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Various Artists

A Tribute to John Hartford – 2001 (Blue Plate Music)

Reviewed by Brad San Martin

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A pioneering musician who employed a broad palette of American music to fuel his idiosyncratic observations, the late John Hartford created a genre, a style all his own: a sort of modern old-tyme, pre-war, post-punk mélange that is was as influential as it was refreshing. His many appearances on the Mountain Stage radio program were a great way to get to know John, as he performed both solo and with a variety of ensembles. Yet, this Mountain Stage-sponsored tribute is somewhat unsettling.

It's split into two sections: seven cuts by various artists paying tribute to Hartford (recorded while he was still alive), and a six-song set by the Hartford String Band. Hartford's set is wonderful - he's in strong voice, high spirits, and the crack band (featuring Bob Carlin on clawhamemr banjo and Mike Compton on mandolin) offers a perfect give-and-take throughout. The tribute section is more problematic. The performances are for the most part uninspired and occasionally downright drab - and more than half of the songs relate to Hartford only peripherally. Gillian Welch's affecting take on "Tall Buildings" is a welcome highlight, as is Bela Fleck's spry "On the Road." But such respites are rare. Frankly, someone as important and as Hartford deserves much better.