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John Hartford - Still Gentle On Our Minds

It is almost twenty years since John Hartford died. And please don’t say John Who? For it is genuinely recognised that John Hartford was indeed a musical genius. And thankfully his great legacy remains to this day, due mainly to a variety of projects by his family and musical purists since he died in Nashville on June 4, 2001.

Hartford has long been regarded a master of the music genre now recognised and marketed as Americana Music. He was a much admired banjo and fiddle player and a singer-songwriter who found fame – and a little fortune – as the composer of “Gentle on My Mind,” one of the most popular songs of all-time.

Hartford’s banjo-infused recording of “Gentle on My Mind” gained little attention when it was released in 1967. But when cross-over country star Glenn Campbell ‘s version became a world-wide blockbuster hit soon after, Hartford was thrust into the musical spotlight and was soon rubbing shoulders with the likes of Johnny Cash. He would go on to win a handful of Grammy Awards over three decades from a huge catalogue of songs.

His career received a resurgence in the closing years when T-Bone Burnett asked him to record numbers for the sound-track of the Coen brothers’ movie Oh Brother Where Art Thou which sold millions and earned a Grammy for Album of the Year. The movie success sparked the Down From The Mountain concert tour in 2001 in which he made his final appearances. In fact he is forever immortalised on the concert film as the popular and very-personable Master of Ceremonies.

In recent years, his daughter Katie Harford Hogue has been unearthing a treasure trove of hand-written fiddle compositions and musical charts with Nashville musicians Matt Combs and Greg Reish. In 2018 they published John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes, an anthology of 176 of Hartford’s original compositions.

And now, the second part of this project has seen the release of The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Vol. 1, a collection of 17 of these tunes played by several artists including some of Hartford’s former band members. Coinciding with this comes On the Road: A Tribute to John Hartford on which another group of artists honour Hartford by interpreting 15 of his songs.

Both albums display the musical purity and integrity which made Hartford a legend.

The first is an easy-listening, instrumental-influenced collection featuring such bluegrass stalwarts as mandolinists Sierra Hull, Mike Compton and Ronnie McCoury, banjoists Noam Pikelny and Mark Howard, and guitarists Chris Eldridge and Chris Sharp. Compton, Howard and Sharp have all been past members of Hartford’s various line-ups.

The only vocals are provided by Bluegrass all-rounder Tim O’Brien on the lyrical cheeky “On Guitars, The End of New Fingers Get Sore” and equally funky “The Old Man’s Drunk.” Well the old man’s up on the roof again/ He’s been that way since the sun came down/The old man’s drunk/ And he won’t come down.

O’Brien demonstrates his guitar skills on the final number “Evening Farewell” in which he combines with Shad Cobb on fiddle, and Matt Combs on fiddle and bass cello for what turns out to be a beautiful chamber-like rendition.

Combs’ fiddle is influential across a number of tracks including the delightful reel “Calhoun County” and the sprightly “Don Brown and the Boys.”

On the Road: A Tribute to John Hartford, - the reworking from Hartford’s established repertoire - gets, as might be expected, a somewhat more impulsive treatment by the likes of The Infamous Stringdusters, The Band of Heathens, The Travelin’ McCourys, Todd Snider and Sam Bush.

The collection is head and tailed with different treatments of the same song, “On the Road,” off Hartford’s 1972 Morning Bugle album. Bush, who has a long musical association with the legend, leads the way with an up-tempo, very purposeful delivery, while banjo virtuoso Danny Barnes closes with a charming solo version.

Hartford’s infatuation with the Mississippi River is well documented in both his river-centric music and historical writings – he had a riverboat pilot’s licence and is known to have spent his days up on the bridge and the nights down below with banjo in hand. So it is no surprise that one of his riverboat songs - “Delta Queen Waltz” by Railroad Earth – is included in the remakes.

As might be expected, Hartford’s blockbuster “Gentle on My Mind” is central to the collection. The Infamous Stringdusters do the honours with a passionate rendition, adorned with a sparkling fiddle bridge.

One of Hartford’s finest versions of “Gentle ..” is included on his 2008 release “No End of Love.” And it is this title track which receives probably the standout treatment of the collection. The Travelin’ McCourys do the honours with wonderful harmonies, unmatched elsewhere. The McCourys then team up with Keller Williams to hammer out, somewhat tongue-in-check, the witty “Granny Woncha Smoke Some Marijuana.”

The song is an instant reminder of Hartford’s affable, endearing personality. There was no better reflection on his life than when Emmylou Harris told Rolling Stone upon his passing: “He was a kind of the quintessential musician; a great musician and storyteller with a great sense of humour.” And somehow it is a pity that Emmylou is missing from this wonderful musical documentary of Riverboat John’s immense work.

Paul Cutler

Editor Crossroads – Americana Music Appreciation.


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