Journalist Heather Lende has been writing obituaries in the small town of Haines, Alaska, for 20 years.
John Hartford died in 2001 but his music and legacy live on at the John Hartford Memorial Festival, which starts today at the Bill Monroe Campground in Bean Blossom, Indiana. Here & Now‘s Robin Young speaks to Andrew Vaughan, author of “John Hartford: Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-Plain,” and musician Jamie Hartford, John Hartford’s son, who says his dad “was all about looking for that melody that you couldn’t get rid of.”
The two things I miss about the Midwest are the prairie and the big rivers. When I was a kid, my parents’ friends had a small houseboat and we used to cruise the Mississippi above the lock and dam at Alton, Illinois. I grew up reading Mark Twain’s “Life On The Mississippi” and later discovered the music of John Hartford, a guy who probably loved that river more than anyone ever did, even Mark Twain.
Like the famous author, John Hartford became a riverboat pilot. He used to pilot the steamboat the Julia Belle Swain on the Illinois River.
I used to go visit the Julia Belle when it was docked over in Peoria. I never got to go out on the Illinois River on it, but I felt like I did when I listened to John’s music.
I think the first John Hartford record I bought was “Mark Twang,” which was released in 1976 and won a Grammy. I had to backtrack to find the record that really turned a whole new generation of listeners on to bluegrass. That one is called “Aereo-Plain” and it was released in 1971.
By then, Hartford had already the huge mainstream hit, “Gentle on My Mind,” which Glen Campbell recorded. He was also a regular on Campbell’s TV show and on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.”
But he turned his back on that life, grew his hair long and got together with Norman Blake, Vassar Clements and Tut Taylor and recorded an incredible set of songs that still resonates with contemporary artists performing today, like Sam Bush. Critics said it turned bluegrass into newgrass and opened up a new audience to the world of old-time artists like Bill Monroe and Earl Scruggs.
David Bromberg produced “Steam Powered Aereo-Plain,” and it’s still in heavy rotation on my old turntable. Robin Young spoke to David Bromberg a few years ago and asked him about that experience.
John Hartford left us way too soon. He died on June 4, 2001, at the age of 63 in Nashville.
According to Andrew Vaughan, author of “John Hartford: Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-Plain,” John Hartford spent his final days sitting with fellow musicians like Earl Scruggs and Mark O’Connor doing what he loved best, playing music.
That’s what folks will do this weekend at the John Hartford Memorial Music Festival at the Bill Monroe Campground in Bean Blossom, Indiana.
It will be one long jam session.
ROBIN YOUNG, HOST:
It's HERE AND NOW. John Hartford was a steamboat pilot, so it makes sense someone once called him the Mark Twain of traditional music. He played guitar, fiddle, banjo. He wrote one of the most recorded songs in history - "Gentle On My Mind," a huge hit for his friend Glen Campbell in 1967.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GENTLE ON MY MIND")
YOUNG: I'm sitting here thinking, is that also one of the most beautiful songs ever? I think so. John Hartford performed on Glen Campbell's TV show on the mainstream but subversive "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."
But then he really went rogue in 1971 leaving that clean-cut world to make the album "Aereo-Plain" with amazing musicians, including Vassar Clements on fiddle, Norman Blake on guitar. He turned bluegrass into new grass.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TURN YOUR RADIO ON")
YOUNG: John Hartford died in 2001 at the young age of 63, but he lives on at the John Hartford Memorial Festival at the Bill Monroe Campground in Bean Blossom, Indiana. This year's festival will feature musicians including John's son Jamie, who joins us from Spotland Productions in Nashville. Jamie, welcome.
JAMIE HARTFORD: Thank you very much, Robin.
YOUNG: And you are there with Andrew Vaughan who is author of "John Hartford: Pilot Of A Steam Powered Aereo Plain." I've got the book right here. Andrew, welcome to you as well.
ANDREW VAUGHAN: It's a book and a tongue twister, Robin.
YOUNG: It is. It is. But I've been skimming through the book - a whole book about one record that came out more than 40 years ago. And there's a young John Hartford with Glen Campbell with the Smothers Brothers. There he is with Earl Scruggs. What was so important to you to put it all together in this one book?
VAUGHAN: I think a lot of artists have one record that kind of defines them. This one record surprised everybody. He had been building himself up to become kind of a mainstream recording artists and TV star. And suddenly, out of nowhere, right at the end of the '60s, he dropped out, grew his hair, grew a long beard and came out with a record that was kind of freeform jazz, bluegrass, folk music - all of it together.
