By Anna Fasolino
“Good morning, Captain!” 21-year-old Abby Hartley’s clear voice sails through the loudspeakers over the RV park in Waldron, Arkansas. She’s singing the opening lines of “Mule Skinner Blues,” a bluegrass classic she has performed since she was 8 years old. Later she and 13-year-old Micah harmonize on their fiddles in a beautiful arrangement of “Sweet Hour of Prayer.” Audience members who were laughing and whooping a few minutes ago now have tears in their eyes.
“We use the bluegrass classics to enter into their world,” said Deb Hartley, mom and bass player for the group. “Instead of asking them to come and hear the gospel, we’re going to them.”
Connect with Communities
The Hartley Family band began almost by accident when Micah was a baby. Tom and Deb asked each of their six children (only two of whom are still with the band) to choose an instrument. The children began playing a few songs, and soon someone invited the family to play their first concert. “I remember we girls were singing a gospel song a cappella,” Abby laughed. “It was awful.”
They worked hard to improve, and within a few years were touring all over the U.S. Micah, once a toddler on stage with a fake instrument, is now a banjo player with jaw-dropping speed and ability. Abby plays multiple instruments, although her preferred instrument is the guitar, and their dad, Tom, plays either the banjo or guitar. They perform in churches, bluegrass festivals, town celebrations, and even farmer’s markets and nursing homes. “We take almost every opportunity we can,” said Deb.
Their favorite type of performance is one in which a church sponsors a bluegrass concert at a park or other neutral location and then has the Hartleys play a second concert on the Sunday following. “Then we feel like we are helping churches connect with their communities,” Tom said. “People will come hear bluegrass music, then want to hear us again. So they’ll come to church the next day.” Or, he added, if someone hears the gospel at a church-sponsored event, they know where to go for discipleship.
A Singing People
When asked about times their music has had a major impact on someone, one experience in particular stands out to them. The oldest Hartley daughter had written a song about a family friend who had prayed for her husband for 20 years before he finally believed in Christ. “We sang that song in Wisconsin,” explained Tom, “and there was this couple with almost the same story. A while after our concert, the husband became a believer. He died several years later, and his wife told us that he had requested two of our songs to be played at his funeral.”
Abby remembered a young man telling her about the impact made on his life when he heard “I’ll Never Be the Same Again,” a song that Deb wrote. “When you come in contact with Jesus, you are changed,” Abby said. “That song goes through the experiences of different people in the Bible who came in contact with Jesus and were never again the same.”
Right now, The Hartley Family is working on recording an album of hymns. “We prayed a lot before we started,” Abby said. “It has been a really wonderful time as a family.”
“Through the history of God’s people, they have always been a singing people, singing hymns and psalms,” Tom pointed out. “The goal is that as people listen to this CD, they will sing along from their hearts.”
The Hartleys are passionate about encouraging others to use their gifts for God’s glory. “I can’t remember who said it first,” Deb says, “but the arts can act as a bridge between the church and the world.” Whether a person has a gift in music, dance, or visual media, she said, that gift can be used to communicate God’s love and grace.
You can hear The Hartley Family’s music on Reverb Nation or their site (hartleyfamilybluegrass.blogspot.com).
Anna Fasolino is a writer and former teacher who lives in Texas with her husband and baby son.