ZANESVILLE – On Monday night, 27-year-old Craig Bartley went to Blackhand Gorge to play his guitar in a beautiful place. His friend AJ Adams went with him.

Bartley climbed a tree. Adams heard him slip, then watched him fall. He ran for help.

“It was my best friend down there,” he said.

Bartley died that night. When he fell, he landed on rocks at the bottom of a cliff. Eric Heis, a spokesperson for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources, told the Newark Advocate that Bartley would have died instantly.

Bartley’s remains were taken to the Licking County Coroner’s Office. At the time of his death, he was living in Louisville, Kentucky, but he graduated from Tri-Valley High School, and many of the friends he left behind still live in the area.

That’s where Adams met him — at school — when Adams was 16 years old and Bartley was just a little younger. They played guitars together, and Bartley taught Adams everything he knew about music.

“He was so good at teaching,” Adams said. “He was my favorite person to play music with my whole life.”

Bartley could play the guitar, banjo, mandolin and so many other instruments, Adams said. He was ridiculously talented. He was always smiling.

“I don’t know why he slipped,” Adams said. “He shouldn’t have been in that tree.”

He loved God, too, and Jesus, and he took his faith seriously. It was comforting to Admas, knowing that Bartley had to be in a better place because he believed in God so much.

“He loved everything about life,” Adams said. “I loved him. He was my best friend. He’s the reason I play music.”

Chaz McClure said every time he and Bartley got together, they would play music. McClure would sing and Bartley, he said, would “make that guitar sing.”

“I just never anticipated that would be gone,” McClure said.

He’d known Bartley since they were school-age children, and the last time they saw each other, McClure had played a show in Cincinnati and then drove to Louisville and stayed with Bartley. They played songs for Bartley’s brother while he was in the hospital.

That was a month ago.

“It’s just kind of slowly sinking in,” McClure said.

He received a call late Monday night about Bartley’s death. The more he talks about it, he said, the more real it becomes. The more he feels the loss.

He always wanted to put together a band with Bartley. He always planned on it, even. He assumed they would have plenty of time in the future, and, someday, it would happen. Although McClure misses the musician Bartley was, he also misses his friend.

“He was just a great kid, man. He was just an all-around good guy,” McClure said. “He was always down for a good time. Always had a smirk on his face.”

A couple of years ago, Adams was playing with Bartley outside of the Louisville Palace while Prince was playing inside. Prince’s stage manager was so impressed with Bartley’s musicianship, Adams said, that they got to go backstage and watch Prince play Purple Rain during his encore.

Another time, Bartley was playing outside the Kentucky Derby, Adams said, and was invited to play inside.

Kyle Bible, another of Bartley’s old schoolmates, said that’s how it went for Bartley.

Once, Bartley made it to Bible’s home in Columbus, and asked Bible for a ride downtown. He had all of his music equipment — guitars, amps, etc.

“I remember not understanding why he wanted to do that,” Bible said.

But Bible dropped him off in front of the Nationwide Arena, and Bartley played on the street as whatever concert was taking place ended and attendees spilled into the street.

Days later, Bible asked Bartley how his night ended, and Bartley told him he made some friends and went back to their home and continued to play music.

While Bartley was a free spirit, Bible joined the military and the rigid lifestyle that comes with it. He admired Bartley for his carefree attitude.

“He would definitely not put up with anyone being upset by his departure,” Bible said. “At no point in time was he wasting any days of his life.”

The last time they saw each other for a significant length of time was at Bible’s wedding. Bartley played the music as the bride walked down the aisle.

“I always wished I had a little brother,” Bible said. “I guess, in a way, he fulfilled that role for me.”

Newark Advocate reporter Bethany Bruner contributed to this report.

ksnyder2@zanesvilletimesrecorder.com

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Twitter: @KL_Snyder