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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 646

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This is the grave of John Hartford.

Born in New York City in 1937, John Harford grew up in St. Louis. From the time he was a child, he was obsessed by two things–the Mississippi River and country and old-time music. He was a huge Earl Scruggs fan and by the time he was 13 was winning old-time fiddle and banjo contests. In 1965, he moved to Nashville. The next year, his clear skills and pop sensibilities as a warm folkie with a unique style led Chet Atkins to show a great interest in the young man, as well as telling him to a “t” to his last name to make it easier for people to say. He was signed to RCA and released a couple of albums. On the second, 1967’s Earthwords & Music, he recorded a song he wrote after watching Dr. Zhivago. “Gentle On My Mind” was heard shortly after by Glen Campbell, who recorded it for himself. That version became of the biggest hits in country music history and the song was recorded by hundreds of artists. It’s an odd song in some ways to be such a big hit, with its strange meter and unusual style, but then that was Hartford in a nutshell.

What “Gentle On My Mind” did was make John Hartford a wealthy man. This meant he didn’t have to try and write hits and it didn’t really matter all that much if the public loved his projects. He could truly go in his own direction. It took him a few years to find his way to that creativity though. He moved to Los Angeles after Campbell’s hit and became a regular. as well as a comedy writer, on Glen Campbell’s Goodtime Hour on CBS, as well as on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, which brought him before millions of people, even if they didn’t always know what to do with the banjoist and fiddler who combined old-time ways, country music industry smarts, and being a hippie. He put out some more albums, which I’d mostly describe during this period as LA country rock of a sort. He was still figuring out what kind of artist he was really going to be. He played with The Byrds on Sweetheart of the Rodeo and was a fixture of the burgeoning hippie-country scene. He refused to shake hands with people for fear of hurting the tools he needed to play so well.

But Los Angeles was not really where Hartford belonged. He moved back to Nashville, buying a house overlooking the Cumberland River. It was in the early 70s when he really discovered his groove. That was a combination of being a steamboat captain and writing songs about steamboats and marijuana and whatever else captured his fancy in one of the most iconoclastic ways in country music history. His 1971 album Aereo-Plain is one of the most fascinating and wonderful albums ever made. The album was a commercial disaster at the time. Warner Brothers, now his label, had no idea what to do with this. In fact, Hartford got out of his contract with the label after they didn’t promote it. But it became a hugely influential album, first on the newgrass movement that was starting at the time and then on the growing Americana scene in the 1990s, by which time Hartford was a beloved senior figure. Aereo-Plain starts with the old country gospel tune “Turn Your Radio On” and then transitions into some of the best songs Hartford ever wrote–“Steamboat Whistle Blues,” “Back in the Good Ole Days,” “Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie.” That’s followed by the gonzo “Boogie” with weird voices and sounds and then a series of really sweet songs like “First Girl I Loved,” “Presbyterian Guitar,” and “Steam Powered Aereo Plane,” as well as one of his weed tunes “Holding” and a plea to not tear down the Ryman Auditorium, “They’re Going To Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry.” It’s a fascinating ride, a low-production album with great players (Vassar Clements, Tut Taylor, Randy Scruggs, and the great Norman Blake on guitar) and a vibe that must have made Bill Monroe shake his head in wonderment, though they later became close friends.

Probably his second best album is 1976’s Mark Twang. This is a Hartford only album, mostly banjo and fiddle but also with an amplified piece of plywood he set up to use his feet as an instrument. Hartford goes all in on the steamboats here. Not only is the cover of the album a steamboat, but the songs reflect all the time he had been spending on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers over the past few years. My favorite is “Let Him Go On Mama,” about an aging riverboat captain that has great lines such as

And long ago he smoked reefer
And he even made home brew
And the reefer come in through New Orleans
Back before World War II

and

Well he comes from a real old-time way of life
He had to fight to just learn how
And he might even have voted for Nixon once
But I’m sure he sees that now

