John Hartford - Biography
B J Poet
John Hartford could have been a country superstar, but he was always more interested in folk music and the Mississippi River than the trappings of fame. He landed his first recording deal, with RCA, in 1965, and his second album Earthwords & Music (1967 RCA) included a little ditty called “Gentle on My Mind.” The song was a monster smash; both Hartford and Glen Campbell had a hit with it and it won four Grammys – Best Fold performance and Writer of the Best Country and Western Song for Hartford and Best Country vocal and Best Country Recording for Campbell. The song went on to become one of the most recorded folk/pop tunes in music history. As soon as his RCA contract was up, Hartford moved to LA and started his life’s work, investigating the connections between folk, country, bluegrass and old time music and recording albums to let people share in his discoveries. He made about 30 non-commercial albums in his life, but just before his death in 2001 he contributed to the soundtrack of Oh Brother! Where Art Thou (2001 Lost Highway) and would have taken home one of the Album of the Year Grammys the record won. He died from complications of non-Hodgkins lymphoma on June 4, 2001.
John Cowan Harford was born in New York City on December 30, 1937, but his family soon moved to St, Louis, where he grew up loving country, bluegrass and old time music and the Mississippi River. By his teens he could play played the guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle and was making his name in the Midwest for his devotion to bedrock musical styles. Shortly after moving to Nashville he was signed by Chet Atkins who suggested he change the spelling of his last name to Hartford. He made seven albums for the label in the next for years including Looks at Life (1967 RCA), already showing his interest in combing bluegrass, country and pop, Earthwords & Music (1967 RCA) which included the original “Gentle on My Mind,” Gentle on My Mind & Other Originals (1968 RCA) a lushly orchestrated album of country pop, Housing Project (1968 RCA), The Love Album (1968 RCA), John Hartford (1969 RCA), and Iron Mountain Depot (1970 RCA), featuring a lengthy bluegrass work out on The Beatles “Hey Jude.”
With the royalties from “Gentle on My Mind” in pocket, Hartford decided to follow his own music. He moved to LA in 1968 and reconnected with The Dillards - he’d played with them back in St. Louis - played on the Byrds’ Sweethearts of the Rodeo (1968 Columbia) became a regular guest and contributor to the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. He also started making the albums he wanted to make.
Aereo-Plain (1971 Rounder) with Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, and Tut Taylor, credited with being the first newgrass album, Morning Bugle (1971 Rounder), Mark Twang (1976 Flying Fish), a salute to the Mississippi river and steamboat pilots that won a Best Traditional Music Album Grammy, Nobody Knows What You Do (1976 Flying Fish), with its songs about sex (“The Golden Globe Award”) and drugs (“Granny Wontcha Smoke Some Marijuana,” Tennessee Jubilee (1976 Flying Fish), Headin' Down Into the Mystery Below (1978 Flying Fish), another collection of songs about the Mississippi, and Slumberin' on the Cumberland (1979 Flying Fish).
In the 80s, Hartford moved back to Nashville and while he played some sessions, he mostly toured as a one man, old time music band, entertaining crowds with his vast knowledge of American folk song and his own quirky compositions. He recorded less frequently, but did make You & Me at Home (1981 Flying Fish), Gum Tree Canoe (1989 Flying Fish), one of his mid career high points, and another collection of Mississippi River songs Down on the River (1989 Flying Fish). In 1990 Hartford started his own logo Small Dog A-Barkin’ and started touring with his son Jamie, also a talented multi-instrumentalist, as Hartford and Hartford. Hartford's home made releases include Cadillac Rag (1991 Small Dog A-Barkin’), an album of traditional bluegrass tunes, Hartford & Hartford (1991 Flying Fish) The Walls We Bounce Off Of (1994 Small Dog A-Barkin’), humorous songs played solo and including the popular “All Collision All Explosion Song,”
Old Sport (1995 Small Dog A-Barkin’) and No End of Love (1996 Small Dog A-Barkin’).
Hartford was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1981. By the 90s his health was slowly starting to deteriorate. He toured summers and stayed home with friends in the winter months, but still found time to research and record the music he loved. He was one of the voices on the soundtrack of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary on PBS and made his last albums: Wild Hog in the Red Brush (1996 Rounder), a collection of fiddle tunes delivered with Hartford’s off had virtuosity, Speed of the Old Long Bow: A Tribute to Ed Haley (1998 Rounder) a tribute to an influential, if largely unknown master fiddler, The Bullies Have All Gone to Rest (1998 Whippoorwill), old time fiddle and banjo duets played with Jim Wood,
Good Old Boys (1999 Rounder), a bluegrass outing with the Hartford String band, and Hamilton Ironworks (2001 Rounder), a collection of Hartford’s favorite fiddle tunes. He also worked on the soundtrack of Oh Brother! Where Art Thou (2001 Lost Highway) shortly before his death. Rounder released Steam Powered Aereo-Takes (2002 Rounder) after his death, a collection of out takes and rehearsals recorded in the studio during the making of his legendary Aereo-Plain (1971 Rounder) album.