This remembrance of Hagar Nelson is a contribution from Art Stevenson of Art Stevenson & High Water in Wisconsin.
I am deeply saddened to hear of the passing of our old friend and band mate Dave “Hagar” Nelson on July 5, 2019, due to complications from pneumonia. Hagar was a friend to many in the bluegrass music scene, and to the racing community, for many years. He was a big fan, good friend, and generous benefactor to both worlds.
Hagar, nicknamed for his resemblance to the bearded cartoon character, started appearing at the bluegrass music jam sessions here and there in southern Wisconsin in the mid-1980s. He had acquired a blonde Kay string bass and sat in at the jams, quickly making friends and gaining a reputation as a good bass player. In late 1985 Art Lies and I recruited Hagar as bass player for the Wisconsin River Bluegrass Boys. Reluctant at first, he worked hard and became an integral part of the band, staying on for two years, and helped us gain a popularity which lasted many years after.
When I first met him, Hagar had recently been divorced, and was selling his house and had moved into an apartment. He had a rummage sale and I bought every one of his gardening tools. I am an avid gardener and have worn them all out, except for a three-tine cultivator with a long wooden handle, a rare hand tool that I still use and cherish.
Being much older than the rest of the band members, Hagar had the maturity and wisdom of age and experience. Not like a father figure; more like an older brother. He set a fine example for the rest of us to follow and look up to. He had already established a career at Northwest Mutual, while the rest of us (Dale Reichert, Art Lies, and me) were recent college graduates struggling to get by. Meanwhile, we encouraged and helped Hagar to become an excellent bass player and harmony singer. As a veteran of the US Navy, Hagar had learned to sing in a Navy glee club while stationed in Alaska. So, he became comfortable singing baritone, bass, and even tenor harmony parts with the band. His bass singing on Gospel songs, like Daniel Prayed and Boat of Love, was outstanding.
As a band, we had ambitions to do more than just play locally at the jam sessions and clubs. We took every opportunity to improve and promote ourselves as a band, making cassette demos, and appearing wherever we could at festivals, radio shows, band contests, and other events. Hagar appeared on two cassette albums we released in 1986 and 1987. We started to look for opportunities at bluegrass festivals in neighboring states. Art Lies did a good job of promoting the band back then, getting us bookings at festivals in Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Minnesota, Iowa, and of course here in Wisconsin. Hagar was gregarious and had an outgoing personality and got to know everybody in the bluegrass music scene, including the top stars in the music business, even Bill Monroe himself.
He had a great sense of humor. Hagar knew a million jokes – clean or dirty – and was always ready with one, or to turn a phrase, or make a pun in conversation that would get everybody laughing. Nobody in the bluegrass scene who met Hagar will ever forget him. Especially when he started making his famous cookies, Hagar’s Half Pounders, which were loaded with chocolate chips, nuts, and sugar. Hagar would bring a plastic tub of them along on the road and share them with everybody he knew. I recall many a long night of driving home from some out-of-state show, with coffee and Hagar’s Half Pound Cookies to munch on and keep me energized and alert on those long miles. He even had Half Pounder T shirts and ball caps made, which I still have.
1986 was the best year for Hagar as a part of the Wisconsin River Bluegrass Boys. He arranged vacation from his job at Northwest Mutual so we could travel and perform all over the Midwest. Hagar owned a Winnebago motor home, and although it was a gas guzzler, we went out on the road in it several times. At this point Hagar’s generosity became known to us, as from time to time he paid for travel expenses that the band could not have afforded. Many of our personal appearances were for gratis, gaining only exposure for the band and no money. With t shirt and cassette sales, a few paying gigs, and occasional contributions from Hagar, we were able to make an impression on audiences and promoters on the Midwest bluegrass festival circuit. Those were our barnstorming days.
