Category: John Hartford

Covered in Folk: John Hartford
(The John Hartford Stringband, plus Gillian Welch, Sam Bush, & more!)

June 16th, 2010 — 11:29 am

Well-covered in popular culture and over at classic songs collaborative Star Maker Machine, John Hartford never made the splash he could and should have as a performer, in part because Glen Campbell’s Grammy-winning cover of Gentle On My Mind sold so well, the cash flow gave Hartford license to chuck it all in and pursue his true passion – as a steamboat captain on his beloved Mississippi River.

But the man I once heard referred to as “the clown prince of old-time” kept coming back to the music, winning a few Grammys himself in his day. His legacy is strong, and his influence can be found in the continued evolution of the old-time folkgrass sound so beloved on these pages; indeed, we’ve posted several Hartford compositions here before, as warranted. And though I myself only truly found his songs in the last few years, as far I’m concerned, any celebration of the man and his songbook is warranted, too, any time we can justify it.

Proof positive arrived in the mail this week from the members of John Hartford’s band, now performing as the John Hartford String Band: they’ve just released Memories of John, a fine and fitting tribute featuring previously unreleased audio from the man himself, and with guest vocals and instrumentals from Tim O’Brien, Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, and others – a short but solid who’s who of artists equally adept on the folk, bluegrass, and country line.

The collection works splendidly. Despite aging voices, in Memories of John, the one-time compatriots of the late great singing, songwriting steamboat pilot (Bob Carlin on banjo, Matt Combs on fiddle, Mike Compton on mandolin, Mark Schatz on bass, and guitarist Chris Sharp) have put together a worthy collection of Hartford tunes both familiar and obscure, including several songs Hartford left as sketches, now fleshed out as quintessentially Hartford-esque. And the love these men feel for their long-gone compatriot shows through the performance, with fine instrumental craftsmanship at both joyfully breakneck and tender ballad tempos, and a sense of reverent whimsy that evokes the man himself in every note.

The album delves deep, skipping over several of the Hartford tunes true fans know best. But this choice makes sense, in a way – many of Hartford’s most famous compositions have found their way into the folkways, and as such, any tribute designed specifically to focus on the close connection between the man and the songs themselves would suffer from the distant echo of coverage in our hearts and ears.

Our mandate is different, of course: at Cover Lay Down, it is that absorption of song into the canon which inspires us. Today, then: a thorough treatment of John Hartford’s songbook, in folkways both sparse and rich…and with plenty of fiddle and banjo at the helm, just as John would have wanted it.

Like what you hear? Thanks to the fine folks at Compass Records, I’ve got an extra copy of The John Hartford Stringband’s Memories Of John coming my way via parcel post. Leave a comment below with your name and email address, and I’ll enter you into a drawing to win it.

Of course, the songs of John Hartford would be nowhere without the original powerhouse performances of Hartford himself, who passed on of complications from non-Hodgkins Lymphoma in 2001, leaving us with a legacy of over 30 albums of original songs, traditional tunes, and the occasional playful popcover. Today’s Bonus Tracks let the man speak for himself, through a few select familiarities remade in his own inimitable manner:

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1,349 comments » | John Hartford

The Jones Street Boys Cover: The Band, John Hartford, Bill Monroe, Peter Rowan

January 16th, 2008 — 03:45 am

Brooklyn-based folkgrass band The Jones Street Boys released their first album, Overcome, back in October of 2007; since then, they’ve raised a couple of eyebrows on the americana and alt-country blogs, but not nearly enough. I heard them for the first time last week, but I’m not afraid to be late for the party when I’ve got such a great housewarming gift for all those out there who appreciate the No Depression end of modern folk music.

At heart, The Jones Street Boys are a bluegrass band; their members have played Merlefest alongside Gillian Welch and Nickel Creek, and their instrumentation is heavy on the banjo, acoustic guitar, mandolin and upright bass. But add a sweet harmonica worthy of Springsteen, a barrel-house piano, and the ragged, heartfelt delivery of Wilco or The Band, and the result is gorgeous, stripped down, pulled back, intimate blues-tinged americana.

If this is bluegrass at all, it’s lo-fi alt-country bluegrass music with a hint of midnight trainsongs and fireside song circles, a dollop of happy roots rock, and the pure infectious joy of making plumb great music. In fact, their sound is so damn infectious, I haven’t listened to anything else in days.

The range of these five top-notch musicians is impressive, too. Their ability to hold back and control the flow, floating the sparse harmonica and lead vocals over a bed of solid bass, mandolin, and drumkit and some sweet campfire harmonies, creates a ragged alt-country tension that lends the perfect note of longing and exhaustion to their slower songs. And when they cut loose, the result is pure acoustic glee.

Overcome runs a pretty broad spectrum, from full-bore youngfolks jams to sparse, weary americana; of these, the three covers that appear on this self-produced album hover around the americana end, but I’m not complaining. All are excellent, as covers and as song. Their cover of Twilight, my favorite song by The Band, bears the sound of encores at midnight; John Hartford’s Tall Buildings, which closes the album, beats Gillian Welch’s version hands down. And in these capable hands, lesser-known bluegrass classic Walls of Time, originally by Bill Monroe and Peter Rowan, becomes a majestic, bittersweet masterpiece.

This is great stuff, a perfect meld of traditional blues-and-bluegrass instrumentation and No Depression-esque sensibility. Thanks to The Planetary Group for allowing us to pass along these covers, that you, too, might get The Jones Street Boys stuck in your head.

Want to hear more? Stream the entire album over at The Jones Street Boys website, and then buy Overcome via Insound, the band’s preferred source for purchase. And when you do, keep an ear open for Argentina, a beautiful, uptempo original easily worth the price of purchase.

Today’s bonus coversongs offer other artist’s versions of the same songs covered on Overcome, for comparison’s sake. It says what it needs to about the genius of The Jones Street Boys that, in other contexts, these covers would stand out more.

1,062 comments » | Gillian Welch, John Hartford, Salamander Crossing, Shawn Colvin, The Jones Street Boys