John Hartford-Newgrass Innovator and Old Time Fiddler

John Hartford
John Hartford was one of the most talented and unusual musicians to come out of bluegrass in the 1960s and 70s. He excelled at many things. Perhaps most prominently, he was a gifted and quirky songwriter, who gave the world “Gentle On My Mind,” which may be the most recorded song in country music. His deep and resonant voice was ideal for radio, and he worked as a disc jockey known as “Radio John” early in his career. Switching to television after Glen Campbell hit big with “Gentle On My Mind” in 1967, Hartford came into America’s living rooms every week as Campbell’s banjo playing sidekick on The Glen Campbell Good Time Hour.

In addition, John Hartford was a virtuoso on both banjo and fiddle. He was better known (and highly regarded) as a banjoist, who was included in the monumental book “Masters of The Five String Banjo,” by Tony Trischka and Peter Wernick. Perhaps less well known, he was also a serious student and performer of old time fiddling who released several influential recordings of that music with the Hartford String Band. He loved dancing and taught himself to dance on an amplified platform so his steps could be part of the rhythm section while he played and sang.

Moreover, Hartford was one of the pioneers of “newgrass” during the early 1970s with his Dobrolic Plectral Society, a/k/a the Aereo-Plane Band. Hartford also rescued from obscurity the hard driving bluegrass music of his friends and one-time musical partners the Bray Brothers and Red Cravens. In the early 1970s, he helped Rounder issue two LPs of the brothers’ unreleased early 1960s recordings. Hartford was featured in Ken Burns’s acclaimed 1990 documentary “The Civil War.” Finally, as if all this wasn’t enough, Hartford was a licensed riverboat pilot who actually worked at it. Although he died way too early in 2001, he led a remarkably full and creative life.

John Hartford was born in 1937 in New York City. (The family name was “Harford”; producer Chet Atkins suggested he add the “t” when John signed with RCA.) He grew up in St. Louis, and that was where he began playing music. In his early teens he heard Earl Scruggs and was mesmerized. He later described Earl’s banjo instrumental “Dear Old Dixie” as “sunlight pouring out of the radio.” He was soon playing banjo and fiddle and performing with another local banjo virtuoso named Doug Dillard. He also played with local bands including The Sourwood Mountain Three and The Ozark Mountain Trio. The Trio recordings are straight up bluegrass, very well played and sung, with John’s banjo playing solidly in the Scruggs camp. In the early 1960s he also played with the Bray Brothers and Red Cravens, a southern Illinois band. The brothers were banjoist Harley, mandolinist Nate, and bassist Francis, who all played a fiery brand of bluegrass.“Harley’s Breakdown,” from the Rounder LP “Prairie Bluegrass” shows off their instrumental talents. (The LP notes do not identify the fiddler on this track but I believe that it is John Hartford.) John also recorded on banjo with Nate Bray on mandolin on “Ice Cold Love” and “Greensleeves.”

Hartford’s DJ work in Missouri landed him a job on a Nashville radio station where he also signed with the Glaser firm, a top Nashville music publisher. Based on his DJ experience, John recorded “Station Break,” a hilarious send-up of country music disc jockey patter that comically mangles the names of nearly every country and bluegrass act of the day (“Butterfat and Oil Scruggs and Their Soggy Mound of Noise”). Hartford was writing prolifically and eventually landed a record deal with RCA. At this point in the mid-1960s the song publishers and record companies were looking for singer-songwriters in the Dylan mold and RCA apparently thought John might fill that niche. John’s early song “This Eve Of Parting” (which was used in the soundtrack of the 2017 movie “Lady Bird”) indicates they weren’t necessarily mistaken.

