If you’re familiar with nautical maps you may notice a point on the Cumberland River called “Hartford’s Bend.” The late famed songwriter John Hartford who was best known for penning “Gentle on My My Mind” had a house overlooking the river. Captains of boats would often blow their whistles when they passed in tribute to the lifelong enthusiast of river life who might have himself been a steamboat operator had he not been drawn to music and songwriting. Thomm Jutz wrote “Hartford’s Bend” in honor of the songwriter for his own solo album and last year with mates Peter Cooper and Eric Brace for the trio album Riverland. The trio listened to a lot of Hartford during its making and it was surprising they didn’t include one of his songs.
But now a new album On The Road: A Tribute To John Hartford (LoHi Records) is being released that connects generations past and present to pay homage to the great progenitor of bluegrass, its melding with contemporary “newgrass” and helps to cement the role Hartford played as an unsung granddaddy of what we now call Americana.
Throughout, the imagery of the river comes to life in such songs as “Delta Queen Waltz” by Railroad Earth and Horseshoes & Hand Grenades’ “Let Him Go On Mama.” Making appearances are former contemporaries and compatriots Sam Bush and Norman Blake. Hartford’s seminal Aereo-Plane featured Vassar Clements on fiddle, Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin and Randy Skaggs on bass. Here we get to hear Blake sit in with Jerry Douglas on “Tall Buildings,” pairing Hartford’s son Jamie with John Carter Cash on lead vocals and recorded at the Cash Cabin studios.
Bush kicks off the album with a rollicking “On The Road” that highlights his mandolin picking and the interplay with guitarist Stephen Maugin and Scott Ventral on banjo. It’s a harbinger of the good picking you come. On The Road is a rich sampler of fifteen songs, with such standouts as the Infamous Stringdusters take on the eternally melodic splendor of “Gentle On My Mind” and Todd Snider’s rich reading of “I Wish We Had Our Time Again.”
Several of the songs draw from Hartford’s quirky album Aereo-Plane. David Bromberg had no prior production experience prior to working with Hartford but had the self-described “New York sensibility” Hartford was looking for.“The whole newgrass thing really does come from New York City,” Bromberg related several years ago on a stop on the Buddy & Jim Show. “It’s New York City pot smoking music.” That comes to life in “Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie” by The Band of Heathens (and featuring the Mastersons) and in the humor of Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys’ rendition of “Grammy Won’t You Smoke Some Marijuana.”
The funky psychedelic dance rap of Leftover Salmon’s “The Category Stomp” aligns with playful interplay of Hartford’s word associations set to rhythmic picking and psychedelia meding. The High Hawks’ comic “Waugh Paugh” could have been on a New York street corner.
The imagery of the Big Apple pervades on songs like “In Tall Buildings.” It’s recorded in Nashville but mirrors Hartford’s infatuation with the Big Apple. Today in a coronavirus plagued world of work at home, the images of tall buildings and New York subways give it a forlorn undertone like an era that’s passed us.
But perhaps the centerpiece of the record and show stopper is Greg Garrison’s version of “Tear Down The Grand Ole Opry” with its dreamy, revenetial lead vocal by Sydney Clapp who exudes the sound of sadness over six minutes against Garrison’s bluesy guitar laments. Hartford is said to have read a newspaper story which inspired a song lamenting the dire fate of the Ryman Auditorium and home of the Grand Ole Opry. Three years later, the Ryman was closed and the storied radio show moved to a new Grand Ole Opry House.
The outro of studio chatter in Leftover Salmon’s “Waugh Paugh” might have fit in with the Aereo-Plane sessions. As legend has it, Hartford insisted that he nor the other musicians were to hear until it was mixed in sequence, leading producer Bromberg feeling like he was doing it in a vacuum. To make matters worse, when Warner Brothers heard the music, they didn’t know what to do with it. Bromberg knew they were expecting “Gentle On My Mind,” the song that won Hartford a Grammy, and ended up not promoting the album at all.
Now, in 2020, listening to On The Road, Hartford’s persona and esoteric songs all seem to make sense. Years after Aereo-Plane, Bromberg proposed revisiting the sessions telling Hartford “I don’t think we’re done.” Hartford’s response was to hang up on Bromberg. Forty-five minutes later he called back and conceded that he had, in fact, asked Bromberg to produce it. That may have inadvertently led to the expanded version of the album released around the turn of the century. Hartford passed away in 2001.
Were Hartford here today, he could look back on it with a sly smile. For us, we can sing along to Fruition’s “Back in The Goodle Days,” a kind of back to the future reminiscence of Hartford’s looking back.
To borrow a phrase from “Tear Down The Grand Ole Opry,” Hartford may be “done gone on,” but it still feels like he’s here with us.
(To find out more, visit lohirecords.com. All net proceeds from On The Road: A Tribute to John Hartford will be going to MusiCares to help struggling musicians due to COVID-19. The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project is also just out. Read about it here.)