There’s other gems such as “Skippin in the Mississippi Dew,” “Long Hot Summer Days,” and “The Julia Belle Swain,” which was the name of the boat he captained during the summer season. And then there’s the quirky weirdness that should not work, but does. “The Lowest Pair” is Hartford toking up (you can hear) and rewriting the Lord’s Prayer for himself. “Don’t Leave Your Records in the Sun” has him repeating lines like a warped record. “Austin Minor Symphony” is an incredible nearly 7 minute minor key fiddle solo that he makes sound like he could be in an orchestra. And then there’s “Tater Tate and Allan Mundy,” which is a long list of his bluegrass heroes spoken at an extremely fast rate. Fascinating, odd, and very successful album.

Hartford’s real creative genius probably peaked around this time. He continued putting out albums through the 80s and 90s of various quality, but usually with some good songs. He spent a lot of time on the river. He began to research and write about both steamboats and old-time fiddlers. In his music, he turned gently nostalgic. It worked for him because he was such a warm guy. This wasn’t cranky old man nostalgia. This was thinking about to simple days on the river or the summer in a way that made you want to snuggle up with whoever you went to the show with. He was whimsical and quirky and fun.

What Hartford was not was particularly healthy. In 1980, he was diagnosed with lymphoma and spent the next two decades doing whatever he could to stay alive. I don’t really know the extent to which this influenced the nostalgic phase in his music, but it wouldn’t surprise me if it didn’t color how he saw the world and his place in it. He continued releasing some fun work. His Retrograss album with Mike Seeger and David Grisman for instance, made up of old cover songs, is a hoot. Seeger and Grisman are not good singers and really Hartford is somewhat limited too but they are having a great time and Hartford does one of the best versions of “The Old Home Place” I have ever heard. He hung out with Bill Monroe a bunch as the Father of Bluegrass aged and became a person people actually wanted to be around. Hartford wrote about the various stories Monroe would tell him in “Cross-Eyed Child,” a 10 minute song on the Good Old Boys album. In live versions, he would change up the stories to whatever he felt like talking about that night.

In 1999, Hartford was contacted by T-Bone Burnett to contribute to the O Brother Where Art Thou soundtrack. He played on a couple of instrumentals and then was the MC for the big debut concert of it all in Nashville at the Ryman in 2000. I was in Nashville at this time, working a horrible union job for a terrible human who was heading that local. I was miserable. I saw that show advertised and was wondering what the heck it was and thought about going and then, probably because I didn’t have much money and was depressed by the awful job, didn’t go. I regret that big time, right up there with missing the last full show Johnny Cash played before he collapsed on stage.

That was the only chance I had to see John Hartford play. In 2001, the lymphoma finally got him. He was 63 years old. His wife Marie, who had a career working for Tompall Glaser at the outset of the Outlaw Country movement, died of lung cancer a few months later. Unlike John, this was a very rapid decline, dying on New Year’s Eve after being told of her cancer on Christmas Eve.

Let’s listen to some of the late, great John Hartford.

John Hartford is buried in Spring Hill Cemetery, Nashville, Tennessee.

This is the first grave post I’ve written in the COVID-era. To be honest, I spun into what was for me anyway a pretty low depression as this all hit and it’s been a bit of a journey coming back out of it. And then the grave series fell out of my routine of things to do as I was figuring out how to teach online and deal with the rest of my life. Plus, when could I travel again to see graves? Providence has even shut down access to the old city cemetery, where I always figured I’d go if things got desperate. But things are getting better, if not in the world, at least in my head. So I figured I might as well start moving through my backlog of graves.

This grave visit was sponsored by LGM readers. It was great. If you would like this series to visit other bluegrass or old-time musicians, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Who knows, maybe someday I will be able to leave Rhode Island again. Vassar Clements is in Mount Juliet, Tennessee and Tut Taylor is in Milledgeville, Georgia. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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