Hartford’s second RCA album contained his song “Gentle On My Mind.” His lyric hymn to wanderlust and love was perfectly of its time-the bohemian late 60s-and also timeless. The song took off when Glen Campbell covered it in 1967, earning Hartford two Grammy awards, along with lifetime financial independence. (At a festival in the late 1980s, I saw John Hartford’s tour bus, a huge Silver Eagle, pull in and park. In those days, a Silver Eagle tour bus was the top of the line for a touring band, and John’s was tangible proof of what one monster hit could do for a songwriter.) Hartford’s stints with the Smothers Brothers’ and Glen Campbell’s television shows followed. While in Hollywood, Hartford was offered but turned down a starring role in TV detective series. Much later, his rich baritone landed him a voice part in Ken Burns’ documentary “The Civil War” and his music was featured in the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers film “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”

John’s role as one of the founders of what came to be called newgrass began with his two early 1970s LPs for Warner Bros., “Aereo-Plane” and “Morning Bugle.” The Aereo-Plane Band was an early super group, featuring guitarist Norman Blake, dobroist Tut Taylor, and fiddler and ex-Blue Grass Boy Vassar Clements. The members were instrumental virtuosos and they were not afraid to experiment. As Norman Blake later said, “Nashville in the early 70’s was in a way like Paris in the 1920’s, in the sense of artistic creations and exchange of ideas.” This band pushed way past the boundaries of what was then considered bluegrass, and made some unforgettable music. “Vamp In The Middle” and “Steam Powered Aereo-Plane” became newgrass standards. “Ruff and Ready” (a Tut Taylor mandolin tune), “Oasis” (Tut on dobro), and “Lady Jane” are outtakes from “Aereo-Plane” that show the band’s versatility. Hartford’s banjo style had by this time become uniquely his own. Songs like “All Fall Down” show him leaving behind the straight Scruggs style he had favored early in his career. But he hadn’t lost touch with his roots, as his banjo backup on “Leather Britches” demonstrated.

From his childhood John Hartford was fascinated with steamboats and their pilots. He sang about his love for the river in “The Julia Belle Swain,” from his 1976 Grammy Award winning LP “Mark Twang” (Mark Twain had also been a steamboat pilot early in his career and had written about it). The Julia Belle Swain was the steamboat that Hartford piloted on the Illinois River. One of Hartford’s most charming later recordings is “Gum Tree Canoe” (written by S.S. Steele), which you can hear as another song about watercraft. It would have been right at home on one of Pete Seeger’s American Favorite Ballads LPs.

Late in his life John Hartford recorded several CDs of old time fiddle music, accompanied by the Hartford String Band, which included mandolinist Mike Compton and banjoist Bob Carlin, among others. These recordings were obviously a labor of love, by a musician who was deeply knowledgeable and respectful of the music and the culture from which it grew. One of the CDs was a tribute to fiddler Ed Haley, whom Hartford had long admired. Among other things, these recordings show Hartford as an excellent curator of the music-the tunes are varied but all are great fun to listen to. Hartford’s subtle and pleasing melodic variations are in keeping with the spirit of the music.

Last year, Sam Bush, who is both a Hartford band alumnus and himself a newgrass pioneer, released “Radio John,” Sam’s recorded tribute to John and his music. John Hartford’s considerable musical legacy continues to inspire and delight.


4 Responses

  • Fine coverage of the VERY quirky John Hartford!!

    In addition to being offered a tv detective role, while recording the sound track for O Brother, John was offered a part in the movie. He was asked if he would lead the parade of citizenry near the end of the movie when the bank robber Baby Face Nelson was captured, with a fiddler and a fool at the front. (He would have been the fiddler.) He turned it down feeling it was not a respectful portrayal. Told to me by one of his band members…

  • The concert of ‘O Brother Where Art Thou?’ music ‘Down from the Mountain’ was his last filmed stage performance. His version of ‘The Big Rock Candy Mountain’ was one of the highlights of the show. He didn’t know the song before the concert, and the film of it shows him fiddling and looking at the written lyrics. It is, perhaps, the best ever version of the song. His LP ‘Aereo-Plain’ is perhaps the first newgrass LP, and if not it was the best at that time. He is one of the great under rated song writers of all time.

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