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Americana Music

John Hartford: Pay Attention, Kids!

I’ll try to make this as brief as possible, but it seems to be important to me and should be to you as well.

I am currently working on an article for Fiddler Magazine (www.fiddle.com) regarding the recent release of The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project: Volume 1. This album is a companion to the 2018 book John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes. The book contains 176 tunes from John Hartford that were never recorded by him – just written down in music notation and filed away in various notebooks. His daughter Katie Harford Hogue (not a misspelling, John’s real surname was Harford), fiddler Matt Combs and musicologist Greg Reish gathered up these tunes for the book, which is an enjoyable read even if you never heard of Hartford. This year, Hogue and Combs produced the album to include 17 of these songs, performed by a number of A-list bluegrass musicians, including Tim O’Brien, Alison Brown, Ronnie McCoury, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge, and the band Hawktail among others. It sounds fantastic!

John Hartford was a singer/songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, writer and steamboat pilot, along with a dozen other unique hobbies. Faulkner, Hemmingway, Steinbeck, nor Anderson could have written a more distinct character into one of their novels. He loved music immensely. He would have jamming parties at his house in Tennessee that would last for days. He wrote one of the greatest country/pop standard songs of all time (“Gentle On My Mind”) that allowed him to live off of the royalties to do his own thing with studying old-time fiddle music and riverboat history.

Hartford died in 2001 of Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma, which kept him from playing his fiddle and banjo in his final months. His last major appearance was in the music documentary Down From The Mountain, which highlighted the music from the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou. In 1994, I was fortunate enough to jam with him for a few minutes at Gruhn’s Guitars in Nashville. I was passing through town to attend a Civil War reenactment, and stopped into the store to try out a few guitars. From behind me, Hartford walks up, grabs a banjo, and asks me to fall in with him while he started “Cripple Creek.” That was two minutes of Heaven for me, two minutes that I will never forget in all of my life.

I bring up John Hartford because I feel he STILL has never received the recognition that he deserves with the musical audience. Sure, thousands of people know “that Glen Campbell song,” and he has been recognized for lifetime achievements by the International Bluegrass Music Association, the Americana Music Association, and the St. Louis Walk of Fame. However, do people (other than his hardcore fans) realize how much of an influence he had on today’s music? He is considered the Father of Newgrass, which had a cult following in the 1970s and 80s but has become a fixture in the Americana music genre. As most musicians progress to learn more varied styles of playing, he went in reverse, intensely studying old-time fiddling forms so that they would not disappear from history.

I promised to keep this short, so I will state this – Soak up as much as you can about John Hartford! Listen to his music, check out what he was studying, read some of his writings. The man was a cultural genius. People like him come around only once every hundred years or so. So pay attention to what he was saying and doing! Below are some recommendations to get started.
Albums: Gentle On My Mind and Other Originals; Aereo-Plain; Morning Bugle; Nobody Know What You Do; Cadillac Rag; The Speed of the Longbow; Live From Mountain Stage (some of these are out of print, but worth the hunt)
Books: John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes; John Hartford’s Old-Time Fiddle Favorites (songbook)
Articles: “John Hartford: A Fun and Open Discussion” (Fiddler Magazine, Spring 1997, out-of-print, can be found at www.fiddle.com/articles.page?index=40&articleid=19118)
Video: Down From The Mountain; John Hartford’s Old-Time Fiddling: Trying to Teach My Hands to Do What I Hear in My Head

Chew on it and comment.