Sunday, August 25, 2013

Renaissance Man: Andrew Vaughn's Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-plain

It’s knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk/That makes me tend to leave my sleeping bag rolled up and tucked behind your couch/And it’s knowing I’m not shackled by forgotten words and bonds and the ink stains that have dried upon some line/That keeps you on the back roads by the rivers of my memory/That keeps you ever gentle on my mind.

- Glen Campbell, "Gentle on My Mind."

Sure, it was Glen Campbell who made the song famous. But it was John Hartford who wrote those words and the music that made them memorable. He was the tall, lean banjo player with the grin and the easy-going personality that backed Glen up on Campbell’s summer replacement show. Hartford had recorded his own version of the song which Campbell heard on the radio and decided to try his luck with a cover version. In 1967, they both won Grammy Awards, two each; Hartford for writing and for his own recording, Campbell for Best Country & Western Recording and Best Male C&W Vocal Performance. Hartford always said that “Gentle On My Mind” bought his freedom. He was more than a one hit wonder though, and not because he wrote dozens of hit songs. Hartford was a renaissance man in his own way; musician, songwriter, steamboat pilot, author, artist, disc jockey, dancer, folklorist, historian, and probably a handful of things we don’t know about. He had a comic side, although writing comic sketches for the Smothers Brothers wasn’t his forte, they kept him around for his razor sharp wit.

He was born in 1937, a descendant of Patrick Henry, and cousin to Tennessee Williams. John moved to Nashville in 1965 and a couple of years later legendary guitarist, A&R man Chet Atkins recognized his potential and signed Hartford to RCA Records. The rapid success of “Gentle On My Mind” and the potential for a career in television soon led him to Los Angeles for session work with The Byrds (Sweetheart of the Rodeo) and the Smothers Bros. and Campbell TV shows. Soon he was forming his own band, and a finding a clear path of his own. It was in the few years leading up to 1971 when he released the landmark Aereo-plain, an album that Andrew Vaughan covers in depth in a new book John Hartford: Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-plain.

Vaughn's book is not a full blown biography but rather a detailed look at an album that set the stage for the Americana/roots music that surrounds us today. Ironically, Aereo-plain was anathema upon release. After an eight album run on RCA Records, Hartford switched to Warners in 1971. In those days, it was the place to be, with a roster filled with the hippest singer-songwriters and the coolest bands of any label anywhere. When Hartford delivered this recording of acoustic bluegrass-influenced mountain music, Warners didn’t know what to do. He had the best musicians, Tut Taylor (dobro), Norman Blake (guitar), and the incredible Vassar Clements on fiddle, while Hartford played banjo and sang, and David Bromberg produced. Today the record is pointed to as a turning point. Mandolinist Sam Bush says, “Without Aereo-plain there would be no ‘newgrass’ music.” Today this album is a turning point, a benchmark against which others are measured. When T Bone Burnett was looking for authentic performers of roots music for the soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ O Brother, Where Art Thou he called on Hartford.

John Hartford
Vaughan describes the recording sessions and production of the album and the tensions Hartford was faced with, both personal and professional. His marriage fell apart. His ego received a battering, but he remained constant to his vision. The stories are told by people who were there, family members, and band-mates. The foreword is written by Hartford’s daughter Katie, and her list of contributors includes Norman Blake, Tut Taylor, Mason Williams, David Bromberg, Ricky Scaggs, Jennifer Warnes and others.

The book is filled with photographs, of the players and influences, copies of lyric sheets in Hartford’s handwriting, his drawings and scribbles, hardly a page goes by without some decoration. It was published by StuffWorks Press, a family run business which releases Hartford’s music, so the creation of the book was a true labour of love. Andrew Vaughan is a respected writer centred in Nashville whose work has appeared in Billboard, Mojo, Q, the Guardian and other magazines. As well he is the author of The Eagles: An American Band, and a biography of Shania Twain. Vaughan was given access to John Hartford’s collection of notes, ideas, memorabilia, and music. Apparently Hartford was a virtual librarian! This is not a simple vanity project. It is a beautifully presented hardcover book about an under-recognized artist who definitely deserves wider recognition. The book includes CD of a 1994 live concert at the Ryman Auditorium with John, Vassar, Tut and guitar player Tony Rice. It can be ordered here:

David Kidney has reviewed for Green Man Review and Sleeping Hedgehog. He published the Rylander Quarterly (a Ry Cooder-based newsletter) for 8 years before turning it into a blog, at He works at McMaster University as Director of Learning Space Development and lives in Dundas, Ontario with his wife.

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