Songwriter, banjo-picker, old-time fiddler, dancer, tv star, radio dj, and, perhaps most importantly, professional riverboat pilot. Welcome to the weird, wide world of John Hartford.
Hartford was a cross between Bill Monroe and Mark Twain—he titled one of his albums Mark Twang. He was among the first to join hippie sensibilities with hillbilly ways. During the late ’60s and early ’70s, Hartford was both a vivid reminder of America’s past musical heritage, and also a harbinger of things to come; he shaped contemporary music almost in spite of himself. “Newgrass,” which in turn fed into the jam band phenomena, is basically Hartford’s concoction (though mandolinist Sam Bush gets some credit too). Even Americana, as it is currently defined, is impossible to imagine without him—the blockbuster O Brother, Where Art Thou project has Hartford’s fingerprints and spirit all over it.
So a new John Hartford Tribute album is most welcomed, and now we have one in hand: On the Road, from LoHi Records. It’s a dang good tribute album, too, starting with the opening cut (by Hartford’s co-conspirator Sam Bush), and never letting up.
Whether it’s just by chance or it involved a master plan, the album has a satisfying balance and diversity. Let’s start with song selection, which succeeds on a few important counts: You get the better known Hartford pieces sprinkled among the lesser known ones, for one thing. So you have “In Tall Buildings” as done by John Carter Cash with Jamie Hartford and Jerry Douglas–it compares favorably to the wonderful Gillian Welch version recorded 20 years ago. And of course you have “Gentle on My Mind,” even if you know more than a few great covers of Hartford’s signature song. There’s now one more great version, and it’s by The Infamous Stringdusters. Hard to imagine the song in better hands.
It’s worth reflecting that Hartford’s own recording of “Gentle on My Mind” failed to land with audiences, and that it took Glen Campbell’s cover to propel it to the top of the charts. Its success gave Hartford a couple of Grammys, and enough financial cushion to wholeheartedly pursue his unique—some say goofy and odd—vision of things. On that point, the merry prankster side of Hartford gets fair representation on this tribute, as it should. One highlight is “The Category Stomp” as done by Leftover Salmon, with its mouthful of a chorus:
It’s a folk-country-disco tech-soft-rock-contemporary-abstract-expressionism-word-movie-flower-power-hard-ragging-neo-bluegrass-stoned-billy-dirty-boogie-freak-down-coming-on-jellybean-psychedelic stomp.
The High Hawks’ “Waugh Paugh” is another in this vein, and it seemingly leaves the performers collapsed in laughter by the end. (The original is from Radio John, a recording so strange to RCA Victor that the label refused to release it.) The goofier side of Hartford’s music can wear thin quickly, so good thing that the album balances that with touching songs like “In Tall Buildings,” and the wistful “Delta Queen Waltz” (which Railroad Earth handles beautifully). “I Wish We Had Our Time Again” is another plaintive one, and Todd Snider’s stripped-down rendition is more moving than the original. Overall the variety and the sequence of tracks keeps the celebration moving like a mountain river in spring–no eddies or stagnant backwaters here.
The only nitpick with song selection is that “This Eve of Parting” is not included. The song featured in the film Lady Bird from 2017, and struck a nerve with audiences. It may be Hartford’s most popular track these days, and a remake of it would have fit better than a ditty about granny smoking reefer.
The artists that contribute to On the Road are a strong and varied crowd. Big-name performers that you know are gonna deliver (Yonder Mountain, the McCourys), are offset by exciting artists you might not have not come across before (Fruition, Greg Garrison, and Danny Barnes, to name a few). Whether or not you warm up to the unfamiliar performers right away isn’t the point—a tribute record should have some news, and this one does. Fruition is new to me, and they kill it on “Back in the Goodle Days.” Another low profiler is Greg Garrison, whose “Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry” really stands out (thanks to a stellar vocal turn by Sydney Clapp). Garrison had played bass in The Punch Brothers and in Leftover Salmon, so he’s been around the block; his contribution strengthens the album.
This collection doesn’t overplay any one sound—it’s not all country-flavored, and its not all jamgrass—though the influence of Leftover Salmon is pretty dominant. I did miss a jazz-oriented interpretation, or one in any other musical idiom beyond the usual suspects; widening the aperture would have would have been appropriate for an artist like John Hartford. The light turnout of female performers is another weakness. But I say this album is definitely worth your while. And note: All proceeds from the project will benefit MusiCares, an outfit run by The Grammy Foundation that offers critical assistance to musicians in times of crisis and need.
To download or stream the album, or just to get more information on the project, go here.
On the Road: A Tribute to John Hartford Track Listing:
- On The Road – Sam Bush
- Back in the Goodle Days – Fruition
- Holding – Yonder Mountain String Band
- Gentle on My Mind – The Infamous Stringdusters
- The Category Stomp – Leftover Salmon
- No End of Love – The Travelin’ McCourys
- Delta Queen Waltz – Railroad Earth
- Granny Woncha Smoke Some Marijuana – Keller Williams with The Travelin’ McCourys
- Up on the Hill Where They do the Boogie – The Band of Heathens
- I Wish We Had Our Time Again – Todd Snider
- Let Him Go On Mama – Horseshoes & Hand Grenades
- In Tall Buildings – John Carter Cash and Jamie Hartford (featuring Norman Blake and Jerry
- Waugh Paugh – The High Hawks
- Tear Down The Grand Ole Opry – Greg Garrison
- On The Road – Danny Barnes