The Mystery of Rob-Mar

Ever since I started playing music out in public, people have asked me how I got into it. My typical answer is that both my father and grandfather played instruments around the house and I heard various different recordings. I also saw a lot of VHS tapes of various different bluegrass, country & old time artists. Some were TV shows recorded off of TNN (The Nashville Network) in the late ’80s-early ’90s, some were profesionally produced concert videos of individual artists and then there were these videos filmed by a man named Robert Hafner, which will be the center of this month’s blog.

Around the age of six or seven, my grandfather and I were sitting in him and my grandmother’s home one day when he whipped out a VHS tape in a clear case with a plain white paper cover and said something to the effect of “I think you’re going to like this!” I didn’t know what to expect, but as soon as he popped in the tape, the sounds of Claude Lucas sawing away on his fiddle and making mule sounds with his mouth on the famous Curly Fox song “Johnson’s Old Grey Mule” immediately caught my attention. For the next two hours, I was mesmorized with just about every band and musician on the tape. For a moment I truly felt like I was at a music festival. Shortly after watching it, I found out that what I had just seen was filmed at the Tennessee Fall Homecoming festival at the Museum of Appalachia in Norris, TN. I don’t think I even need to tell you how much I enjoyed this tape. I watched it so much to the point where it broke and my grandpa got me my own personal copy. Later on, I came to find out that he had more of them, one featuring Ralph Stanley and another featuring Bill Monroe, which I have attached to this post for your viewing pleasure. I also commonly received several of them as Christmas gifts from my grandparents within the next few years. These quickly became my favorite bluegrass/acoustic music related videos in my collection for a few different reasons.

One thing that I absolutely loved about these videos, which I guess pertains more to the festival in general is that it was always a mix of national artists, local/regional people and just interesting characters. Case in point, on one of the first videos ever produced of the festival, you had everybody from John Hartford, Grandpa Jones, Bashful Brother Oswald, Mike Seeger and David Holt and then right in the middle of all that greatness were a couple of guys in funny costumes named Ernest & Elwood singing songs about sceptic tanks and making jokes about everything from fishing, doing karate to eating popcorn for breakfast. Another great example of this is on my favorite tape of all time (#147 to be exact), you’ve got people like Doyle Lawson, Mac Wiseman, a regional gospel group called The Better Way Quartet and a man dressed in an Abraham Lincoln outfit, beard and all, playing the hymn “Nearer My God To Thee” on a handsaw. The second biggest reason I loved these was that if any big legends were included on the videos, their complete sets would be unedited while everyone else’s would be due to keeping the video around two hours. It was great especially for a guy like me who didn’t have an opportunity to see legends like Earl Scruggs play live. I literally could just watch him play a full set from the comfort of my living room.

These tapes were an incredibly big influence on me from a musical standpoint. As a mandolin player, I still watch them to study how people like Bill Monroe and Doyle Lawson did certain things. As I was starting Wheel Hoss, I even watched them as a way to learn how different bands structure their live performances. In later years, I became determined to find out more about them and if I could potentially find more. I knew for a fact that these videos had been filmed by a man named Robert Hafner who made his home in Antioch, TN and taught at Belmont University in Nashville. His production company was called Rob-Mar Productions, a combination of he and his wife’s Marjorie’s names. According to a video catalog from the year 2000, the first tapes were produced in 1988 after he was approached by Museum founder John Rice Irwin to film the festival for archival purposes. He would then sell them to offset the production cost as finances for filming and editing were coming directly out of his own pocket. He would go on to produce (I assume) around 190 videos of the festival over the course of the next 16 or maybe 17 years. I’ve often wondered when he filmed the last video or if I even have it myself. The latest video I have is #190 from the 2004 festival, so it could potentially be the last one.

I have scoured Ebay for the past few years trying to find more of his videos and believe it or not, I have found one, but it was one I already have. In 2014 a gentleman uploaded one to YouTube featuring Earl Scruggs from the 2000 festival, which I promptly made a DVD copy of for myself. Sometime around January or February of this year I had made a Facebook post regarding one of these tapes and a gentleman by the name of Robert Montgomery, who plays banjo for David Davis & The Warrior River Boys, got in touch with me. He too had several of these Rob-Mar produced tapes and like me wanted to find more. We compared notes and it turns out he had a couple that I had never seen and I had quite a few that he had never seen. Within the next few weeks, I took on the project of making DVD copies of all the videos he wanted. It was a daunting process, but one that was incredibly fufilling for me personally. Several weeks later, I got my package in the mail from Robert containing two DVD copies. That in itself is another long interesting story that I won’t go into here, but I don’t think I have ever been more excited to recieve a package in the mail then I was that day. One contained Bill Monroe’s appearance at the 1994 festival and another was a special four hour video from the year 2001 that included the likes of Doc Watson, Ralph Stanley, Doyle Lawson, Raymond Fairchild and many others. The next few days were spent glued to my TV screen.

Last month I happened to learn that Claude Lucas, the fiddler that opened up the first tape I ever saw, passed away at the age of 87. After reflecting on his passing, it occured to me that I ought to express my gratitude to Robert Hafner for the contribution his videos made to my musical life. I honestly didn’t know if I would be able to do that or if I had missed my chance. I spent the next few weeks determining  how I would go about with this if I succesfully found any contact information for him. I had thought about giving him a phone call, but I’m not too good at expressing myself from a verbal stand point, unless it’s work related. I was worried that my words would sound too rehearsed. I then decided that if I could succesfully find an email address for him or his wife Marjorie, I would write an email as that is the best way of expressing my true feelings. I then started looking for any contact information. It was a long, frustrating search, but I eventually found an email address for his wife Marjorie. I’ll share what I wrote to her, as that’ll fill you on other parts of the story I haven’t shared:

Marjorie,

I know you won’t know who I am, but I have been wanting to write you and your husband Robert this email for a long time. My name is Braeden Paul. I have been a lifelong lover of bluegrass music and have collected various recordings of different artists over the years . Many years ago, my grandpa attended the Museum of Appalachia’s Tennessee Fall Homecoming in Norris, TN. While there he happened to purchase a VHS Robert filmed of the last performance Bill Monroe ever did at the Homecoming. My grandpa ended up acquiring more tapes. As a young kid growing up, I fell in love with these videos and pratically watched them over and over again. It got to the point where it was not uncommon for me to receive a Rob-Mar produced video of the Homecoming as one of my Christmas gifts. I own quite a few live performances of various bands, but to me those videos were the gold standard of how you film a bluegrass or old time band in action. So many of the musicians on those videos became some of my biggest musical influences such as Doyle Lawson & Ralph Stanley. A few years ago, I received a VHS-DVD converter for my birthday and those tapes were the first in my collection to be transferred to DVD. I’m now 22 years old and I work in the music industry as a booking agent for a bluegrass/country band based out of Texas and I also play mandolin and sing in a band that I formed myself. Those tapes are part of the reason I fell in love with the music and chose to make a career out of it. I just wanted to tell you and Robert thank you so much for all the hard work you put in year after year at the Homecoming filming all those great performances and editing them. I just wanted you to know how much your work had an impact on my life. Thank you very much.
God Bless,
Braeden Paul
That email was sent April 11 and I have not received any kind of response. Truthfully, I don’t care if I do, but I hope that at least my words were read and that Marjorie (and hopefully Robert) understand the impact they made on a young kid who was madly in love with bluegrass, country & old time music.

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