James Beaty: OPINION: RAMBLIN: Getting to the Nitty Gritty with Jerry Jeff and John Hartford

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Jul. 9—One of the best things I like about going to concerts is the sometimes surprise performances that were totally unexpected at the time.

Sure, I knew who the headliners were as well as the other acts were on the bill, but sometimes during a concert, and especially in a festival-like setting, some surprises may be in store.

Putting together like-minded musicians at the same event can result in some spontaneous onstage sparks and elevate an already-great concert even higher.

That's what happened when I once attended a concert featuring Texas music greats Jerry Jeff Walker and the Lost Gonzo Band along with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and solo artist John Hartford.

The concert took place on an athletic field in Oklahoma City, where the promoter set up an outdoor stage and welcomed the fans inside.

A typical summer day in Oklahoma, it grew extremely hot.

John Hartford opened the show, known for his regular television appearances on variety shows such as "The Smother Brothers Comedy Hour" and "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour."

His biggest success though, came when Campbell recorded a song written by Hartford, "Gentle On My Mind."

Hartford originally recorded the song, which he said he wrote after watching the movie "Dr. Zhivago." He included the original version on his album "Earthwords and Music." Although it didn't prove to be a hit for Hartford, it caught the attention of a young musician from Arkansas regularly playing as a session musician in Los Angeles with a group of fellow studio aces who came to be known the Wrecking Crew.

Glen Campbell didn't score a super hit with the song when he first recorded it, but it fared better when Capitol Records rereleased it following the success of Campbell's first big hit, "By the Time I Get to Phoenix."

As I sat with the other concert-goers in that sweltering field in Oklahoma City, I felt glad to see the writer of "Gentle on My Mind " in-person. Hartford alternated between guitar, fiddle and banjo during his performance, punctuating his set with his quirky humor, with the personal highlight for me coming when he performed "Gentle on My Mind."

The concert bill set up a tantalizing bit of musical possibilities.

Before Jerry Jeff Walker found fame as a Texas music legend, he had released a few folk-based albums. A song from one of those albums, written by Walker, was heard by members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who recorded it, giving the band one of its biggest hits with the Jerry Jeff Walker-penned "Mr. Bojangles."

Jerry Jeff, no doubt feeling the heat that day in Oklahoma city, performed in the funniest concert wardrobe I've ever seen. The tall and lanky Jerry Jeff came onstage carrying his guitar and wearing nothing but some blue swimming trunks, a par of cowboy boots and a big Stetson.

Of course, it only added to the good time ambience of Jerry Jeff and the Lost Gonzo Band. The band featured Gary P. Nunn on keyboards — the writer and singer of the song "London Homesick Blues" — also known as "I Want to Go Home to the Armadillo" and used as the longtime theme for the PBS television show, "Austin City Limits."

While there was that Jerry Jeff and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band connection through the song "Mr. Bojangles," the most memorable mashup of the concert came during the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's set.

Toward the end of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's performance, I noticed Hartford had joined them onstage, standing in the wings with a fiddle and bow in his hand.

Also, in the wings on the opposite side of the stage with a fiddle and bow in his hands stood Nitty Gritty Dirt Band multi-instrumentalist John McEuen. I wondered what they were up to when the band broke into "Diggy Diggy Lo," the Cajun fiddle song popularized by Doug Kershaw.

When it came time for the fiddle interlude, both Hartford and McKuen played and jigged their way from the back to the front of the stage — with the two world class fiddlers sawing away with abandon. When their solos ended, they retreated to the back of the stage, then repeated their double-fiddle attack on the next solo.

So ended one — make that two — of the greatest fiddle performances I've ever seen or heard.

Sometimes, an artist who's not even on the bill happens to be in the area and simply shows up and is invited to join the musical festivities onstage.

Those times when an unbilled artist simply shows up for a surprise performance can provide the impetus for a concert to suddenly turn bigger than the sum of its parts and into something special that may not ever be heard or witnessed in that format again.

That's how I happened to see the great John Sebastian for the first and only time.

Although he wasn't on the bill, he showed up at a Willie Nelson picnic I once attended. Though the Texas pasture where Willie held the picnic that year was packed with thousands of festival-goers, they left a space open right in front of the stage for people going to pick up concessions.

Willie had an eclectic group of musicians booked for his festival that year, ranging from Kris Kristofferson and Rita Coolidge, to Texas songwriting legend Floyd Tillman, to the Charlie Daniels Band and the Pointers Sisters.

Yes! The Pointer Sisters not only played Willie Nelson's picnic, they put on an outstanding performance. They had even scored a hit on the country music charts with their song "Fairytale," proving once again that great music knows no bounds.

Since the Pointer Sisters were on the bill for Willie's picnic that year, they weren't really surprise performers — but another artist was.

I picked what turned out to be an opportune time to visit the concession stand. As I walked directly in front of the stage, I heard the guy standing at the microphone say something like "And now here's John Sebastian."

That's when I learned that the phrase "I stopped in my track" must have had some basis in reality, because that's exactly what I did.

Sebastian hadn't been on the bill at all. I found out later he had some gigs in Texas at the time and Willie's Picnic must have sounded like a fun place to drop by and visit since he was in the neighborhood.

Having provided one of the most memorable performances at the legendary Woodstock Festival in New York, Sebastian knew a few things about music festivals.

While he was more widely known as the frontman and singer of the Lovin' Spoonful and the writer of their hits such as "Do You Believe in Magic," "Daydream" and "Summer in the City," I also liked Sebastian for his solo career.

And now, there he was looming above me. I instantly forgot about my original goal of getting some Cokes and nachos. I stood in front of the stage transfixed for the entirety of Sebastian's performance.

He only performed two songs — his hit with the Lovin' Spoonful, "Nashville Cats," which fit in nicely with Willie's Picnic and "Fishing Blues," which featured lots of Sebastian's virtuoso turns on the harmonica.

But even though it was only two songs, Sebastian's performance proved especially memorable to me — especially since it was an unbilled surprise performance.

As it is, that was the only time I got to see and hear Sebastian live — thanks to his surprise performance at Willie Nelson's Picnic.

One more thing.

Musicians who joined Glen Campbell to perform on his recording of "Gentle on My Mind" included a guy, who at the time the single was originally recorded in 1967 was also a member of that ace group of LA musicians known as the Wrecking Crew — a guy who played piano on the recording, Oklahoma's own Leon Russell.