It started right on time, even though everything had been moved inside from the Bank of America Stage to the War Memorial Auditorium because of rain. And after two and a half hours of musical tribute to John Hartford, he stepped forward and paid tribute to his own influences, among them Bill Monroe and Flatt and Scruggs. In his trademark Derby and surrounded by his string band, John played fiddle and sang/talked through favorites like "Steam Powered Aereo Plane" and "Watching the River Go By." "I gotta be honest; I know everybody is here cause they think I'm gonna croak," John said, referring to his health problems. "You've done your part. Now if I do my part, I'd leave here and check on out in two or three weeks. But we've got the whole month of October booked."
There was almost as much music going on backstage as out front. Many Nashville musicians who claim John as a friend and musical influence stopped by. It's not unusual in this type setting to hear the influence of gospel music. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings began the evening with their never before performed "Give That Man a Road." It's a beautiful song written in the sensitive style they're known for. "I love gospel music," Gillian said after their performance. "It moves both the singer and the audience."
Well-known mandolin player Tim O'Brien (Real Time CD) said he is trying to "come up with stuff to help people out. I know that's my job, and old traditional gospel is a good stepping-off point to write songs. Gospel themes are timeless. It's not so much that you want to write new things, but you want to write about the old things that are still important - things that haven't changed that much." Tim and Kathy Mattea sang a duet of the John Hartford hit by Glen Campbell "Gentle On My Mind." Kathy won the Best Southern Gospel Recording Grammy in 1993 for "Good News." Backstage she talked about growing up in a "funky little Catholic Church in West Virginia" where she began singing. Kathy usually does gospel in her shows. A favorite of hers is "My God Called Me This Morning" by the Fairfield Four.
The wonderful John Cowan, along with his band and Pat Flynn on guitar, Bela Fleck on banjo, gave the people what they've come to expect from him on "Dark as a Dungeon." He wails. He can't help it. Like so many other singers and musicians, John grew up singing in church in Illinois, first non-denominational, then Lutheran. He obviously came to appreciate bluegrass. It's his voice you hear on songs like "Walkin' in Jerusalem" from On The Boulevard (1988) and New Grass Revival Live (1989) with Bela Fleck, Pat Flynn, and Sam Bush. From 1974-1990 they played all over the world. Garth Brooks used to open their shows and has recorded their songs ("Callin' Baton Rouge," written by Dennis Linde, from the Grass?s Friday Night in America CD and now available on The Best of the New Grass Revival). Look for John's new black gospel flavored CD coming out in the near future on Sugar Hill Records. "I'm a huge fan of black gospel - The Mighty Clouds of Joy, Golden Gate Quartet. I'm a student of that music. I do a gospel song on every record."
Fiddle great Vassar Clements, who shined on John Hartford's "Vamp in the Middle," told me about growing up in Kissimmee, Florida where he would sit on the steps of a black Holiness Church and listen to the music. "It's [gospel] in most Southern musicians' backgrounds," he said. Vassar might show up almost anywhere with his fiddle in hand. But his own band, The Little Big Band, plays jazz and swing using a horn section.
Jamie Hartford (What About Yes CD) brought his band in to pay tribute to his father. "It's nice to see him appreciated," he said. The authentic Norman Blake was there with his old Gibson guitar. And, adding color and sparkle, was everyone's favorite cowboy band Riders in the Sky.
Late into the show everyone joined together for "Turn Your Radio On," an old Albert Brumley tune that John recorded on Aereo-Plain in 1971.
If you missed the tribute to John Hartford, you can catch it on West Virginia Public Radio's Mountain Stage show at www.wvpubrad.org. Follow the signs to Mountain Stage. Artistic director and Mountain Stage host Larry Groce summed up the evening like this: "It was inspiring and spontaneous, just like the man himself."