Ryan Irelan

is building Mijingo and doing limited consulting.

An Incomplete Introduction to John Hartford

If you’ve ever had a conversation with me about music, I’ve probably brought up John Hartford. You might know him from the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. Like all of the musicians on that album, their work is well established prior to the movie. John Hartford won a Grammy all the way back in 1968 for his song Gentle on My Mind, which was made popular in a recording by Glen Campbell (and later by many, many other artists).

Here are John and Glen performing the song together:

(This live version was a little too dolled up for my taste. The cheeseball ending by the band isn’t the greatest tribute to such a beautiful song. But Nashville has a way of doing that to good music.)

My favorite version of this song is the one John sang in his Live from Mountain Stage concert. The tempo is faster than most recordings of the song and it has a certain summertime swing to it that will stick with you. I always find myself humming along with the banjo.

Here’s a great video of him singing with some bluegrass legends. This is how John meant the song to sound:

Beyond Gentle on My Mind

Beause of the success of Gentle on My Mind, John was able to record the music he wanted, how we wanted. What followed was some amazing–sometimes unorthodox–work:

I haven’t been a fan of John Hartford for very long. I first heard his music around 2000 when I was living in Tennessee. A friend had a bluegrass show on the local college radio station and played Don’t Leave Your Records in the Sun with a shout out to me. I was hooked. The song is off John’s Mark Twang album, which covers his love for steamboats (he eventually became a licensed steam riverboat pilot).

Here’s a live version with a great band (including Sam Bush) behind him:

I never had the opportunity to hear Hartford play live. A year after I first heard his music he died from non-hodgkins lymphoma, which he had battled for years. As we grow older we start to race against time when trying to see some of our musical heros play live.

Where to Start?

The first John Hartford album I really got into was Aereo-Plain. I listened to it near non-stop for a month. It’s where I started, so you should, too. It’s also considered the genesis of the “New Grass” movement.

Aereo-Plain is available on iTunes and Rdio. You might even be able to find it on vinyl. If you enjoy Aereo-Plain (and you will), give Steam Powered Aereo-Takes a listen. It is an entire album of outtakes, alternate versions and demos from the Aereo-Plain sessions. It was released in 2002, after Hartford died. Hartford’s band on the album included Norman Blake and Randy Scruggs.

Gum Tree Canoe is a fun album that is more produced (layers and layers of instruments) than Aereo-Plain. But the songs are just as wonderful. He recorded a fun version of Little Piece of my Heart. My daughter (almost 2 years old as I write this) and I regularly dance to this album. Great for Saturday morning fun. Open the windows and turn it up.

I also created an Rdio playlist called John Hartford Starter with some of my favorite John Hartford songs. But please don’t use this as the only way to discover his music. The songs truly stick together better in the original album form. Consider my playlist just a snapshot of my personal favorites, not representative of his catalog.

Enjoy the music.

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There’s more to read in the archive.