And no one knew what it was. And I don't think he knew exactly what it was. And it shocked a lot of people. And, you know, when you do something like that, it tends to have a ripple effect on the rest of the industry.
YOUNG: Yeah, well, let's listen to a little so we know what this propulsive thing was. Here's an example from the "Steam Powered Aereoplane."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEAMBOAT WHISTLE BLUES")
YOUNG: Again, skimming through the book, I didn't realize there's Chet Atkins, there's Johnny Cash. How many others revered him?
VAUGHAN: Oh, he is one of those figures in the music industry that when you look at people's top tens or people's, you know, records that influenced me, John Hartford's name appears a lot. The public knew him because of the hit song "Gentle On My Mind." That was a huge song. So everyone kind of associates his name with that.
You know, he did a lot of other records that were kind off the wall. Even when he was being mainstream, it was kind of offkilter. So those records tend to find favor with other artists because they like people who push the boundaries and try something a little bit different. So he had a real good following with the other artists, I'd say.
YOUNG: Jamie, let's bring you in.
YOUNG: Where are you in this picture? How old are you as your dad's, you know, forging this career?
HARTFORD: I was probably for 4. I learned a lot about this record from the back of album covers.
YOUNG: Yeah. Well, might have learned a lot about your dad from album covers, too, you know as...
YOUNG: ...A traveling musician. What did he tell you about this record and what he was trying to do, what kind of sensibilities he was trying to project?
HARTFORD: My dad was always into improvisation. He felt like the subconscious mind knows the right thing to do in the right situation. And if you can tap into it, you get better performances. And Vassar Clements was, like, the guru of that. He played totally off his subconscious.
So my dad, you know, when he wanted to learn something, he would gravitate towards the person that was doing it the best and absorb everything he could. And so it was just natural for him to have Vassar, you know - if he could have a band with him.
But he told me one time that the only requirement for them doing a song was that one person in the band needed to know how to play it. If one person in the band knew the song, they would tap into this subconscious thing and play that song.
YOUNG: Well, he said the Aereo-Plain band was just one long jam session. Let's listen to a little of the title song.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEAM POWERED AEREOPLANE")
YOUNG: Jamie, as you grew, as you watched him play at festivals, what was that like? What was that spirit like?
HARTFORD: I remember going to see a show - Ravi Shankar was on this show. And the Aereo-Plain band, they were all sitting down. And I remember he had me a seat right up there, like second row, right on the aisle where he could keep an eye on me. And this girl comes up and makes me sit on her lap for the whole show 'cause she wanted my seat. And so I remember, you know, things like that, you know, people asking me if I played the banjo.
YOUNG: Well, and you have actually recorded a CD of your dad's songs. Let's listen to a beautiful instrumental. It's called "Presbyterian Guitar."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRESBYTERIAN GUITAR")
YOUNG: Jamie, that is just beautiful.
HARTFORD: Thank you.
YOUNG: Yeah, if you had to say what the essence of your dad's music was, what would you say?
HARTFORD: Well, he was all about looking for that melody that you couldn't get rid of - kind of like the "Andy Griffith" theme. He was looking for that subconscious thing that I was referring to earlier. That was really - it was really important to stay in a zone of creativity, like, constantly.
That's why he got his own bus had his own atmosphere right off the stage that he went right back in to basically his library, his study to stay in that zone - unless we were eating lobster in a restaurant. But otherwise - you know, like actors how they work on roles and they get into character, and they stay in it. I think he - his goal was to stay in that zone all the time.
YOUNG: Well, in 1994, the Aereo Plain band got together again for a sort of a reunion farewell, as it turned out, at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. We want to listen to a little of that as we go. Jamie Hartford, again John Hartford's son, thank you so much for sharing some of your memories and your music.
HARTFORD: Absolutely. It was my pleasure.
YOUNG: And for sharing your dad...
YOUNG: 'Cause kids always...
HARTFORD: It should be.
>>YOUNG. And Andrew Vaughan, author of the book "John Hartford: Pilot Of A Steam Powered Aereo Plain" Andrew, thanks to you as well.
VAUGHAN: Thank you, Robin.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEAM POWERED AEREOPLANE")
YOUNG: HERE AND NOW is a production of NPR and WBUR Boston in association with the BBC World Service. I'm Robin Young.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
I'm Jeremy Hobson. This is HERE AND NOW.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STEAM POWERED AEREOPLANE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
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