John Hartford: Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-Plain Excerpt

September 5, 2013 — Leave a comment

There is a great new book by Andrew Vaughan (look for an interview with him next week) about the making of the classic John Hartford album Aereo-Plain. I’m very happy to present this exclusive excerpt from the book (thanks to Eric Hogue at the John Hartford Office!). Enjoy!

Songwriter, fiddle player, historian, TV star, comedian, showman, entertainer, author, river boat captain—John Hartford’s many accomplishments in a relatively short life (he was just sixty-three when he passed away in 2001) make him a tricky customer to pigeonhole and categorize.hartford

Aware that his place in music history is significant and wanting to somehow understand more about the man that made this extraordinary music, it seemed sensible to focus in one area, examine its context within such a multi-textured life, and thereby get to grips with the many factors that made John tick.

Asking Hartford’s family, who maintain and safeguard Hartford’s archive and run Small Dog A-Barkin’ Records, for some advice on how to zero in on John’s legacy, the conversations kept returning to a commercial disaster of an album, but a record that is revered in acoustic music as a milestone and a game changer—Aereo-Plain.

No, not the Smothers Brothers days, not the Glen Campbell–propelled “Gentle on My Mind” story, not Hartford’s devotion to the history of fiddle music nor his lifelong relationship with the Mississippi River.

No, the fans were fascinated, as I would become, by the 1971 album that changed everything. It changed everything for John by setting him free from his (to him) awkward TV entertainer image, and it changed everything for bluegrass by pioneering a wonderful mix of young and old, of tradition and originality, of reverence and abandon.

John Hartford’s story and John Hartford’s personality are far too complex for any one book to do his multifaceted talents justice. This book is focused on John’s switch from clean-cut TV star to the unrecognizable longhaired and bearded maverick that showed bluegrass and old time music a new way in 1971. This book will tell the story of John’s journey to Aereo-Plain, his trials and tribulations, and his personal conflicts and artistic visions.

When John Hartford left RCA for Warner Bros., the label figured they were getting the hit songwriter who could make them a few bucks, while Hartford looked at the new relationship as an opportunity to make a fresh start, stop chasing hits, and play music from the soul. As guitarist Norman Blake noted:

“He created his own musical universe and he lived in it and he believed in it.”

By design, or fortune, or maybe both, Hartford hooked up with musicians who didn’t just share his musical sensibility but relished in the creative freedom he insisted on for himself and his team. Mars must have been in Venus that week because the universe touched Norman Blake, Vassar Clements, and Tut Taylor with the kind of intuitive magic that occurs very rarely in any art form.

As Norman Blake told me: “He was a genius, I’d say. He marched to his own drum, he created his own musical universe, and he lived in it and he believed in it.”

Scott O’Malley, who represented John for many years, told the Colorado Springs Independent that Aereo-Plain was a “major transition. There was nothing gradual about it. He just went for it. The record company, I guess, wasn’t all that pleased, but, boy, the picking community, it just became the new Bible.”

“I’ve said many times without the Aereo-Plain album or band there wouldn’t have been any New Grass Revival,” said Sam Bush. “It was the first time where people truly used acoustic bluegrass instruments to create original contemporary music. It was new music for the times at that time, but done with these great bluegrass and acoustic players. It was the origins of what some people might call Newgrass.”

It was John Hartford’s drive to experiment, to improve as a player and a writer, that brought him to make this seminal recording.

Sure, he followed a fairly traditional path for musical fame and fortune—record deal, hit song, TV success—but conforming to others’ expectations was not on the Hartford menu. He enjoyed the trappings of success, the ability to buy any shiny new instrument he fancied, financial stability, and, of course, the chance to play music with his heroes, but Hartford’s psyche was more complex than to settle for anything less than being master of his own artistic destiny.

“I think a man should sing or talk as honest as is the air he breathes,” Hartford said.

The always-perceptive Johnny Cash, whose TV show would play a major role in the Aereo-Plain story, spotted something in the young John Hartford long before he went his own musical way in the seventies. Cash wrote the liner notes for John’s Chet Atkins–produced debut album John Hartford Looks at Life and wrote: “He is himself and will not be told how to write or sing, because he has only his own world.”

Just how Cash analyzed Hartford’s inner psyche so quickly is remarkable. But whatever it was that Cash spotted in the young writer, who was yet to travel out west and embrace the highs and lows of Hollywood, he was right. The path John Hartford followed as the sixties became the seventies was single minded and passionate, as he did indeed create his own musical universe, and in doing so would usher a new wave of talent into a traditional music style.

I first discovered the music of John Hartford in the eighties. I was fresh out of University in England where I’d spent hours in the library’s country music archive for various academic pursuits. When I started to write about music for a living, my first interviewee was a famous British country music artist, Pete Sayers, who it turns out played with John and his Aereo-Plain boys at the great 1971 Bean Blossom festival.

Sayers told me to check out two artists who had changed bluegrass and brought new generations
into his cherished music genre. They were Peter Rowan, who was touring the UK at the time, and John Hartford, whose work Pete told me was underappreciated by the public at large but absolutely valued by his peers and those in the industry.

