Jon Stickley), drums, and fiddle plays all-instrumental songs that often dip into jazz, gypsy, or even punk. They are rooted in bluegrass, however, and if you want to take a break from banjos and vocal harmonies then let yourself float away in the insane guitar work of Jon Stickley Thursday at 5 (Hartford Stage) or Friday at 4 (Hippy Hill Stage). Don’t be surprised if you see Jon showing up to sit-in with other groups as well, as he is well-respected among the entire scene.
  4. Horseshoes & Hand Grenades bring a fresh-yet-old timey sound to the JHMF. We are big fans of these fellas and were on hand when they rolled through Covington last month. Their number one priority seems to be to make sure that everyone (band included) is having a hell of a time, but that doesn’t take away from mature compositional jams and stretches of improvisation that keeps HHG on just about every festival docket all summer long. Catch them Thursday at 8 (Hartford Stage) or Friday at 9 (Hippy Hill Stage).
  5. The Tillers are, of course, no strangers to Cincinnati music fans. But the fresh air and serene settings of the JHMF is an environment that is seemingly designed specifically for the sweet melodies and plunking banjo notes from the Cincinnati foursome. Still riding high off the release of their self-titled 4th studio album, The Tillers will have feet stomping Thursday at 6:30 (Hartford Stage) and Friday at 6 (Hippy Hill Stage).
  6. The Mighty Pines are bringing a welcome soul-infused variety of bluegrass to the JHMF. You likely won’t find a better true vocalist at the festival than singer/guitarist Neil Salsich. Add in mandolin, bass, and drums, and you have one of the more fresh and contemporary sounds at JHMF. I’ve yet to see these relative newcomers to the national stage live, but I can already picture myself laid back listening to their sets in the shade of a large tree while a cool breeze blows over me. If that thought doesn’t get you ready to buy your tickets then this likely isn’t the festival for you. See them Friday at noon (Hartford Stage) and Saturday at 3 (Hippy Hill Stage).
  7. Once the Jeff Austin Band finishes their Saturday headlining set, he’ll invite up some friends and they’ll take on the festival namesake’s album Aereo-Plain. John Hartford’s revolutionary 1971 record set bluegrass on a new trajectory that it’s still on today, and there are few musicians I’d rather see reinterpret the album live than the bombastic Jeff Austin. With fiddler extraordinaire Darol Anger as a festival artist-at-large, the longtime Yonder Mountain String Band collaborator will likely join his old friend on stage with many other of the genre’s best to put on a once-in-a-lifetime show. I still have a Yonder Mountain-sized hole in my heart from the band’s 2014 split but seeing Jeff Austin lead a collaborative jam as he does so well as Saturday moves into Sunday morning will be a fitting end to an epic weekend. The Aereo-Plain superjam starts at 11 on Saturday (Hartford Stage).

Bonus: Festival organizers put on contests, storytelling workshops, and many other opportunities to have up close and personal interactions with many of your favorite bluegrass pickers. Combine that with the notorious amount of campfire jams that take place all night, and you won’t want to forget to spend time wondering the grounds and checking your schedule for unique events in between seeing your favorite bands.