John Hartford

Click to follow
The Independent Online

John Hartford, singer, songwriter and instrumentalist: born New York 30 December 1937; married (one son); died Madison, Tennessee 4 June 2001.

In his 1968 composition "Natural to be Gone", John Hartford asked, "What's the difference being different / When it's difference now that looks alike?" Hartford did not resemble anyone else and he combined his eccentricity and wry humour with a passion for the more traditional forms of country music. His records might sound like old-time country but the lyric could be asking his grandmother to smoke some marijuana. As the critic Robert Christgau once remarked, John Hartford put the grass in bluegrass.

Hartford was born in New York in 1937 where his father was training to be a doctor and, upon his qualification, the family moved to St Louis. His mother was a classical pianist, but Hartford was more interested in country music, listening to the Grand Ole Opry and learning the instruments with which he is associated ­ five-string banjo, fiddle, guitar and mandolin. He also developed a lifetime interest in riverboats on the Mississippi. His degree in commercial art from Washington University, Missouri, was put to good use when he created the delightful artwork on many of his albums.

Hartford wanted to be a professional musician and played in clubs around St Louis and Memphis. He was married and had a young son by the time he moved to Nashville in 1965. He commented,

I thought ­ well, you only live once, and a guy can starve to death as easily in Nash-

ville as anywhere else, and have more fun doing it. I just packed up the wife and little boy and moved them to Nashville.

The record producer Chet Atkins was impressed with "Eve of my Multiplication", Hartford's song about his son, Jamie, and gave him a contract with RCA. The first album, John Hartford Looks at Life (1966), contained Hartford's whistling and bird noises as well as his singing and playing. He had difficulty in coming to terms with a major label, as he wrote in the sleeve note, "Who is this demon / called commercial / walkin' in the shiny black grooves."

The second album, Earthwords and Music (1967), included Hartford's best-known composition, "Gentle on my Mind", a song about an itinerant lover. Glen Campbell recorded the song after hearing it on the radio and took it into the US charts. "Gentle on my Mind" was a UK No 2 for Dean Martin and the 500-plus cover versions include recordings by Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley.

Hartford was featured on the US television series The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, but found that he could not write commercial songs to order. "It's not for want of trying, that's for sure," he said. "I love good, pretty love songs but when I write them, they just sound trite. I've always had a hard time writing straight love songs." Instead he wrote songs about baking soda and old washing machines, the sounds of the latter being replicated by him slapping his cheeks.

Despite its title, The Love Album (1968) displayed his quirkiness and with each album he moved further away from the commercial mainstream. "All in the Name of Love" could have been a commercial hit if Hartford had not described physical fighting between the couple in the song. Announcing a love song on stage, he seemed more like a dirty old man: "Hey, babe, ya wanna boogie?" Many of the songs reflected Hartford's own life. His wife was a Mormon who could not tolerate his heavy drinking. When she left, he wrote "I've Heard That Tearstained Monologue You Do There by the Door Before You Go" (1969).

Although Hartford refused to compromise his own music, he was happy to work as a session musician. He played banjo on the Byrds' legendary foray into country music Sweetheart of the Rodeo (1968), and he also played on albums by Hoyt Axton, Johnny Cash, David Allan Coe, Delaney and Bonnie, Seals and Croft, James Taylor and Mason Williams. He worked with Kinky Friedman and Shel Silverstein, who both shared his offbeat approach to country music.

After six albums for RCA, Hartford moved to Warner Brothers and recorded two more old-timey albums, Aereo-Plain (1971) and Morning Bugle (1972). "They're Tearing Down the Grand Ole Opry" and "Nobody Eats at Linebaugh's" reflected his distaste for the commercial elements he found in country music. He became concerned about the plight of riverboats, in particular the Julia Belle Swain, and he became a licensed pilot. His album Down on the River (1972) included a calliope (a steam-whistle organ) and by then he was dressing like a sideshow barker: white shirt and black waistcoast and bowler hat.

In 1976 Hartford signed with the traditional country music label Flying Fish, and made his best-ever album, Mark Twang, for which he wrote the songs, designed the sleeve and played all the instruments, adding percussion with a stomp board. He paid tribute to his bluegrass heroes in the tongue-twisting "Tater Tate and Allen Mundy" and he recorded the hilarious "Don't Leave Your Records in the Sun" in which he mimics a warped 45.

When Mark Twang won a Grammy as the Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording, Hartford responded with "The Golden Globe Award", the winner being his girlfriend's breasts: "Ah, those golden globes, there ain't none better / Gotta have 'em both 'cause they both go together."

Hartford often worked with like-minded musicians. He recorded Tennessee Jubilee (1975) with Benny Martin and Lester Flatt, Dillard-Hartford-Dillard (1977) and Permanent Wave (1980) with the Dillards, and The Bullies Have All Gone to Rest (1998) with Jim Wood. He recorded Hartford and Hartford with his son Jamie on mandolin in 1991.

By the early 1980s, Hartford contented himself with working on riverboats and playing for small but attentive audiences. He recorded continuously, especially after forming his own label, Small Dog A-Barkin'. In 1998 he recorded a tribute to the old-time fiddle player Ed Haley, The Speed of the Old Long Bow, for Rounder as well as compiling a four-CD set of Haley's work, Forked Deer.

In 1999 came the highly acclaimed Good Old Boys with the Hartford Stringband. Hartford also found a new audience with the soundtrack for the film O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), which included "Man of Constant Sorrow" and "Indian War Whoop", but cancer prevented him from following up this success.

Spencer Leigh