Monday, December 27, 2010

Q & A With The John Hartford Stringband - "Memories of John"

Last month the Grammy nominations were announced and while most music fans focus on the major categories, there is plenty of excellent music hidden in other categories. One of these is Category 68: Best Traditional Folk Album and the nominees are quite impressive:
We've followed most of these acts over the years, except for The John Hartford String Band (Bob Carlin on banjo, Matt Combs on fiddle, Mike Compton on mandolin, Mark Schatz on bass, and guitarist Chris Sharp) - the last touring band of the late John Hartford. In fact, I never really followed Hartford until two years ago after hearing The Farewell Drifters perform "In Tall Buildings" at Merlefest.  (For the brevity sake, I won't publish a biography but for those interested, start at

On the 10th anniversary of Hartford's passing The John Hartford Stringband released Memories Of John a CD containing 14 tracks "some are well known to John Hartford fans; others are complete renderings of sketches that John Hartford left behind. Guest artist include Alison Brown, George Buckner, Béla Fleck, Tim O’Brien, Alan O’Bryant, Eileen Carson Schatz. And from deep in the Hartford archives audio of the man himself, John Hartford."

To learn more about this project we conducted an email interview with two members of the band, guitarist Chris Sharp (CS) and banjoist Bob Carlin (BC).

1. What was the vision for starting Memories for John?

BC: To honor John on the 10th anniversary of his passing, and to bring attention to his life and music.

CS:  I felt it was time to bring the band back together and make a CD to honor John's music as well as to release some songs that John worked hard on, but never had a chance to record. After seeing how the project was received, and now the Grammy nomination, I believe that we are doing what we set out to do; our part in the effort to keep John's memory alive and well.

2. What were the criteria for selecting the songs for the CD?

BC: Chris asked the fans through the internet, asked the band and asked himself what should be on the CD, There are many great songs that didn't make the CD, but there is only so much room on one disc. 

CS: As Bob mentioned I did a lot of questioning online, band members were asked for their input, I tried to remember songs from stage shows, and looked over every CD I either own or could get to search for material. The band's help was instrumental in deciding the material. I also think that discussing material put us all on the same "steam"boat and caused the band to coalesce, which made the recordings much more heartfelt and meaningful, in my opinion. In addition to all of this I went through a lot of material that John had recorded over the years. This was a wonderful experience and gave us the 2 gems he performs on the CD.

3. Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, Tim O'Brien, Alan O'Bryant and Eileen Carson Schatz: did these artists have previous relationship with John?

CS: Everyone on the CD had strong ties to John. That was a prerequisite when we were thinking of guests to include, and as the band discussed them. John had spent a great deal of time working with many of these performers and each one of them has the utmost respect for John and his music. We chose people who not only had the connection to John but also seemed to fit the particular song they are on. Besides John, I can think of no one other than Alan to sing "Delta Queen Waltz", for example.

4. Obviously there is a market for this CD in the older Bluegrass community - but have you noticed a reception from younger listeners?

BC: Toward the end of our association with John, his audiences were getting younger. I expect we have a good following among the "twenty-somethings" as well as among John's older fans.

CS: Again, Bob's answer is what immediately came to mind on this one. Towards the end of John's career so many young people were being introduced to him. He really was on an upswing overall in his career when he was taken from us, specifically with the younger audience. Many bands have formed in the last decade or so that were in some way, if not outright, inspired by John. Most of the bands I'm referring to have a following made up mostly of that younger generation and they routinely do John's material. They also have a tremendous amount of respect for him and they are also helping to keep his memory, legacy, and music alive. There are also well established acts, such as Tim O'Brien and Sam Bush, who perform John's material and are being followed by younger audiences. I have went the long way around this question but the point is that it's a concerted effort by a lot of people to maintain John's legacy. A large amount of this attention is being soaked up by younger audiences. I hope that "Memories Of John" is reaching to these same people and letting them hear John's material, both old and new.

5. And similarly - although it may be too early to tell, has the Grammy nomination exposed John's music to a wider audience.

BC: Let's hope so, as I mentioned, that is one of our goals.

CS:  I would say the Grammy nomination has done quite a bit to expose John's music to more people. Since the nominations were announced there has been a huge upswing on our personal site as well as on Amazon in sales. To me this would support the notion that the nomination has been extremely helpful in getting the word out. It is the Grammys after all :)

6. There's a lot of competition in the Best Traditional Folk Album - Carolina Chocolate Drops, Ricky Scaggs, Maria Muldaur, Luther Dickinson.  Collectively or as individual musicians, have any of you performed with these artists? 

BC: Of course, we are all well aware of the musical contributions of these peers and that it is indeed an "August" collection of performers this year. I'd like to think that I at lease indirectly helped and influenced the Carolina Chocolate Drops in their formative stage. And, I've had interactions with Ricky's daughter Molly as she was learning the clawhammer banjo style.

CS:  I have personally performed on stage with Ricky Skaggs a few times but out of this lineup he's the only one.

7. How did you get notified about the Grammy nomination - phone call - telephone message?

BC: We just read the lists as they were posted online.

CS:  I was watching the show and checking online at the same time. However, Emilee Warner, of Compass Records, called and told me the news before my search yielded results. (Thanks Emilee!!!)

8. Did John ever receive a Grammy nomination during his lifetime? 

BC: Many. John liked to say he received Grammy's for bluegrass music before there was a category! I believe he received four: two for "Gentle on my Mind", one for the Mark Twang album, and one for his participation in the soundtrack for "Oh Brother Where Art Thou".

9. With the success of this CD, is there a chance for a 2nd effort?

CS: At this time I don't see a second CD coming out. The last song, "Fade Out", was meant to allow John himself to close this particular chapter. I agree with Bob that we have said what we wanted to say with this project and unless something drastic happens to change our minds then I would say this will be the only CD we release as the "John Hartford Stringband".

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