John Hartford would be surprised, I’m sure, at the notion that some forty years after he and his musical A-Team—Tut Taylor, Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, and Randy Scruggs—recorded the organic and musically free Aereo-Plain album, that the recording would come to be hailed as one of the most significant records of the era.

As with most pioneering artistic endeavors, the album was ahead of its time and fell quickly into music-industry obscurity. Commercially, it was far from a success, but its sheer honesty and musical integrity would eventually raise the record to a status shared by very few.

Just how his barnstorming album came to take place is a compelling story of will, happenstance, circumstance, and fate. Numerous threads conspired to bring John Hartford together with just the right personnel for his seventies rebirth as an artist. The combination of Tut Taylor’s idiosyncratic Dobro work, Norman Blake’s tasteful guitar, and Vassar Clements’ otherworldly fiddle virtuosity was spectacular. Throw in Randy Scruggs’ less-is-more rock steady bass playing and Hartford’s own instrumental finesse and the music could not fail. Add the exceptional material and the freeform jazz-like muse that touched the project, and no wonder something very significant occurred.

This was a radical but wholly respectful take on traditional bluegrass. If Hartford was making any point at all, it was directed more at the major label honchos who wanted another “Gentle on My Mind” than the bluegrass masters like Scruggs and Monroe, who John so deeply admired. This was an affectionate experiment, a creative diversion using pure bluegrass as a departure point to breathe organic folk life into Hartford’s always compelling and eclectic material.

Being entrusted with telling this part of John’s story is a huge honor. To be let loose in the John Hartford archive in Franklin, Tennessee, is to peek into the window of a truly gifted soul.

While looking through old journals, diaries, and writings, one thing becomes very clear. Like all truly artistic spirits who surface above their peers, Hartford possessed a veritable work ethic. John’s son Jamie commented that John was a “frustrated librarian” and kept his thoughts, ideas, concepts, and snatches of lyrics in journals and piles of 3×5 cards. It was a system inspired by his well-organized doctor father.

Creative, to be sure, maybe one of the most genuinely talented bluegrass/new grass musicians of them all, John was equally organized, ordered, and logical. He kept an extensive filing system of index cards filled with appointments, concepts, ideas, and thoughts and, of course, thousands and thousands of song ideas and lyrics. His journals are a fascinating glimpse into the mind of a man driven by music as a writer, a performer, and a historian and legacy keeper.

The sheer volume of writing and notes are proof that he never stopped creating, never stopped learning, and never stopped endeavoring to improve. Even when his uncanny ability to craft a song second in popularity on the radio only to Paul McCartney’s “Yesterday” brought him fame and unimaginable riches, he never once took the easy path. The financial security that a hit song brings allowed John to work just as hard as he always had but now in a direction that appealed to his own distinct muse rather than the path spelled out by a voracious record company searching
out the next radio smash.

Hartford never made any grandiose announcements about changing bluegrass; he had no blueprint, Gram Parsons–style to fuse rock and roll fans with country music. But what’s so fascinating about John Hartford is that all the seeds for his jumping the commercial ship to find creativity were sown in his formative years. Hartford’s path from a river-loving kid who wanted to play banjo like Earl Scruggs to St. Louis local musician and Nashville songwriter propelled to fame and fortune is fascinating in itself. But throughout Hartford’s journey, it’s apparent that something like Aereo-Plain was always going to happen; it was the nature of the man and his circumstance.

When Hartford left Nashville for Los Angeles, he immersed himself in the new and creative artistic community. He thrived in L.A.’s openness to new ideas, the flowering of all kinds of artistic expression wrapped up in a youth revolution. As a TV star, initially on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, one of the hippest shows in America, and later The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and The Johnny Cash Show, Hartford was exposed to an artistic community he could have never imagined in St. Louis and Tennessee.

Fame and access to the cultural revolution in Los Angeles were not kind to John’s personal and family life, but the experiences he gained in those few years in California played a significant role in his ability to create such magical music in the Seventies.

For some, writing a classic song such as “Gentle on My Mind” would have been the beginning of a mainstream commercial career. Not so with John Hartford. Sure, he was tempted, but the glitz of Hollywood success, that was a temporary departure.

Perhaps it was the moment when the music-obsessed John Hartford was offered a starring role in a new TV detective show that he realized the Hollywood game was up. Hartford passed on the opportunity, preferring to dig deep into his soul and follow his musical muse. He told Rolling Stone at the time, “Business and ego started interfering with music, as it always does, and I—who fancy myself a Nashville banjo picker—soon realized I was a very confused, pretentious Hollywood

Fortunately for John Hartford, and for us, “Gentle on My Mind,” gave him the financial freedom to do things his own way and allowed all those fascinating elements of John’s history, art, and personality to come to fruition on Aereo-Plain in 1971.

Below is an excerpt from the exclusive CD that is included in the first printing of the book. The disc contains a 1994 performance by Hartford, Tut Taylor, Vassar Clements, and Tony Rice, at the Ryman Auditorium.:


Eric Banister


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