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John Hartford

John Hartford remains best known for the country-pop standard "Gentle on My Mind," a major hit for Glen Campbell and subsequently covered by vocalists ranging from Frank Sinatra to Aretha Franklin. The song remains among the most often recorded in the history of popular music, its copyright netting Hartford well over a hundred thousand dollars annually for many years. But there was more to Hartford than that curious mix of highly literary folk music and MOR romantic nostalgia, told from the perspective of a homeless man remembering days of perfect love. Hartford was a multi-talented old-time musician, a riverboat captain, a satirical songwriter, a one-man showman of exceptional talents, and one of the founders of both progressive country music and old-time string music revivalism.

John Harford (the added "t" was the brainchild of Chet Atkins) was born in New York City to a medical resident and his painter wife but grew up in St. Louis near the Mississippi River he would always love. His first job, on a riverboat, came at age ten. As a boy he liked the traditional country music he heard on the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast from Nashville, and by age 13 he was an accomplished fiddler and five-string banjo player whose main influences were Stringbean and Earl Scruggs. Soon he added guitar and mandolin to his repertoire. He founded his first bluegrass band in high school and dropped out of Washington University after a year to pursue his music. Performing and working as a DJ and sometimes as a commercial graphic artist in Missouri and Illinois, Hartford made a few singles for small local labels in the early '60s. In 1965 he moved with his wife and son Jamie to Nashville, taking a DJ job at radio station WSIX. It didn't take him long to meet the other architects of the city's songwriting renaissance -- Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, and the Glaser Brothers, who owned a state-of-the-art recording studio and began promoting Hartford and his songs around Music Row.

Signed to RCA in 1966, Hartford went into the studio to record his debut album, John Hartford Looks at Life, which was produced by Atkins. "He is himself and will not be told how to write or sing, because he has only his own world," wrote Johnny Cash in the liner notes. Hartford's second album, Earthwords & Music, featured "Gentle on My Mind" (a modest hit) along with songs that pointed forward to his independent-minded career as a solo performer: "The Good Old Electric Washing Machine Circa 1943" featured a charming mouth-music imitation of that appliance. In 1968 Hartford moved to Los Angeles, appearing regularly on CBS's Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and later on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. He also played on the Byrds' 1968 album Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Doug Dillard's The Banjo Album. By the end of the decade, Hartford also earned his riverboat pilot's license. Financially secure thanks to "Gentle on My Mind," he decided to spend the rest of his life pursuing an artistic vision rooted in country music traditions.

In 1971, Hartford returned to Nashville and founded a bluegrass band featuring guitarist Norman Blake, dobro player Tut Taylor, and master fiddler Vassar Clements. The all-acoustic Aereo-Plain album recorded for Warner Bros. that year (and its successor Morning Bugle) featured a free bluegrass feel often cited as seminal both by progressive bluegrass musicians and by adherents of the modern jam band movement. Hartford made guest appearances on albums by James Taylor, Seals & Crofts, and Hoyt Axton, and he cut the bluegrass Tennessee Jubilee album in 1975 with the assistance of Benny Martin and Lester Flatt.

In the mid-'70s Hartford worked out a solo act in which he appeared in a trademark bowler hat and black vest. He began to record unaccompanied, releasing the unclassifiable Mark Twang in 1976 and winning a Grammy award for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording. That album was the first of a series of mostly solo albums Hartford recorded for the Chicago-based Flying Fish label, featuring a mix of traditional material with Hartford's own trenchant originals. Though Hartford had diverged sharply from the sphere of commercial country music, he continued to live in Nashville and to appear as a session man on such albums as the Dillards' Permanent Wave and Shel Silverstein's The Great Conch Train Robbery. He also became involved with Opryland, where he helped launch an old-fashioned steamboat ride.

