SATURDAY EYE CANDY CELEBRATES
NEWGRASS FOREFATHER JOHN HARTFORD
"A banjo will get you through times of no money, but money won't get you through times of no banjo."
These words greet you when you visit the official website of John Hartford, a massive though often uncredited influence and spiritual ancestor to what's become known as "newgrass." Mostly familiar to those outside the bluegrass/string band world for penning pop standard "Gentle On My Mind" and his many TV appearances on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, Johnny Cash Show and Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, Hartford was the rare musician who could absorb the past and pour it through a modern sieve to create something truly original. Without Hartford it's unlikely we could have Sam Bush, Yonder Mountain, String Cheese Incident and others who've happily mutated bluegrass in such wonderful ways.
Besides being a boffo banjo player, he was a devilishly skilled songwriter throughout his long career, writing protest music of the soul that makes one hum along, feeling free even if they're not sure why. As a composer, Hartford also delved into darkness with uncommon strength and clarity, lifting human failings into sunlight. In Hartford's songs we are neither all good nor all bad but a wondrous muddle. He wrote the finest Best Dylan parody/homage ever with "The Category Stomp" but also genuinely creepy pieces like "There Are No Fools in Heaven (Anyman's Lament)," which drags us into the afterlife with haunting detail.
When 1971's Aereo-Plain came out it hit a young generation just discovering bluegrass and traditional American string music like an atom bomb. The other members of the Aereo-Plain Band were Norman Blake, Vassar Clements, Tut Taylor, and Randy Scruggs – in short, a who's who of late 20th century string band pioneers. The exploratory spirit and uncorked sense of play on Aereo-Plain (out-of-print for many years but you can hear it on Rhapsody) remained a constant in his work right up until Hartford's last album, Hamilton Ironworks, a fine mixture of old fiddle tunes and his inimitable brand of storytelling released September 11, 2001.
John Hartford passed away June 4, 2001 in Nashville, where he was a beloved fixture to musical icons like Chet Atkins most of his life. He would have turned 70 this Sunday. This week we celebrate the life and work of a true musical pioneer with some vintage clips of the man in action. His family recently regained control of his catalog so we can look forward to a proper reissue program. In the meantime, the uninitiated are steered towards Australia's Raven Records anthology Natural to Be Gone 1967-1970 and his son Jamie Hartford's excellent Part Of Your History: The Songs of John Hartford.
Saturday Eye Candy begins with two takes on "Gentle On My Mind," the first a vintage music video and the second a wistful live performance with Roy Huskey Jr.
Here he is doing a bluegrass medley with Johnny Cash. And here's a wonderful live take of "Where Does An Old Time Pilot Go" and one more vintage music video shot in Washington, D.C. in 1970.