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John Hartford’s Legacy at 75

28 December 2012

With his bowler hat and colorful duds, there was always something boyish about John Hartford. It therefore comes as something of a shock to realize that Sunday, December 30th would have been his 75th birthday. By way of appreciation…

Of course, that is Hartford’s giant hit, “Gentle On My Mind” as performed by Molly Tuttle, Eric Robertson, Nick DiSebastian, Gabe Hirshfeld and John Mailander. This campsite performance was captured at the 2012 Grey Fox Bluegrass Festival. See below for a special note on the circumstances surrounding the recording.

How you think about John Hartford probably depends a bit upon your vintage. I confess that, for a really ancient cuss like Yers Truly, it’s hard for Hartford ever to escape that bell jar of late sixties folksy nostalgia. Some part of him remains trapped forever in an easy-listening ether, along with the likes of Glen Campbell, Jimmy Webb and the Smothers Brothers.

That limited view is unfortunate, and it certainly doesn’t do justice to Hartford’s multifaceted career. In truth, Hartford never spent much time marching in the hit parade. Instead he used his pop success to branch out and reach back. In the early 1970’s he was a central figure in the development of New Grass music, a melding of bluegrass with pop riffs, rhythms and instrumentation. For many young listeners who had grown up on a diet of folk and rock, Hartford’s 1971 album Aero-Plain seemed doubly authentic: on the one hand, with its fiddles and banjos, the album sounded as old and comfortable as a broken-in pair of jeans, but its playful references to contraband substances and life on the road gave it youth culture credibility.

In its heyday, it was easy to view New Grass as a musical manifestation of the Generation Gap, and there were of course plenty of bluegrass traditionalists who considered it an adulteration of the genuine article. At the distance of several decades, such hand-wringing and haranguing seems almost quaint, especially given that tunes like “Steam Powered Aero Plain” now show up regularly at jams, perfectly at home between “Salt Creek” and “On and On.”

Of course, the Young Turks of New Grass never saw the canon of bluegrass and traditional music as an “establishment” that had to be overturned. On the contrary, they were the first generation who could view the music with an archivist’s appreciation for historical context. If you watch the strange and wonderful double-DVD set that Homespun Music Instruction produced on the mandolin technique of Bill Monroe, it’s John Hartford who plays the role of MC, avidly encouraging and supplicating the Father of Bluegrass to share the secrets of his playing method.

Hartford’s interest in traditional string music led him back to songs and tunes that predate bluegrass. In 1998, he released, The Speed of the Old Long Bow, which had as its subtitle A Tribute to the Fiddle Music of Ed Haley. Haley was the blind fiddler whose composing and performing during the first half of the 20th Century greatly expanded the Appalachian fiddle tune repertoire.Hartford’s album didn’t ignite a renaissance in old time music— that phenomenon had been percolating already for several decades— but I do suspect that the current generation of hot shot fiddlers, all of whom know tunes associated with Haley like “Forked Deer” and “Garfield’s Blackberry Blossom,” owe a thing or two to John Hartford.

The Haley tribute was just one of a series of projects that Hartford undertook at the end of his life that widened the audience for old time and bluegrass music. His contributions to the soundtrack for O Brother Where Art Thou insure that a vast new generation of traditional string music fans got to know his fiddle and voice.

More than a decade has passed both since the passing of Hartford and the launch of the O Brother juggernaut, and we could use another galvanizing project that will once again give the bluegrass scene a shot in the arm (the fizzling of a biopic to coincide with Bill Monroe’s centennial seems like a lost opportunity in this respect). When you consider Hartford’s many guises— banjo-wielding hit maker, archangel of New Grass, champion of bluegrass and fiddle music— you have to wonder: where would he be leading us today? For of Hartford’s many gifts, perhaps the greatest was his ability to draw from the past while always looking ahead.

I am happy hear that two musicians, Marcy Cochran and Sheila Nichols, are well along in their efforts to produce a John Hartford documentary. I look forward to learning more about this protean picker through Cochran and Nichol’s film.

On The Joys of Field Recording

Here at Second Cousin Curly, we strive to bring you bluegrass in all its unvarnished glory. Sometimes that means venturing into the wilds of church basements and backyards to capture the music in its native habitat. This is not without its challenges. In the case of the recording featured above, you’ll notice that the audio gets kinda soggy about half way through the song. That’s because a portapotty truck arrived at that point and started doing its dirty work. In editing this video, we struggled for many hours to clean the sewage off the recording, so to speak, with only partial success. Even after all the pain and loss, I still keep a warm place in my heart for the portapotty crew, because as anyone who goes to outdoor fests will tell you, the only thing worse than having a portapotty truck show up and spoil yer jam is not having the portapotty truck show up at all.

Second Cousin Curly’s Hostile Facebook Takeover

Bluegrass Unlimited Magazine has a Facebook page (4800+ likes). The Punch Brothers have one, too (48000+ likes). So does the Little Roy and Lizzy Show (2700+ likes). Heck, even Bill Monroe has a Facebook page (4400+ likes), though he died long before Facebook was born. Anyway, we have gotten the message. With 2013 dawning, the time has come…

[a banjo roll, please…]

Debuting New Year’s Day: Second Cousin Curly’s Facebook Page! If you visit the page right now, you will find only the virtual equivalent of a freshly graded parcel of land. Soon, however, an empire will rise out of the barren soil, so watch that space! We’re going to use the page to share all sorts of entertaining stuff, from vintage videos to timely tips. It may not change the face of bluegrass, but we hope Second Cousin Curly on Facebook will put a smile on your face. So here’s a deal for you: “Like” us, and we’ll love you in return.

Yer Pal— Curly

P.S.— Yep, we are also on Twitter @2ndcousincurly!

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