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Frank Hartley

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Still playing 50 years later

By Michele Roberts

Frank Hartley and his wife Betty may be best known locally for running Hartley’s Appliance on South Main Street in Lancaster for 30 years. Some residents and newcomers may not know, however, that Frank Hartley has been playing country and bluegrass music for more than 50 years; a talent that landed him on stage at Carnegie Hall in 1984.

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Hartley, who will be 80-years-old this month, said he started playing guitar when he was about 15. He also plays the bass fiddle and said many years ago he made one out of a washtub, which he used to play at local square dances. His pay at the time was $5 per show.

“I really had no idea where all of it would lead,” Hartley said. “And I certainly didn’t dream it would lead to Carnegie Hall.”

Throughout the years, Hartley’s talent took him up and down the east coast. He played festivals in Kentucky, Baltimore and Delaware. He recalled one time playing in Washington, D.C. on a Friday night and being scheduled to play at Myrtle Beach Pavilion the following afternoon.

Locally, Hartley performed at the very first bluegrass festival held at Andrew Jackson State Park.

“There were cars parked literally all the way to the highway that year,” he said. “It was something to see, that’s for sure.”

He once met country singer Patsy Cline and was part of the ensemble that performed the Martha White Flour jingle that aired on the radio. He played at the Lake City Tobacco Festival one year, which featured music legends Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Hartley said that during that time, he and Betty lived in Columbia, but came to Lancaster every day to run the appliance store.

“Those late nights sure took a toll,” he recalled. “When I think about it now, I don’t know how I did it. I would play somewhere and get home around 2 or 3 a.m., get a couple of hours of sleep and get back up to be at the store. There were times when Betty didn’t see much of me at all, because I just stayed on the road so much; it did pay off in the end.”

“I didn’t travel with him back then,” Betty Hartley said. “Most of the wives didn’t. Besides, I was too busy working. Somebody had to pay the bills. I worked at Springs for 28 years and then 30 years at the appliance store with Frank. We retired from the appliance business two and a half years ago; we’re just letting the new owners keep the name.”

Betty Hartley kept up with all of the flyers, magazine and newspaper articles that featured Frank through the years. He appeared in an issue of National Geographic Traveler magazine and was featured several times in The Lancaster News.

One photo dates back to the 1950s and features Hartley, Jimmy Harris, Gene Carnes and Luther Starnes. The four were leaving shortly after the picture was taken to perform at the Tennessee Barn Dance in Knoxville, Tenn.

Hartley was also featured in the Living section of The Lancaster News on Oct. 3, 1984.

Among the paraphernalia the Hartleys have preserved is the playbill from Carnegie Hall, where Hartley performed as a member of Pappy Sherrill and Snuffy Jenkins’ band, The Hired Hands, in November 1984.

“I never will forget that [performance],” he said. “We flew into LaGuardia Airport, and I remember people telling us to stay in pairs going down the street while we were there. I had never seen anything like New York City.”

Hartley said while none of the band members were strangers to the stage, Carnegie Hall was “something else.”

“The acoustics were just tremendous,” he said. “The place was packed. We started off with ‘The Orange Blossom Special’ and brought everyone out of their seats; that sure was an experience, I’ll tell you that.”

David Moree, a friend of Hartley’s, said he had no idea about Frank’s musical past until he told Frank a story about meeting Patsy Cline as a child.

“She autographed my arm and told me if I was just a little older she’d go for me,” Moree said with a smile. “I was telling Frank about that and told him I once sang on the radio down in Kershaw. He started telling me how he played at Carnegie Hall, and I was just floored; I had no idea. I started thinking about the ‘We Are Lancaster’ campaign, and thought it was important that his story be told. Frank is living proof that Lancaster is not some dying town; not when it produced someone like him.”

Hartley played with The Hired Hands for a number of years.

Sherrill and Jenkins played together for over 50 years, starting out on WIS radio station in Columbia in 1939.

Jenkins was the originator of the three-finger style of banjo playing that influenced other notable banjo players, including Earl Scruggs. Jenkins passed away in 1990 and Hartley said the band members were active pall bearers at the funeral.
“After the funeral, we did an hour-long special on WIS TV,” he said. “That was the hardest show I ever did. Here we were, all torn up, trying to get up there and perform; but somehow, we did it.”

Videos of Hartley’s performances with The Hired Hands can be found at www.youtube.com. Search for Pappy Sherrill and Snuffy Jenkins to bring up videos from various performances.