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John Hartford Memorial Festival Review

The John Hartford Memorial Festival held its 8th annual event over this past weekend (5/30 to 6/2) at the Bill Monroe Music Park and Campground in Bean Blossom, Indiana. The bluegrass and roots festival bills itself as “The Most Laid Back Festival in America”- and after spending just one day and night there I’m certainly not going to dispute it.

I made the short 2-ish hour drive from Cincinnati to Bean Blossom early Friday afternoon. After checking in at will call, I hopped on one of the many free golf cart shuttles roaming the festival grounds and cruised to the main stage area- a natural amphitheater that is surrounded by towering trees that provide plenty of shade all day long. Some friends of mine arrived on Tuesday and were able to grab a camping spot that was just outside the main viewing area, allowing them to easily watch and hear as much of the main stage action as they pleased right from the comfort of their tent area. Unlike many larger festivals, once you’re in you’re free to come and go to any area, stage, and campground as you please. This means you can bring your own food or cooler of beverages with you to watch music. Kids were playing everywhere, finding murky puddles that were the remnants of a downpour that had come through and cooled everyone off earlier in the afternoon. This hassle-free environment truly makes you feel like you’re just on a camping trip with friends- a feeling that spreads friendly smiles and positivity across all 2,000 or so festival-goers.

Spending a night strung up in my hammock among the beautiful trees, rolling hills, and friendly folk would have been more than enough for a pleasant Friday night- but there also happened to be some world-class bluegrass music going down all over the festival grounds. I got to see Cincinnati’s own The Tillers, Wisconsin’s Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, flatpicking phenom Billy Strings, and headliners/Grammy winners The Infamous Stringdusters all from 6 pm to midnight. The stages are no frills but had wonderful clear sound and had a personal vibe that fit well with the festival’s personality. The stage music was stellar but when many folks zip up in their tent as the amplified music curfew hits at midnight- the real fun begins at JHMF.

Soon after the Stringdusters bowed off the stage, a string band called up a true old fashioned square dance in a pavilion near the main stage area, complete with ferocious fiddling and called out dance steps. I watched and laughed from the edge of the crowd for a while before wandering to the campground that many of the artists were camped in. A tradition of late night jamming in the campgrounds grew out of that relatively early curfew, spawning what are often collaborative and unique jams among the artists and attendees alike. These notorious jams were one of the reasons I really wanted to check out JHMF, and I was not disappointed. 

We came across a fun tent-side set by The Squarshers, a group competing in the band competition at the festival. And as fun as their music was, we eventually decided to keep walking and our persistent ambling truly paid off when we climbed a hill and ended up right in the middle of a jam featuring Billy Strings and Jon Stickley (The Jon Stickley Trio), two young guys who are among the premier guitarists playing any type of music right now. They were joined by a smorgasbord of mandolinists, banjo pickers, and a stand-up bassist playing a number of John Hartford tunes and traditional bluegrass songs while delivering some incredible fretboard work and a hell of a lot fun. Knowing I had to get up and drive back to Cincinnati first thing that morning, I reluctantly pulled myself away at 3 a.m. and returned to our camp. But as I walked back I had that feeling that I witnessed something truly special- a jam that 300 people will talk about seeing at next year’s Hartford festival even though only about 35 or 40 folks were actually there.

As I pulled on my backpack and hiked back out to where my car was parked on Saturday morning, I walked through the smiling faces and tired eyes of others who were waking up, embracing friends, and talking about the wild night that was. While many were getting ready to do it all again on Saturday, I was preemptively planning on making it back next year and bringing the whole family for a full weekend of music, friends, camping, and fun.