Memories of John Hartford: An Interview with Bob Carlin

lil_mike_reedThis post is a contribution from Mike Reed, one of our 2010 IBMA correspondents. See his profile here.

I had an opportunity to speak with Bob Carlin, banjo player and author, about his involvement in the John Hartford String Band. The band, consisting of Chris Sharpe, Bob Carlin, Matt Combs, Mike Compton and Mark Schatz recently released a CD of music in the John Hartford tradition, The John Hartford String Band – Memories of John. They will be actively touring throughout 2011 to present the music and increase an appreciation for the work of John Hartford. 2011 will be the 10th anniversary of John Hartford’s untimely death.

I asked Bob how the CD project came about.

“It was Chris’ idea to get everyone together and he managed really to pull a rabbit out of the hat. I wouldn’t have thought he could get everybody in the same room at the same time for 2 or 3 days. Just the power of John’s music, that the time was right became evident when Tim O’Brien, Alison Brown, Bela Fleck, Alan O’Bryant, all signed on.”

Obviously there was a lot of music to choose from when the decision was made to do the recording. I asked Bob how the resulting tracks were chosen for the project.

“We tried to get a good balance and we did that by Chris went of the internet and asked what songs you’d like to see on a John Hartford String Band album. He also asked the band what they would like to see, and he went through about, I forget, maybe 600 demos, because I think from the beginning the idea was to include something from John on there.”

The John Hartford String band is also taking this music on the road for 2011. Did this band have a plan to perform beyond 2011 and recording a follow-up to this CD?

“No. I believe we’ve said what we wanted to say with this record. We are not a band and we are not looking to make a career, we don’t want to be the Drifting Cowboys, as Chris Sharp says. We just want to, what is appropriate, is to remind people about his music and his memory.”

Did Bob think John was looking down favorably on all of this attention? Bob’s face twisted a little and smiled.

“I don’t think he’s up there. I think he’s here and I think part of the reason while I feel this need – and a number of us feel this need to continue to play his music – is he’s kitting our butts around to get it done because there was a lot of unfinished business, you know he went so young. My goal was always to do something to perpetuate John’s memory and to try to have the String Band go out and perform John’s music.

John always projected the image of one that went with the flow, stayed low key, and just enjoyed the music and the moment. I asked Bob if this really was the case when working in John’s band. Bob said that John was not an autocratic bandleader. Before walking on stage he would give simple instructions. According to Bob, “He would say, well boys, get up there. I’m just going to do my solo set and I want you to fall in behind me. Figure out something to do. And all he would do is turn around and say key of D.”

Bob noted that John had a tremendous catalog of work to choose from when playing a concert and as a result not all band members might be familiar with the songs he would select. Also, there were the chestnuts that that he knew the audience expected, like “Gentle on My Mind’” that he knew he had to include. But John also wanted to introduce the audience to the many other facets of his music.  When it came to decide what songs to play for a set he had to take both into account.

“John used to say ‘well we’re going to get up there and we’re going to play one of theirs, and is that goes over we may play another one of theirs, and if they like that we’ll play one of ours.”

It is obvious that John has, and continues to be, a big influence on a lot of musicians. Bob emphasized that he has definitely benefited from his professional and personal relationship with John. With all of the attention on the 10th anniversary of John’s passing I wondered if it triggered any special memories of his time with John.

“For me it is not a specific recollection but more the generalities of what he did for me. At that time I had all these unconnected ideas about how to take my style of banjo playing and make it mine, make it unique, but yet traditional and make a cohesive style come together. He allowed me the freedom in the band to do that, to take this little bit and that little bit. He gave me challenges of music that I would not have normally chosen to play and that you wouldn’t find traditional banjo playing on, and try to come up with a solution. John was real good at pushing you, knocking you off balance, and watching to see how you would recover. He’d do that live. He’d throw you a solo in a place you didn’t expect it in a song you couldn’t play and just see what you did. That’s my biggest memory of him.”

Bob has a book on the traditional banjo player Kyle Creed that is coming out in October with Mel Bay. He is also working on a book about the Regal Musical Instrument Company of Chicago (1895-1955) for Hal Leonard Centerstream Publications that should be out next year. He continues to contribute to the Banjo NewsLetter and Bluegrass Unlimited magazines and works with Gold Tone and their 3 Bob Carlin line banjos.

In talking with Bob Carlin it is readily apparent that he has a real passion for the music of John Hartford and for traditional music as well. It is a passion that he is taking forward.

“I’m really dedicated to perpetuating the memory of the guys and women that pioneered this music.”