By the late '80s Hartford was battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but he continued to record and perform until he lost the use of his hands shortly before his death in 2001. He performed and recorded with his son Jamie, re-recorded and reissued his earlier work on his own Small Dog Barking label, and kept busy with a host of side projects such as narration for the Ken Burns public-television series The Civil War. His later albums, several of them recorded for Rounder, were highly individualistic gems: 1998's Speed of the Old Long Bow was a tribute to a little-known fiddler named Ed Haley on which Hartford not only performed Haley's music but also added lyrics that traced his life and career. As word of Hartford's illness spread, his well-wishers included a long parade of musicians he had worked with and influenced profoundly. ~ James Manheim, Rovi
full bio

Selected Discography

Comments

emailgramps
It would be nice if they started with the song you actually requested.
gffishn
My first day with Pandora and it has been a disappointme n t . They seem to be pleased to play the less popular tunes by the artists. I wanted to hear John Hartford sing Gentle On My Mind, a classic.. They played a sampling of Glenn Campbell's version ,circa 2013 that wasn't his best. Almost all of the Asleep at the Wheel songs were non hits...come on...who's making these decisions... a r e you covering your eyes and pointing to a song on the list to make your decision on what to play?!
vtbluegrassf a n
Caught JH for the last time at the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall (a treasure of a place with incredible sound in Troy, NY) with a reconvened Aereo-Plain Band featuring guest Sam Bush with my best bud and our ladies, front row center. The show was a musical high for ears and eyes. Great man, musician, and story teller... much missed.
Presbyterian guitar was
The music for
My
Wedding. Brilliant and beautiful. Me and my pals from the good ol' days saw John play frequently and it was
Always fresh and intelligent. I will always cherish his sound and influence. Thanks John--- bill b
mickgehl
Saw John many times, Mole effin Lake, WI, up on the Rez. He owned the crowd who sang his songs, danced his snake and held the Golden Globe Awards ( not those... Those!) what a hoot. Bluegrass jammin started in 76 when mainstream was all disco! John, Doc&Merle, Bill, Lester, many more. John ruled. American treasure fee sure.
during my teen years in the 1970s, somehow i missed his music. 15 years later i discovered him when i heard dancin' in the bathtub. i fell in love -- with the musician. (not the bathtub)
In my humble opinion, some of John's best albums were on the Flying Fish label. (Not listed here)
I like how you have the lyrics to a John Prine song printed above but it is a John Hartford song playing!
I heard John for the first time while babysitting for a disc jockey who had an amazing record collection. The album was Earthwords & Music. It changed the way I listened to music. Years later I was able to get a copy of the album and it is now the only piece of vinyl I will never part with.
maomom
My husband and I were privileged to meet him and enjoy his performance on his beloved riverboat ,The Julia Belle Swain where he also served as captain, in August, 1989. Wonderful memories of a grat musician.
I grew up psychedelic, and then there was that one John Hartford album in my collection.. . S t e a m Powered Aereoplane, totally opened my eyes to another kind of music, and now I'll always remember John fondly.
frodobluedog
I've listened to John Hartford for over forty years and, most fortunately, in concert a number of times. and his music still brings a smile to my face. The most original musical talent I ever heard - rest in peace, John.
barker_mike
Well I dreamt I went awaaaaaaaaaa a a a a a y . . . .

