As a young musician growing up in St Louis, Missouri John Hartford was inspired by the Grand Ole Opry radio show & particularly the finger-picking stylings of banjo master Earl Scruggs. While other white teenagers were trying to play Rhythm & Blues but starting to rock & roll John’s high school band played Bluegrass. He was in his mid-20s when he moved to Nashville in 1965 & signed with RCA records the following year. The 6 LPs he made with Felton Jarvis, Elvis’ man in Nashville, are a mix of poetic romanticism & wry humour. Hartford had more going on than the folkie Dylan imitators, was never, despite some incongruous orchestration, country enough for diehards but too rootsy & individual for a pop audience. It was a song from his 2nd LP “Earthwords & Music” which found an audience & changed his life.
“Gentle On My Mind” was the title track of Glen Campbell’s breakthrough LP (“The Big, Bad Rock Guitar of…” had missed out in 1965). There were 4 Grammy awards waiting for the song in 1968, 2 of them for Hartford himself. Later that year Dean Martin recorded his version which was a Top 3 UK hit. It became an upbeat Aretha Franklin B-side, she shows crooner Andy Williams how it’s done in this clip. When Elvis went to American Sound Studio for his “…In Memphis” record he included his take on the song. Well Alright ! The royalty cheques must have been so big that 4 guys had to carry them to John’s door. After writing such a major hit John Hartford was pretty much allowed to follow whatever musical path he wanted. To his credit he didn’t choose to tailor his songs in search of another middle-of-the-road crossover hit.
John was around US TV in the late-60s. He regularly appeared on the Smothers Brothers show & again when Glen Campbell got his own series. He joined Johnny Cash for a Bill Monroe medley & a solo spot of “I’ve Heard That Tear-Stained Monologue You Do There By The Door Before You Go” (phew !) which is pretty, pretty good. Better still he added his banjo & fiddle to the the Byrds’ “Sweetheart of the Rodeo”, check “I Am A Pilgrim” & “Pretty Boy Floyd”. Young rock musicians were starting to mine a vein of American roots music which had been neglected in the rock & roll years.
Hartford’s contract with RCA ended & he moved to Warner Bros in 1971. His first LP for them was quite a surprise. The clean cut young man, the welcome guest in America’s living rooms, had been replaced by a Fabulous Furry Freak Brother ! I admit that the striking cover of “Aereo-Plain” made me take a closer look. The quality of his accompanists impressed too & when I got the record home & took a listen I knew that I had made a spur of the moment purchase I would not regret (mentioning no names !).
“Aereo-Plain” is a joyous mix of John Hartford’s love for Bluegrass & letting his freak flag fly. He sounded more comfortable with his music & with his attitude than on any of his previous records. He assembled an all-star band of Nashville Cats & they sound clean as country water, wild as mountain dew. Guitarist Norman Blake had joined Bob Dylan for his Nashville visit, Randy Scruggs, bass, was the son of Hartford’s hero Earl. Tut Taylor was Music City’s Dobro player of choice while Vassar Clements, a veteran of Bill Monroe & the Blue Grass Boys later added his fiddle to records by members of the Grateful Dead, the Allman Brothers & the Beatles. John’s fluid, subtle banjo playing fits right in with these guys. Together they make a beautiful noise, producer David Bromberg was told to let the tape roll & leave it on.
The LP is lyrically retrospective, “Tear Down The Grand Ole Opry”, “Back in the Goodle Days”, “Steamboat Whistle Blues” & the lovely “First Girl I Loved” (a cousin ?) are all wistful & whistleable. The stoner “Holding” & the out there “Boogie” bring High Times humour to the piece. “Aereo-Plain” has the same blend of hippie spirit & respect for musical roots as its contemporaries “Workingman’s Dead”, “Burrito Deluxe”, “Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers’ Favorites”, modern country rock classics that avoided worthy revivalism. It’s somewhere in your e-appliance (try Y-tube).
Of course the record barely made the Top 200 of the LP charts & the following year’s “Morning Bugle”, recorded with Blake & former Miles Davis bassist Dave Holland was barely promoted. Hartford walked away from Warners & didn’t record again for 4 years. When he returned “Aereo-Plain” had become more recognised as a modern Bluegrass classic (I’m not gonna say “newgrass”…oh sh…!). John became a fixture on the folk & country circuit, a virtuoso welcomed by many talented musicians, a solo performer on banjo & fiddle, playing while dancing on a a piece of amplified plywood. He loved the steamboat culture of the Mississippi River & held a pilot’s licence as well as being an authority on its music & stories. Though suffering from Non-Hodgkin lymphoma he was still around to contribute to the soundtrack of “Oh Brother Where Art Thou ?”, another revival of a music that had never gone away.
Since his passing in 2001 the 6 LPs he recorded for RCA have been reissued. “Aereo-Plain” & “Modern Bugle” are the starting points for John Hartford. His intelligent, romantic, witty country-pop songs make his work before those 2 worth checking too.