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John Hartford

Steam Powered Aereo-Takes – 2002 (Rounder)

Reviewed by Rick Bell

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CDs by John Hartford

Much like country rock of the late '60s and early '70s, it's nearly impossible to pinpoint an album that defined the progressive bluegrass movement of the same era. But among them must be the late John Hartford's "Aereo-Plain." Rounder Records has re-released a new collection of out-takes as well as originals from the 1971 classic. Several lost tapes from the sessions, which included Aereoplane Band members Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, Tut Taylor and Gary Scruggs, surfaced last year, resulting in this 18-song collection.

Its historical value can't be denied, yet much of it sounds as fresh and innovative today as it must have 30 years ago. Hartford, probably best known as the author of Glen Campbell's "Gentle on my Mind," shunned benchmark high-harmonies and the often dreary, stiff lyrics of the day and created tunes like "Emanuel Cant" and "Dig a Hole." Yet, Aereoplane offered up several dandy instrumentals and traditional numbers during their short time together.

The jam-band feel, which includes excellent liner notes, established the tone for many acts to follow, including the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and the Garcia-Grisman collaboration, Old and in the Way. As much as this album has its place in bluegrass history, it's not merely a period piece. This is Hartford's most popular recording, and arguably the best among a career of sometimes offbeat, but never dull music.