One exciting and memorable event was our audition with Bill Monroe. We had been at Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival in southern Indiana for several days, and on Sunday, I knew Bill would be leaving to go back to Nashville. So, I had the band dress up and gather at Bill Monroe’s bus, and when he arrived, we started playing and singing. Bill was very impressed and asked us if we would like to come to Nashville in the fall to play some shows. Of course, we all said yes! Hagar was part of all those exciting shows that year and the next, which included Bill Monroe’s Early Bird Bluegrass Show, the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, Bean Blossom Bluegrass Festival, the Ernest Tubb Midnight Jamboree, Mole Lake Bluegrass Festival, and many more.
With Hagar’s outgoing personality and excellent bass playing, he was frequently in demand as a guest artist. I’ve seen him play as a guest with Mac Wiseman, Vassar Clements, Benny Martin, and many other notable bluegrass stars, who needed a bass player at that moment. Hagar could lend a hand and sit in with just about any bluegrass band.
Hagar had a healthy appetite in those days. On those long drives he was always snacking on a large bag of pretzels or corn tortilla chips, washing them down with diet Squirt. One night at a pizza parlor, Hagar ordered a 16-inch supreme pizza, with everything on it, and then looked at the rest of us and said, “That’s for me. What are you guys going to order?” And he wasn’t joking. He ate every bit of that pizza.
In 1987 the band was doing well. Many bluegrass events and festivals were booking us for a fee, and as those dates started to fill the calendar, it was a strain on Hagar, who had his career at Northwest Mutual to maintain. Sadly, that fall Hagar was injured in a car accident, and his shoulder injury made it difficult to play the upright bass for any length of time. By the fall of 1987 we had to find another bass player, and it was very hard to replace Hagar, who had become such a big part of our music. We worked with two or three different bass players, and Hagar filled in when he could. It took over a year before we settled on Jerry Duncan as a permanent replacement.
For many years, Hagar continued to be a prominent part of the music scene in Wisconsin and the Midwest. We’d see him at every festival and bluegrass event, and he made guest appearances and filled in on bass with local and nationally known bands. My band would be playing in some remote location hundreds of miles from where he lived, and Hagar would show up, saying he just wanted to check it out. He would sit at our record table and schmooze with people while we were on stage.
Hagar started getting into song writing and bought a Martin guitar to play chords on while he was composing. His kindness and generosity became known to many. Hagar would make donations to bluegrass events that needed a financial boost. He was a benefactor to an excellent bluegrass concert series in Two Rivers, which brought in the best traditional bluegrass acts in the country. On two occasions that I can recall, and there may have been more, he got my current band, Art Stevenson & High Water, added to an event schedule by paying the event for our appearance. He made a cash contribution to the festival I run, Bluegrass In The Pines. His reputation as a supporter of his friends and organizations in the racing community is widely known.
In recent years Hagar’s health started to take a downturn, and he sold his beloved blonde upright bass, “Helga,” to a young, up and coming bass player. He offered to sell it to me, but I declined, and I was happy to see it go to a young player as her first stage worthy instrument. He also sold a very nice Martin guitar, which again I was disappointed to have to refuse, but I’m sure it went to a good home. Hagar, always thoughtful and generous, gave me the gift of a limited-edition Bill Monroe belt buckle, which I wear almost every time I walk on stage. He also gave me a collection of posters and photographs of bluegrass and country music festivals and events, many of them autographed, which I will always cherish. Over the last few years we’ve had many a conversation and recollection about the old days of playing music together.
The last time I saw Hagar was at the Manawa Bluegrass Bash last October. He had been very ill but recovered well enough to drive over and see us play, along with several other bluegrass bands. We sat and watched a football game in the bar and had what would be our last long chat. As was his habit, Hagar bought about 90 raffle tickets for a 50-50 drawing, dominating the odds, and I’m certain he donated his winnings, as usual, to a worthy cause.
Rest in peace my friend, Dave “Hagar” Nelson.
Online condolences may be expressed at www.jensreinboldandpfeffer.com.