He and Lionel Hampton were my favorite boyhood performers.
The first John Hartford Memorial Festival at the Bill Monroe Bluegrass Park in Bean Blossom, Indiana was inexpensive, eye opening, amazing, as well as inspirationa l . I will definitely go again next time.
christy.john s o n 6 4
I love John Hartford and miss him
Gotta Love it!
jcackerman26
Long Hot Summer Days is the only song I know of that mentions my hometown, Beardstown,I l . Being a river rat myself, I always loved John's music....sti l l do.
...A lot of good things went down one time...Back in the Goodle days.
In the mid seventies I was living on the beach in Daytona, working as a lifeguard, listening to Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and so forth. One afternoon I went to a freinds apt to listen to music. Steam Powered areo-plane was on the turntable and it changed my life. Fast forward 20 years and I was attending bluegrass fests with wife and kids. Kids now play fiddle, bass fiddle, banjer, guitar, mando, etc. John changed a couple of generations in my family. I creid when he died as if it were my own dad.
two hits and the joint turned brown, john was a 'head of his time.
rdbakerdvm
never heard of him before, but I like.
The Julia Belle Swain docked at Starved Rock by Ottawa IL and the pilot was rumored to have been ol' John, himself. I hung around for awhile hoping see if it was true, but it grew dark and I had to go home with a little kid of my own. Roll on and on and on John
I last saw John Hartford at the Port Townsend Fiddle Tunes the year before he passed. What a great talent.
pecnj
There is an RCA LP titled "Gentle on My Mind" and Other Originals by John Hartford - Stereo LSP 4068 that contains songs I wish I could hear on Pandora. They include, "Mouth to Mouth Resuscitatio n " , "California Earthquake", "I Would Not be HERE", "Front Porch", "Like Unto a Mockingbird" , "A Simple Thing as Love", "Untangle Your Mind".
He was a musican and an entertainer, saw him live several times
rumhaw
I still play his music. Always will.
He was the best. Saw him play in Winfield KS years ago - I loved that man - still do.
squeezin_200 0
God Bless you John Hartford.
bob_pandora6
It was John Hartford that inspired me to learn how to play the fiddle. I have shared John’s music with friends and family and all became fans. John will always be in our hearts and his music will win in the 'test of time'.
Seen many concerts, the dead over a hundred times. Saw John once in NYC. Best show ever. Brilliant, original, and true to himself. He passed on a part of old and in the way. Wish he played on it. Was replaced by Vasser Clements a great choice
Aero-plane band still runs through my veins every time I play a fiddle.
danpaquin
What bargrum said! I wish John were still with us.
beautiful music. love it.
dds3434
Great artist, one of the best ever
herecomes2mo r r o w
cool voice. neat how he puts too many words in one line.
this man is an american treasure who walked among us extended mountain and river time right into to our souls. You can look at him and tell he is someone you want to know
solarbaked
Saw him several times at the Philadelphia Folk Festival beginning in the 70's, up until his death. The last time I saw him was a few months before he died. Utah Phillips was scheduled to be the evening headliner for Saturday night's concert but had taken ill. Hartford agreed to fill in. He walked onstage with his fiddle and bowler hat, and gave one of the best performances I have ever seen. After about 20 minutes onstage he let a group of younger musicians steal some of the limelight. He invited
servmgr1
Saw him at Strawberry Music Festival in the 80's when he had a wireless mike and a fiddle. He had 6000 people all up and dancing for 20 minutes. Damndest thing I ever saw.
A national treaure; gone too soon
wish i'd have had the chance to see him live. his music is something special.
One of the best! Gotta love 'em!
earl.lang
Saw him live in Dayton Ohio, his percussion was a 3/4" sheet of plywood with a guitar pick-up attached on which danced the rhythm as he played and sang. A super performer, in a little theater, close and personal. I'll never forget the show.
I so wish I could have seen John perform in person!
one of the best
I guess people saw Hartford and immediately became caught up in this dazzling music man's syncopated performance and fell in love as did I after seeing him at a fair. I was so hooked on the incredible talent, agility, skill, and his coordinated rhythm and percussion machinations I made everyone listen to the 2 albums I had while I gave details. A friend greeted me on my return to Va bursting with delight in my arrival so he could give me a surprise I would love. But on campus in Charlottesvi l l
I first saw John on the Merv Griffin Show (when Arthur Treacher was still alive) doing the Washing Machine Song. I've since collected all his recordings and even his book 'Steamboat in a Cornfield' (all signed). Without a doubt the most approachable and kindest performer who ever lived - he even put his derby on my head for a photo op. If John were a religion, I'd be part of the clergy. I learned both banjo and fiddle because of him. His life changed mine for the better and I, like so many other
Saw John Hartford in person several times; PB Scotts Music Hall in Blowing Rock, NC and Skyline Blugrass Festival in Ronceverte, WV, just to name a few. One of, if not "The" most impressive performers I've ever seen. And a heck of a nice guy. You could really tell he enjoyed what he was doing. He will always be remembered.. .
paul.ankenba u e r
I really love this guy!
rustyolskier
As a wanna-be rock-n-roll musician at 15, I was blown away when listening to the Steam Powered Aeroplain album at a friend's home and subsequently took sidetrips down a different musical path. The influence forever changed my perspective of bluegrass, country and old time. "A lot of good friends have done gone on".

Pax

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