As we approach the 20th anniversary of the passing of John Hartford, his family and friends and many of the musicians he influenced are working to ensure we don’t forget him. Hartford is best known by the public as the creator of the 1967 country hit “Gentle On My Mind,” which won four Grammys and has been covered by many. But among his peers he’s best known as a fiddler and songwriter with a profound knowledge of American music. He played many stringed instruments and appeared on many hit records and even television shows, and was a key figure in the creation of the musical style called Newgrass. He was also a wit, raconteur, and a licensed Mississippi River pilot.
In the early 1980s Hartford started keeping notebooks where he wrote down tunes and ideas for them. From then until the end of his life in 2001, he took a notebook with him and was constantly entering ideas, sketches and tunes. After his death his family discovered more than 2,000 hand-written fiddle tune charts in file cabinets under his desk. Beautifully hand-written, I might add.
Now working with Hartford’s family, Nashville-based fiddler Matt Combs has put together two massive projects from those archives: a book called John Hartford’s Mammoth Collections of Fiddle Tunes and this album, The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Volume 1. The album brought together a multi-generational who’s who of contemporary roots musicians to celebrate Hartford’s legacy.
One really cool thing is that the album was recorded in part at the legendary Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa in Nashville, home of the late Jack Clement, where Hartford recorded his 1984 album Gum Tree Canoe. Which was essentially when Hartford started his musical journals, which date back to 1983.
From the very first track, “Tennessee Politics,” you think, “It doesn’t get any better than this.” It has Combs on fiddle, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Noam Pikelny banjo, Chris Eldridge guitar and Dennis Crouch bass. Hartford’s alacrity and wit shine through on a song like this even when somebody else is playing!
The same with and a bit of grace some through on “Little Country Town,” which features the Haas-Kowert-Tice trio (Brittany Haas, Paul Kowert and Jordan Tice) plus the great Alison Brown on banjo and Dominick Leslie on mandolin. The same players minus Brown nail the loping “Long White Road” like they’ve been playing it all their lives – and they possibly have!
Some of the more memorable tracks feature smaller ensembles. “The Half-Price Hornpipe” features Kate Lee O’Connor on fiddle, accompanied by Forrest O’Connor on mandolin and guitar – like so many of Hartford’s songs, this one’s a delightful blend of old and new motifs and styles. Haas and Rachel Combs play the sweet waltz “How Can We Love,” while Megan Lynch Chowning (fiddle) and Tristan Scroggins (mandolin) swing on “John Rice,” which would be a great contradance tune!
As a reminder that Hartford was quite interested in lyrics and wrote some very funny ones, fiddler Tim O’Brien accompanies himself on the wry “On Guitars, The Ends Of Fingers Get Sore,” and takes another vocal turn on “The Old Man’s Drunk,” which also features Kristin Andreassen clogging! For a bit of a change of pace, Sierra Hull performs nimbly on mandolins and octave mandolin (also known as the Irish bouzouki) on the contrapuntal “Old Beveled Mirror,” playing at least three tracks in a very impressive show. And the 17 tracks wrap up well before you’re ready with O’Brien, Matt Combs and Shad Cobb playing fiddles on “Evening Farewell.”
I sincerely hope that the “Volume 1” tag on this project more than implies a second volume and more. With all those hundreds of tunes in the notebook, they could probably keep cranking these out until who knows when.
(John Hartford Enterprises/StuffWorks, 2020)