John Hartford (1937-2001) was one of the most endearing and original figures in the acoustic music revival. A genuine, all-American oddball and a deep repository of America's rural musical history, Hartford had a way of welcoming his listeners and making them feel like they'd truly come home. This page looks at some of the best-of collections and retrospectives of his work; for reviews of his original, individual albums, see Page One of this profile.
John Hartford "RCA Country Legends" (Buddah, 2001)
As noted above, Hartford's early work on the RCA-Nashville label had its shortcomings... Mostly, it's the forced nature of the lyrics that comes through; it seems as if the studio heads were trying to impose a style on Hartford that didn't quite match up to his unique sense of humor. The half-Dylan, half Don Bowman "oddball" pose sounds a bit stiff, as does the musical backup. Still, this disc has some sweet moments, including the original versions of "Easy On My Mind" and "Washing Machine," as well as the more effective novelty songs, like "Category Stomp" and "How Come You're Being So Good To Me," and "Front Porch," a nice early example of the type of offbeat love song that Hartford later made his own. This disc doesn't include any material off of his final RCA album, Iron Mountain Depot, which remains an unrecognized country-rock masterpiece... Hopefully that means a separate reissue is planned for that album all by itself!
John Hartford "Catalogue" (Flying Fish, 1981) (LP)
A fine best-of offering that was the standard best-of set for years (until the Anthology album listed below came out...) Predictably, the song selection is a bit idiosyncratic and likely to leave long-time fans dissatisfied and digging in the crates for those old, original albums.. If you're new to the John Hartford phenomenon, though, this could certainly serve as a fine introduction.
John Hartford "Anthology" (Flying Fish, 1987)
Ditto with this collection... This adds another half-dozen years to choose from, and mixes old "hits" with curious, offbeat selections... Each fan will find some of their favorite tunes "missing" from this disc, but with so many great songs to choose from, that's bound to happen. Nice introduction to his work that should leave you wishing for more...
John Hartford "Me Oh My, How The Time Does Fly" (Flying Fish, 1987)
The CD version of the Anthology LP, with 19 songs total, all classic material.
John Hartford/Various Artists "A Tribute To John Hartford: Live From Mountain Stage" (Blue Plate Music, 2000)
This concert album was recorded nearly a year before Hartford passed away, and has a wealth of talented folks and friends assembled to pay him homage. Unfortunately, although I'm sure this was a very emotional event, the record itself never really catches fire -- I think perhaps the musicians were all too conscious of the weight of the event, the difficulties in saying goodbye, the urge to not screw anything up, the desire to make everything go right. And so, nobody really lets their hair down -- they aren't joyful, they aren't able to let mistakes happen and have that be part of the fun: in short, they don't really reflect back what made Hartford's career so wonderful to begin with. The exception to the rule? John Hartford himself, who appears beatifically at the end to play a few tunes, tell a few stories and joke about his impending demise, playing at his own wake, like something out of a Mark Twain story. It's sweet, and fitting, and will bring a tear to the eyes of many a fan. Hartford's tracks probably make this record worth keeping, as well as Gillian Welch's version of "In Tall Buildings," which doesn't hold a candle to the original, but is a nice entry into her body of work. Worth checking out, but don't get your hopes too high.
"Steamboat In A Cornfield" (Knopf Books, 1986)
This children's picturebook tells the story of the Virginia, a fabled luxury steamboat which ran aground on the bands of the Ohio River in 1910. Hartford, a steamboat enthusiast's steamboat enthusiast, tells the story in rhyme, while complementing the text with an ample supply of delightful archival materials -- photos of the ship, its lavish interiors, the accident and the efforts to rescue it, as well as replicas of old steamboat tickets and the amazingly detailed maps that riverboat captains used to navigate the waterways in olden times. A great glimpse into the waning days of a bygone era, nostalgia brought to life with a sense of authenticity and elan that only John Hartford can conjure so well.
"Down From The Mountain" (Artisan Entertainment, 2001) (DVD)
When I first saw O Brother, Where Art Thou, I thought it was a real hoot. Even better was the year-long debate among bluegrass fans, with indignant acoustic music loyalists up in arms over the supposed negative portrayals of hillbillies and hicks. Regardless, the film's soundtrack hit the top of the Billboard charts, and thrust bluegrass into the limelight of American popular culture. Good thing, too, because the album's commercial success made a major concert tour -- and this documentary of the tour -- possible. Besides being one of the most successful films to ever capture the complex emotional interactions between musicians on stage, this is also an enduring testament to the talent and perseverence of John Hartford, who emceed the show and performed eloquently with various musicians, despite his ongoing health problems. An absolutely beautiful and subtle, humorous and affectionate film, co-produced by the venerable D. A. Pennebaker. If you liked the O Brother album, this will blow you away.
Various Artists "Down From The Mountain" (Soundtrack) (Lost Highway, 2001)
Perhaps the single best thing about O Brother's commercial success was that it made a major concert tour -- and this documentary of the tour -- possible. Besides being one of the most successful films to ever capture the complex emotional interactions between musicians on stage, this is also an enduring testament to the talent and perseverence of the late, great, John Hartford, who emceed the show and performed eloquently with various musicians, despite ongoing health problems that were, literally, killing him at the time. I gotta confess, I got all misty almost every time he came on screen. An absolutely beautiful, subtle, humorous and affectionate film, co-produced by the venerable D. A. Pennebaker. If you liked the O Brother album, this concert film will blow you away.
The John Hartford String Band "Memories Of John" (Compass, 2010)
(Produced by Chris Sharp)
A great, goofy, glorious homage to the late bluegrass/old-timey renaissance man John Hartford, who sang songs, played fiddle, plunked banjo and made space in the music for everyone involved to have fun: his listeners, his musical partners, and himself. Hartford has always struck me as one of the most amiable and generous musicians around, and it's nice to hear such as sweet tribute from the folks who knew him best. The core group on this album includes the musicians who backed Hartford in his final years: banjoist Bob Carlin, fiddler Matt Combs, Mike Compton on mandolin, Mark Schatz on bass and Chris Sharp on guitar, along with a slew of guest performers, including Alison Brown, Alan O'Bryant, Bela Fleck and Tim O'Brien, who sings lead on a couple of songs. Hartford himself can be heard in snippets of studio dialogue ("...it's gonna be straight ahead, with allegiance to the music and NOT TRICKY," he intones on one tune...) and in the spirit of the songs themselves. There's also one "new" song, "You Don't Notice Me Ignoring You," which comes from a trove of informal demos that Hartford cut in the 1960s, a funny song with a carefree vibe that longtime hartford fans will recognize right away... (And I sure hope the rest of those recordings will see the light of day soon...!) This record hits just the right tone, on song after song -- you don't have to be a Hartford fan to love it, but after you give it a spin, you're bound to jump on the bandwagon. Highly recommended!
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