By Gary Linehan
As 2016 rolls to a close, it’s time to look past the pesky trials of everyday life and treasure those things that truly matter, family and friends foremost among them.
This is also the time we remember and celebrate members of the Strawberry family who are now part of that great festival in the sky. Though they be gone, we still hear their voices and feel their spirit with us here on Earth.
This year saw the loss of two great musicians who graced the Strawberry stage in years past — Ralph Stanley, who ranks among the giants, and Guy Clark, whose name will be remembered by lovers of first-rate songwriting.
Here are some departed performers who have delighted audiences at the Strawberry Music Festival since 1982. Listed in no particular order, they include Bill Monroe, Doc Watson and John Hartford, all who epitomize the meaning of immortal.
Ralph Stanley was born February 25, 1927, in McClure, Virginia, and died of skin cancer on June 23, 2016, in Sandy Ridge, Virginia. He was 89. Known for his distinctive singing and banjo work, Stanley began playing music in 1946, originally with his brother Carter and then as leader of the Clinch Mountain Boys. He was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in 1992, although he did not consider himself a bluegrass musician. “Old-time mountain style, that’s what I like to call it,” he said in 2001. “When I think of bluegrass, I think of Bill Monroe.” He was awarded an honorary doctorate of music degree in 1976, inducted into the Grand Ole Opry in 2000 — the first person of the third millennium — awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2006 and elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2014. He played at Strawberry in October 1996, the year the festival was delayed a month by a huge fire raging around Camp Mather.
Guy Clark, who appeared several times on the Strawberry stage, died May 17, 2016, in Nashville at age 74 after a long battle with lymphoma. He was born November 6, 1941, in Monahans, Texas, and wrote such classics as “L.A Freeway” and “Desperados Waiting for a Train.” His songs have been recorded by Jerry Jeff Walker, Jimmy Buffett, Lyle Lovett, Ricky Skaggs, Steve Wariner, Rodney Crowell and many more. He released more than 20 of his own albums, but a modest showing for 1983’s “Homegrown Tomatoes” was his top commercial success. His most recent album, 2013’s “My Favorite Picture of You,” won a Grammy Award for Best Folk Album. Clark first performed at Strawberry in 1988, returning in 1991, 2000 and 2004. At the 1991 festival, he traded songs onstage with another late great Texas troubadour, Townes Van Zandt, a songwriting legend in his own right.
Doc Watson and his son Merle starred in fall 1983, the festival’s first year at Camp Mather, where it moved after outgrowing its original home at Leland Meadows near Strawberry, California, a year earlier. Merle, born February 8, 1949, in Deep Gap, North Carolina, played and recorded with his father from age 15 until his death in a tractor accident on the family farm on October 23, 1985, at age 36. MerleFest, one of the world’s largest folk music festivals, is named in his honor. Arthel “Doc” Watson was born March 3, 1923, in Stoney Fork, North Carolina. He lost his sight before age 1. He started playing harmonica at age 6, banjo at age 11 and guitar at age 13, going on to become one of the world’s best-loved flat-picking guitarists. Doc Watson was the winner of seven Grammy awards and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He was given an honorary doctorate degree from the University of North Carolina, recognized as a national treasure by President Jimmy Carter and honored with the National Medal of the Arts by President Bill Clinton. Watson gave his last performance on April 29, 2012, at MerleFest, and died a month later at age 89.
Bill Monroe, hailed as the “Father of Bluegrass Music,” headlined the festival in fall 1985. Born September 13, 1911, on the family farm near Rosine, Kentucky, Monroe had a 69-year career as a mandolinist, singer, songwriter and bandleader. More than 150 musicians were members of his Blue Grass Boys over the years. They include Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Carter Stanley, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Vassar Clements, Byron Berline and Kenny Baker, among many other famous names. Monroe, named an honorary Kentucky colonel, was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor. In 1993, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was awarded the National Medal of Arts in 1995. Monroe’s last performance was given on March 15, 1996. He suffered a stroke in April and died on September 9, 1996, four days before his 85th birthday.
