John Hartford

By: Brian Berger
December 30, 2010

Musician JOHN HARTFORD (1937-2001), who wrote one of the most popular songs ever, wasn’t an overnight success. Raised in St. Louis, in 1965 he moved to Nashville, where Chet Atkins signed him to RCA. While his humor made him something akin to a laconic Roger Miller, Hartford — also a virtuoso banjoist and fiddler — was an original, fusing old-timey vernacular, post-Dylan poetics, and state-of-the-art orchestral pop into an unlikely melange. Hartford’s January 1967 debut, Looks at Life, with liner notes by Johnny Cash, was an impressive puzzle; its July follow-up, Earthwords & Music, with lead single “Gentle On My Mind,” was but a minor country hit. Glen Campbell’s contemporaneous cover fared modestly at first, but the song was irresistible. By the end of the year, it had received fifteen waxings and soon there were many more: Patti Page, Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Tammy Wynette, Waylon Jennings, Joan Baez, the Mills Brothers, Flatt and Scruggs, Noel Harrison, and Leonard Nimoy, among others; my favorite is Dean Martin [see video below]. So what does one do after getting it all? Hartford stayed weird: he got his riverboat pilot’s license; Aero-Plain (1971) invented bluegrass futurism; and Mark Twang (1976) realized a rustic solo music that would henceforth flow — as Abraham Lincoln wrote of Hartford’s beloved Mississippi — unvexed to the sea.

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On his or her birthday, HiLobrow irregularly pays tribute to one of our high-, low-, no-, or hilobrow heroes. Also born this date: Robert Quine.

READ MORE about members of the Anti-Anti-Utopian generation (1934-43).

READ MORE HiLo Hero shout-outs.

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Country, HiLo Heroes, Music

What do you think?

  1. Hey pallie, Bri likes totally agrees with you on this…no one sings “Gentle” likes our Dino…never was, never will be anyone as cool as the King of Cool…oh, to return to the days when Dino walked the earth….

  2. Out of high school, I got a job with the riverboats John Hartford had piloted. His tour bus would turn up in the parking lot, and he’d come aboard for a few days’ cruise on the Upper Mississippi between the Quad Cities and Galena, IL. His voice was velvety, but very quiet, and his handshake was downright delicate; we deckhands, who didn’t know how sick he was, took him for a bit of a poser where driving boats was concerned. But one day in the pilothouse he very quietly put our loudmouthed, abusive cook in his place concerning a point of controversy over the bass timbre of Martin guitars, and we knew we had a champion.

    A few weeks later, his tour bus was back at the dock, and he came aboard for a trip to put one of the boats—the Twilight—in drydock in St. Louis. Late one night I crept out to the fantail and started blowing a harmonica, tremulous and low; I was fishing for a musical legend. After a few minutes he rose to the bait, ghosting on deck to take a chair opposite me, where produced a fiddle from the shadows and began trading licks. It was the first time he had taken out an instrument during my time on the boat, and it was the fish playing the fisherman now; it felt like a tale out of time. He was a generous and subtle musical sharer, offering melodies and flourishes at the very edge of my meager technique—enough to tempt me on but never so flummoxing as to put me in my place. I’ve never had another musical conversation like it.

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