Musician, songwriter Hartford |
dies at 63
By CRAIG HAVIGHURST - June 5, 2001
John Hartford, one of traditional country music's great multi-instrumentalists as well as one of its most beloved performers and personalities, died yesterday after a 21-year battle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He was 63.
In his 35-year Nashville career, he was a radio disc jockey, a studio musician, a hit songwriter, a mainstream country up-and-comer, a Music Row rebel and a television personality.
He also was an avid amateur historian who collected archives of material from favorite musicians and from the history of riverboats, a passion he pursued for most of his life.
Hartford was a renowned bluegrass and traditional musician who devotedly studied the work of his heroes and who practiced meticulously with a metronome until the end of his life. He also was a gifted raconteur, one whose loping Midwestern baritone could enthrall an audience either speaking or singing.
Hartford is best known as the songwriter of Gentle On My Mind, a song that became a hit for Glen Campbell in 1967 and which went on to become one of the most recorded and performed songs of all time. In addition to three Grammy Awards for that song, Hartford earned a Grammy for his 1976 solo album Mark Twang.
But to a widening circle of fans and musicians in the traditional music community, Hartford was a beacon of musical integrity and a whimsical spirit whose childlike enthusiasm for music and profound understanding of it nurtured the talents of others.
After two decades of fighting cancer, he lost control of his hands this spring while playing dates in Texas. Members of his band said he had to deliver his final show sitting with his fiddle cradled in his lap. After returning to Nashville, Hartford was admitted to the hospital for two weeks. On Friday, he was readmitted to Centennial Medical Center, where he died at 4:30 p.m. yesterday.
During recent weeks, many of Nashville's most revered musicians paid visits to his home in Madison.
''I've never seen anything like it. Hundreds of people went through there in the last five weeks,'' said Keith Case, Hartford's manager for almost 30 years. ''People came in from all over the country. I don't know how to put it into words. He was a huge friend to people and a huge influence. He was really open, and he touched all those people. They all wanted to have him know they loved him.''
''He was a great talent. He had a style,'' said banjo great Earl Scruggs, one of Hartford's first musical heroes. ''He was a tremendous songwriter.
''John was like a member of the family to us. He used to come by when we lived in Madison quite often — a couple times a week.''
Scruggs' wife, Louise, recalled that early in their acquaintance, Hartford visited them when they both were recuperating from an automobile accident in about 1955.
''John got out of school to come to Nashville. He wanted to talk to Earl. We were both in bed at the time. John sat there just about all day. He had a little note pad. He said, 'If you don't mind I'd like to ask you a few questions.' He had eight pages of questions about the banjo.''
He was born John Cowan Harford on Dec. 30, 1937, in New York City. Years later, Chet Atkins would add the ''t'' to his name upon signing him to RCA Victor, according to The Encyclopedia of Country Music. His family moved to St. Louis when he was an infant. Growing up on the Mississippi River imbued him with a lifelong love of old riverboats.
He heard Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs on radio station WSM from Nashville while in his teens and was inspired to learn guitar, banjo, fiddle and mandolin. He played in dance halls in Missouri and Illinois in the early 1960s, supplementing his income as a radio host on several Midwestern stations.
In 1965, Hartford moved to Nashville, where his first job was as a night disc jockey on WSIX. He soon earned a songwriting deal with the Glaser Brothers, who helped him get signed at RCA. On his first album, John Hartford Looks at Life, Johnny Cash contributed liner notes.
''He is great, but doesn't know it,'' Cash wrote. ''His music and lyrics are unlike any I've heard. He is himself and will not be told how to write or sing, because he has only his own world.''
Gentle on My Mind, noted for its literary quality, was a modest hit for Hartford, but he didn't pursue the standard Nashville career long. After Glen Campbell's recording, the song was covered by Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley, Dean Martin and Tammy Wynette, as well as hundreds of others from all genres of pop music.
Hartford moved to California in 1968 and became a writer and performer on CBS's The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. But he returned to Nashville two years later with fresh musical ideas.
He recruited Dobro player Tut Taylor, guitarist Norman Blake and fiddler Vassar Clements to make 1971's eccentric Aereo Plain, an album that many consider a core influence on today's schools of progressive bluegrass to the jam band movement.
After touring with Blake, Hartford developed a solo act in which he played guitar, fiddle and banjo, sang, danced and told stories — while wearing his derby hat and black vest. That act would sustain him for 25 years, before he delved into old-time ensemble music.
In his later years, Hartford proved to be a formidable music historian who found endlessly creative ways to keep early country music relevant. His 1998 recording The Speed of the Old Long Bow was an unorthodox tribute to the almost-forgotten fiddler Ed Haley, on which Hartford played versions of Haley tunes he had transcribed from old recordings with lyrics that comprised a biography of Haley in song.
His voice could be heard in Ken Burns' television documentary series The Civil War. One of his last concert appearances was filmed when D.A. Pennebaker shot Down From The Mountain in April 2000, a concert tribute to the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, to which Hartford contributed. Down From The Mountain will be shown Sunday at the Nashville Independent Film Festival.
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