John Hartford, who appeared at Strawberry in 1986, 1988 and 1991, was a musician, songwriter, author, artist, disc jockey, calligrapher, dancer, father and steamboat pilot. He won Grammy awards in three different decades, recorded a catalog of more than 30 albums and wrote “Gentle On My Mind,” one of the most popular songs of all time. He was born John Cowan Harford in New York on December 30, 1937, and grew up in St. Louis. He moved to Nashville in 1965 and added the “t” to his last name at the recommendation of Chet Atkins, who signed him to RCA Records. In 1968 he moved to Los Angeles, where he became a regular on the Smothers Brothers and Glen Campbell television shows. Hartford held his audience rapt by accompanying himself on banjo, fiddle or guitar while tapping his feet on an amplified sheet of plywood. As his health declined, an all-star tribute to him was held in September 2000 at Mountain Stage in West Virginia, where he told the crowd: “I know why everybody’s here. They think I’m going to croak. … And if I was to do my part, I should wait about three weeks while it’s still fresh in everybody’s mind and kick off. But we’ve got the whole month of October booked.” Hartford died of cancer on June 4, 2001, in Nashville, age 63.
Etta James was among the festival headliners in 1998. Born Jamesetta Hawkins in Los Angeles on January 25, 1938, to a 14-year-old single mother, she started her singing career in 1954 in the first days of rock ‘n roll. She later faced a number of personal problems, including heroin addiction, physical abuse and incarceration before making a musical comeback in the late 1980s. She went on to win six Grammy Awards and 17 Blues Music Awards and is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Blues Hall of Fame and Grammy Hall of Fame. She died of leukemia on January 20, 2012, in Riverside, California, just five days before her 74th birthday. The Rev. Al Sharpton presided over her funeral, with singers Stevie Wonder and Christina Aguilera each giving musical tributes.
Sarah Elizabeth Campbell performed at Strawberry’s first festival in 1982 as a member of Fiddlestix, the official host band for several years, and was either in the audience or on stage at nearly every festival until her death from cancer on Dec. 26, 2013, at age 60. As a solo artist she released two albums and was featured on several compilations. Nina Gerber produced Campbell’s first recording, “A Little Tenderness,” and Mary Chapin Carpenter wrote the liner notes for her second, “Running With You.” Her original songs have been recorded by Laurie Lewis, Tom Rozum, Levon Helm, Rick Danko, Jim Messina, Marley’s Ghost, Houston Jones and others. She also wrote songs for John Prine’s record label and appeared onstage with him at Strawberry for a duet on “Angel From Montgomery.” Campbell was born and died in Austin but lived for 20 years in Columbia, California, where she was known for her quick wit and outgoing personality as well as her musical talents. Earlier this year, Campbell was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Austin Music Awards.
Ron DeLacy was another unforgettable figure at Strawberry, whether on or off stage. A journalist by profession, he covered the festival on a regular basis, along with all manner of other subjects, including sports, courts, politics and the odd human interest tale, emphasis on odd. His experiences provided him with the fodder for a new career as a musician-songwriter. He and Dave Cavanagh — previously a member of Fiddlestix with Sarah Elizabeth Campbell, “Cactus Bob” Cole and Chris “Prairie Flower” Stevenson — formed Doodoo Wah in 1990 and hit Strawberry’s main stage in 1997. Their forte was politically incorrect humor, poking musical fun at Bill Clinton, Mike Tyson, Dan Quayle, both George Bushes, Lorena Bobbitt, Dr. Kevorkian, middle-aged men, dentists, lawyers, Japanese carmakers and so much more. Their original songs have been covered by the likes of Ray Stevens, Pinkard and Bowden and Dr. Elmo of “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” fame. “BARF Construction” was included on the 1993 compilation “Dr. Demento’s Basement Tapes II.” The duo occasionally recorded covers, including Guy Clark’s “Homegrown Tomatoes” and John Prine’s “Let’s Talk Dirty in Hawaiian.” Born April 28, 1944, in Vallejo, DeLacy died of cancer on July 29, 2013, in Columbia, his home of 34 years, at age 69.
Behind the scenes, Hog Ranch Radio founder Thom O’hair remains a living presence at every festival. O’hair, whose pioneering radio broadcasts were heard in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York and many other cities, died Jan. 8, 2001, in Eugene, Oregon, from complications of a stroke. He was 58. O’hair moved to Eugene in 1997, turning over operation of Strawberry’s beloved pirate radio station to his long-time collaborator, Bix Beeman.
Over the years, the festival also has lost such performers as Vassar Clements, Utah Phillips, Jesse Winchester, Michael Hedges and Charles Sawtelle, along with valued staff members, volunteers, people in the larger Strawberry community and anyone else I regrettably may have missed.
Play your favorite song in their memory.
Bob Dylan quote of the day: “Death is not the end.” (From the song of the same name, 1988.)