The John Hartford Stringband: Memories Of John
I’m not much of a guitar player, but over the past twenty years I’ve owned guitars by two of the biggest and most famous acoustic guitar companies in North America- Martin and Taylor. Although I currently own a Martin, I’ll confess on this bluegrass blog that I love Taylors: the sound just jumps out of them, bright and loud. A few years ago I took a tour of the Taylor factory near San Diego: it was a marvel of high-tech luthiery, involving computers. lasers, robots, and a secret guitar development lab that only a few people, including Mr. Taylor himself, were allowed to enter. (I suspect that this latter detail was a bit of dramatization for the tour, but it sounds hip and mysterious. The lasers, computers and robots are all quite real, I saw them in action.)
Taylor prides itself on being the cutting edge guitar company. C.F. Martin, on the other hand, is one of the oldest companies in America, and its most expensive guitars are often not the newest models, but the most faithful recreations of guitars designed decades ago. Lots of old bluegrass and country songs mention Martin guitars- and it’s usually “this old Martin box” or some other expression of nostalgia for something traditional, old, reliable, and earthy. Taylors are bright as bells; Martins are woody, earthy and warm. Despite the bazillions of electrons arranged in argumentative forms on internet guitar boards, the point isn’t that Martins are better than Taylors or vice verse; they are two different aesthetics of the acoustic guitar, for different approaches to music itself.
“Two different approaches to music” is also how we might describe the recent albums from the Chapmans and the John Hartford String Band- and lest my meaning be obscured, let’s be clear that I think the Chapmans has the Taylor approach and JHSB has the old Martin box feel to it. Although it’s also true that John Chapman plays an old Martin in the pictures on their website, I had the sense that every note on the album was planned and precisely in place. They are a high-energy, high-competence, high-harmony bluegrass band, capable of instrumental prowess on El Cumbanchero and softer acoustic-country crooning when closing out the album with “I Want to Be Loved Like That,” a song made famous by the country-radio act Shenandoah.
With one notable exception- more on that later- I liked every song on this album: they do it up, they do it right, and they do it well. Besides the Shenandoah song mentioned earlier, they cover Buck Owens (Love’s Gonna Live Here) and make you think it was always a bluegrass song- no complaints. They burn it up with “Rolling Away on a Big Sternwheeler” [I had to look it up, it’s a kind of steamboat] and they make it sweet and emotional with “Jenny Dear.” The title of the album- “Grown Up” – refers to their 20 year history as a family band. For this cd, they rearranged and rerecorded some songs from previous albums; not being familiar with their earlier albums, I can’t compare the older versions to the newer ones.
What I can say is that the Chapmans have recorded a really good album, with real personality in the singing and playing. It sounds fresh and pulsing with energy, it’s driving and straightforward. However, by way of contrast, words I’d use to describe the John Hartford Stringband might be: craggy, old-timey, irreverent, bouncy, unpredictable, and – most of all- fun. The album is called “Memories of John,” and that’s what it is: John Hartford songs, or songs that he made famous or loved to perform, played by musicians with a strong personal connection to his music and legacy. These songs sound old, even when they’re not, and the old ones sound fresh: John Hartford used to play “Lorena,” the famous civil war ballad, and here Tim O’Brien renders it beautifully, with George Buckner even playing JH’s banjo in the loping style any bluegrass fan would recognize. There’s great fiddling and astounding mandolin playing on this album (Mike Compton plays rhythm mandolin like nobody I’ve ever heard) and it’d be a long time before I was tired of hearing Alan O’Bryant (of the Nashville Bluegrass Band) sing “Delta Queen Waltz.”
The Chapmans – “Mommy Please Stay Home With Me”
John Hartford – “Lorena”
John Hartford’s music was like that old Martin guitar: warm, sometimes old-fashioned, and down-to-earth. This album is fiddle tunes, silly songs that somehow don’t get tired after repeated listening, beautiful, aching waltzes and one sort of strange Mississippi folk rap homage to John with clogging accompaniment. It’s meant seriously, but it’s the only song on the cd that doesn’t bear repeated listenings, if only because there’s not enough. . well. . .music in it. Oh- by the way- remember I told you I didn’t like one song on the Chapman’s CD? That would be “Bubble Gum Baby,” which is entirely light-hearted in contrast to the JHSB folk-rap “For John,” but in both cases, I wish bands would learn the lesson that novelty songs are fun the first time, but wear out quickly thereafter.
Two very, very different albums, very different approaches. Both are good- both are very good- but if my ipod had room for only one of these cd’s, I’d go with the JHSB, because you can tell they’re playing music- as in play- and having fun with it, which gives a lightness and joy to an album conceived in mourning for a great American spirit.