While spending time in Tennessee, my priority is usually record hunting. However, Paul’s influence has not been lost on me, and I couldn’t resist pulling into Spring Hill Cemetery, knowing it was the resting place for the likes of Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs, and, of course, John Hartford.
My initial interest in John Hartford (December 30, 1937 – June 4, 2001) was rooted in the many dollar bin sightings of his albums I had over the years. At some point I took a chance and scooped his 1968 effort, Housing Project, an off kilter not-quite-country-not-quite-bluegrass-not-quite-folk album that gets a bit goofy and even leans into some psychedelic directions at times. Actually, that pretty much describes much of Hartford’s music career, a massive potpourri of everything Americana. His eclectic approach to music is probably what prevented him from becoming a household name, but his musical genius was recognized by his peers (folks such as Chet Atkins, Kris Kristofferson, and Mickey Newbury) and the music industry, as evidenced by his three Grammy awards.
Hartford started off as a banjo player and was heavily influenced by the playing of Earl Scruggs. He was also influenced by life on the river and seems to have been a kind of Mark Twain type of character, even going as far as earning his steamboat operator’s license. Over the course of his career, Hartford became adept at guitar and fiddle and often appeared live as his own one man band. Hartford’s main claim to fame is his song “Gentle on my Mind”, one of the most covered songs in country music history. Glen Campbell made it into a major hit, and the likes of Elvis Presley and Waylon Jennings also recorded their takes. Fortunately for Hartford, his rights to the song made him thousands of dollars every year and helped bankroll his free spirit lifestyle and musical explorations.
When the Byrds decided they were going to go full dive into making a country album, Sweethearts of the Rodeo, the band came out to Nashville to record and enlisted the services of Hartford. He can be found all over the album, playing guitar, banjo, and fiddle. His playing is pretty integral to the band’s sound. I can’t imagine his appearance on the record won him any new friends in Nashville. After all, the Byrds were vehemently derided by the city’s establishment for their forays into country music.
John Hartford was never considered one of country music’s outlaws, but he was certainly one of Nashville’s rebels. And while Hartford was quite untraditional, it was done with a respect for, and a nod to, Nashville traditions. Before he died of Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 2001, he was a mover and shaker at Opryland and worked hard to keep the spirit of Americana alive through his music, something you can hear in his work for Ken Burns’ Civil War.
The dollar bins aren’t as full of John Hartford as they used to be, and I’m hoping this is indicative of growing interest in his music. His work deserves the extra chance to be solidified into our country’s music lore.
- Mike Mannix (guest writer. Mike is a high school teacher and graduate level record collector, who was recently honored as teacher of the year in West Contra Costa Unified School District and once upon a time ran a record label called Ellington Records.)