John Hartford Stringband,
Memories of John
(Red Clay/Compass, 2010)

John Hartford once remarked to Ralph Stanley that what Stanley's music was to the mountains, his was to the rivers. Hartford had a lifelong fascination with the Mississippi River and the steamboats that plied their trade on its waters. He also knew the fiddle and banjo tunes that sounded along its banks when Mark Twain was chronicling Life on the Mississippi. When he died of cancer on June 4, 2001, he left many friends behind. Hartford was loved as a man and admired as a musician. Memories of John movingly recalls both.

Hartford spent most of his adult life as a resident of a Nashville suburb -- evoked in "Madison, Tennessee," this album's fourth cut -- but was never really a country musician as the term is usually understood, even if early in his career RCA tried to turn him into one. Perhaps most famously, he wrote the anthemic "Gentle on My Mind." One of the most-played songs in the history of broadcast music, it gave him the financial freedom to explore his muse without having to worry about whether the marketplace would reward it. "Gentle" was more romantic folk epic of the ramblin' life than alcohol-soaked honkytonk plaint. Bluegrass and old-time music were a more direct influence on Hartford's sound than anything else, even as he was capable of creating decidedly untraditional tunes on traditional stringed instruments.

Memories of John is a heartfelt effort and a worthy tribute to a great American artist. The John Hartford Stringband is the outfit that he toured with in his last years: Bob Carlin (banjo), Matt Combs (fiddle), Mike Compton (mandolin), Chris Sharp (guitar) and Mark Schatz (bass). All share in the vocals. Guests on the recording include such luminaries as Alison Brown (banjo), Bela Fleck (banjo), Tim O'Brien (vocals) and Alan O'Bryant (vocals). The feeling, appropriately, recalls Hartford's distinctive approach: as modern as it was traditional, and vice versa. Nobody got this sound, flawless and ageless, in the way Hartford did, either alone or surrounded by sympathetic fellow pickers.

The songs and tunes consist of Hartford originals, fiddle pieces, Johnny Bond's "Love Grown Cold," the folksong "The Girl I Left Behind Me" and the Civil War-era parlor ballad "Lorena." The last was his signature song, sung here in a lovely rendition by his friend Tim O'Brien. Hartford himself makes an occasional appearance, for example in "You Don't Notice Me Ignoring You" from a heretofore unreleased demo recording in the mid-1960s. His gorgeous river songs "M.I.S.I.P." (with O'Brien singing) and "Delta Queen Waltz" (O'Bryant) are here to remind us of the Mississippi that flowed in Hartford's heart. "Homer the Roamer," an original fiddle tune, points to a more obscure side of his art: his love of Celtic music, represented in an austere Irish-style melody that moves leisurely into more familiar territory: sprightly old-timey flavored bluegrass.

If Memories amounts to a well-nigh perfect send-off, it only underscores the dimension of the loss American music suffered when John Hartford left us. If you don't know his music, here's a fine place to start.

music review by
Jerome Clark

5 February 2011

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