“When I was with Ralph Stanley, J.D. Crowe, Boone Creek, before I went to work with Emmylou, I’d go to these festivals and see John show up with just a Barkus berry [a pickup that amplifies a violin], a board, his fiddle and his banjo and he’d do his one-man show and it was awesome,” says Ricky Skaggs of John Hartford. “You didn’t want to follow John. If John was playing from nine to ten, you could forget about playing after that because the crowd was his. Moments like that showed John as the brilliant entertainer that he was.”
As a songwriter, dancer, top-notch string-musician, and — most of all — as an entertainer, John Hartford was one of acoustic music’s most versatile, talented and engaging iconoclasts. Hartford died on June 4th in Nashville after a lengthy battle with cancer; he was sixty-three.
Hartford was born on December 30, 1937 in New York City, though his family relocated to St. Louis when he was an infant. The locale placed an indelible mark on Hartford’s future, as his fascination with the Mississippi River ultimately led to his work as a riverboat deckhand and many years later a riverboat pilot. A parallel interest in acoustic, old-time music was also piqued during his youth, as he learned to play banjo and fiddle as a teen, and his dual pursuits fed each other throughout his lifetime.
Though he did sporadic recording in the early Sixties, it wasn’t until Hartford’s thirties that he hit paydirt. Hartford’s second long-player, Earthwords and Music was released in 1967 and featured the tune “Gentle on My Mind,” an original composition that changed the direction of his career. The song eschewed the tired verse, chorus, etc. trend in favor of a poetically lilting string of words that dance towards the song title which quietly punctuates the end of each verse, rather than using it to drive home a chorus.
“He could really paint a picture with words. He told me he wrote ‘Gentle on My Mind’ after he had watched Dr. Zhivago,” says Ronnie McCoury, a first-rate mandolin picker, songwriter and singer who swapped appearances with Hartford on their recent recordings. “And he said, ‘I wanted to drink Julie Christie’s bathwater.’ He sat down at a picnic table and wrote the song in twenty minutes. He said it went against every rule that could be a rule in music. It didn’t have a chorus, it had a banjo on it, and it was four minutes long.”
Glen Campbell covered the beautiful yet melancholy song a year later and scored a crossover hit, cracking Billboard’s Top Forty in November 1968. Testament to the song’s enduring appeal and stylistic malleability, is the shortlist of artists who have covered it: country artists including old guard (Hank Snow), countrypolitan (Campbell, Tammy Wynette), outlaw country (Waylon Jennings) and bluegrass (Earl Scruggs). And that’s just the Nashville cats. Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Patti Page have also taken turns with the song.
“He had a way of being different with things,” says Norman Blake, one of the finest acoustic guitarists of the past century. “He always had these bass progressions that wove their way through his music, there was one on ‘Gentle on My Mind.’ The bass line is probably what sold that song as much as anything, that and the poetry, of course.”
“It should encourage young songwriters out there to write that one mega-classic hit,” Skaggs says of the song. “That’s what I would tell any young, aspiring songwriter. If you hit one home run in this game — and John didn’t [just] hit a home run, he hit a grand slam with ‘Gentle on My Mind’ — a song like that can set you up for your children and your children’s children.”
Indeed, “Gentle on My Mind” sprung Hartford into semi-notoriety as he headed to the West Coast and did regular work writing and performing on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, exercising his comedic talent as well as his musical skills. He also made a guest spot picking guitar and banjo on the Byrd’s notorious turn towards country music, Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
By the early Seventies, Hartford bid California adieu and headed to Nashville, where he began recording with fellow string wizards Blake, Vassar Clements and Tut Taylor on his enduring cult classic Aereo-Plain in 1971, which he followed a year later by his musical tribute to the Mississippi River, Down the River. The former was a forward-thinking and enduring album that three decades later still sounds fresh. It almost single-handedly birthed the new grass movement, a progressive strand of bluegrass, as well as inspired generations of jam-minded pickers.
Hartford’s successes lent him a creative carte blanche as he recorded ten albums of his wry, clever, old-time-ish music in the Seventies. “That he could be electric and singing and writing marijuana and washing-machine songs, and then come all the way back to playing around one microphone with his Good Old Boy Band was pretty amazing,” McCoury says. And that fearlessness carried over into Hartford’s performances. “He had a lot of nerve when it came to performing,” Blake says. “I saw him do things that a lot of us would be reticent to do. He would take chances on stage, but it would work for him. When I first started working with him, I think I might have been a little nervous, and he would tell me, ‘Blake, when we go on stage, let’s just stumble over all the microphone stands first . . . get their attention.'”
“He was a brilliant performer,” Emmylou Harris concurs. “It seems to me that John was a legend from the beginning, even when he was a young man. He was kind of the quintessential musician; a great musician and storyteller with a great sense of humor . . . and of course he was a great dancer.”
Hartford remained a prolific recording artist and entertainer through the Eighties and Nineties, fighting off his illness. “I would spend a lot of time going over [to Hartford’s house] and sitting with him and playing, because the guy would play constantly,” McCoury adds. “I don’t know of anybody with as much love for wanting to play all the time as him. Every musician loves to do that, but he was extreme.”
But the two years between his most recent studio release, Good Old Boys, and Hartford’s death were hardly downtime. Hartford was among the contributors to the musical tapestry that backed last year’s film, O Brother Where Art Thou. Though his role on the O Brother‘s hit soundtrack was limited to fiddle takes on “Indian War Whoop” and the film’s chorus, “Man of Constant Sorrow,” and some backing fiddle work, during the only live performance of the music at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium last year (captured in the D.A. Pennebaker film Down From the Mountain), Hartford served as the program’s emcee, providing history as well as introductions in the between song banter, and filling in vocals on the late Harry “Mac” McClintock’s 1928 “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” one of two vintage recordings on the film’s soundtrack. “His performance of that song was one of the best things I ever saw,” says Harris.
The musicians who created the soundtrack will take to the stage of New York City’s Carnegie Hall on June 13th to perform the music from the film, in what will be only the second public performance of the songs. At the first show, the set, like the soundtrack, closed with Ralph Stanley and the other performers singing the Stanley Brothers’ “Angel Band.” The New York City show will likely stick to the formula, and with its chorus of “O come, Angel Band/come and around me stand/O bear me away on your snow white wings/to my immortal home,” the song is likely to be the most fitting and emotional tribute to an American treasure whose music will continue to give in his absence. There is no word yet as to how the show will be reconfigured without Hartford, because as Harris says, “the wound is still very, very fresh.”
But Hartford’s physical absence will extend beyond the O Brother production, as he was one of the most widely beloved entertainers in Nashville. “He was a very rare individual,” Skaggs says. “John always had a pickin’ going on at his house. That’s what we’ll all miss, are those gatherings at his house on the river.” That house on the river found Hartford immersed in his two favorite pursuits, as the interior of his home was designed to look like a steamboat and river maps would call his home, John Hartford Point. That home played host to a holiday celebration every other year, which would run from Christmas through New Years Day. “It was just a great thing to experience,” Harris says. “Twenty-four hours a day, everybody bringing food and playing music.”
“He was the single most original musician/composer in Nashville,” McCoury says. “And one of the most respected men in country, folk, bluegrass, whatever you want to call it.”