Welcome to Banjo Friday! It’s the final Friday of the month, so if you’ve been following along, you know what that means: Bluegrass!
Actually, today’s song & today’s artist probably both defy strict genre categorization. Let’s consider the artist first. Chances are, unless you are a fan of modern bluegrass, & especially the “Newgrass” movement, you may not have heard of John Hartford—or it’s possible that you know him for the one song that made his fortune—which was not a bluegrass song at all. John Hartford wrote the song “Gentle on My Mind,” & was the first to record it. His recording was a modest hit at best, but when Glenn Campbell recorded the song, it became a real chart-buster & ultimately a song that was covered by artists as diverse as Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Dean Martin, Lucinda Williams & R.E.M., just to name a few. In fact, during the height of the song’s popularity, the royalties were bringing Hartford a cool $100k per year; according to his online biography, “Hartford often said that Gentle On My Mind bought his freedom. He used that freedom to explore his various creative curiosities, and was usually happy to take his friends along on the trip.”
John Hartford had an abiding love of country music & bluegrass, but he was about as far from a hidebound traditionalist as one could be, & he brought more than a little counter-culture sensibility to his brand of bluegrass music. In 1971, he released the album Aereo-Plain on Warner Brothers, & this is one of those truly innovative albums that a lot of the general listening public have never heard or even heard of. Aereo-Plain didn’t sell well at the time of its release, & in fact Warner failed to promote his follow-up work as a result, which led to him asking for (& receiving) a release from his contract. But history, at least, was on Hartford’s side, as Aereo-Plain is considered seminal to the “Newgrass” movement that sprung up in the 1970s, 80s & beyond.
One thing about Aereo-Plain: Hartford assembled a dream line-up of bluegrass musicians to make the album. In addition to Hartford playing banjo & taking the vocals, Norman Blake played guitar, Vasser Clements played fiddle, Tut Taylor played dobro & Randy Scruggs played electric bass. Actually, the story is a bit more complicated, because Hartford played some fiddle & guitar, Blake also played mandolin, & Clements added in viola & cello(!)
The album is largely comprised of Hartford originals, tho it does contain a cover of the old country gospel song “Turn Your Radio On,” as well as a Bluegrass version of the old fiddle tune “Leather Britches.” Otherwise, there’s some great song-writing by Hartford, & great music-making by all involved. Listening to the album while preparing this post, I was reminded how much Hartford partook of the musical clown role—evident in both his lyrics & singing style at times, tho he could also be as straightforward & sincere as they come on numbers like “First Girl I Loved.” Of course, the musical clown role has a venerable history amongst banjoists, dating to disturbing origins in the days of minstrelsy, but having been largely transformed thru the years in the stage personas of great players like Uncle Dave Macon, Stringbean & Grandpa Jones. I see Hartford very much as a part of that tradition.
“Steam Powered Aereo Plain” is just sheer fun & great music. I know you’re going to enjoy it!