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Country Music Hall of Fame spotlights John Hartford

Friday, January 9, 2009 – John Hartford will be the subject of the Country Music Hall of Fame's newest spotlight exhibit, John Hartford: Ever Smiling, Ever Gentle on My Mind, which opens Jan. 24. The exhibit examines Hartford's career, including his songwriting success with the country-pop standard Gentle on My Mind, his experimental and influential approach to traditional music, and his endeavors as an artist, performer, steamboat pilot, author and historian.

Incorporating moving images, photographs, costumes, handwritten lyrics and instruments from the museum's collection and the Hartford family, the spotlight exhibit, located within the Museum's permanent exhibition, will run through January 2010.

"In many ways, John Hartford is the Mark Twain of traditional music," said Mick Buck, the museum's curator of collections. "He was a beloved American figure whose influence went far beyond his commercial success. He brought literacy, humor and inventiveness to his music, and an eclectic sense of adventure to his life. He was a true artist in every sense of the word."

John Cowan Harford (he added the "t" later at the request of producer Chet Atkins) grew up in St. Louis along the Mississippi River. As a child, he was instantly drawn to traditional string music, particularly Earl Scruggs, and became proficient on fiddle, banjo and guitar. While still in his teens, he began playing professionally in central Missouri and Illinois bluegrass groups.

In 1965, Hartford moved to Nashville to work as a late-night disc jockey for WSIX. After his songs reached Chuck Glaser of the Glaser Brothers, Hartford was signed to RCA. His big break came in 1967, when Glen Campbell's recording of Hartford's song Gentle on My Mind became a Grammy-winning pop and country hit. It would later be recorded by hundreds of artists including Aretha Franklin, Dean Martin and Elvis Presley.

After moving to California in 1968, he was hired as a script writer and performer for CBS's Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, where he spent 2 prime-time seasons working in Hollywood. In 1971, Hartford switched gears and returned to Nashville to record his acoustic album, "Aereo-Plain."

Hartford soon began reconnecting with his childhood companion, the Mississippi River. He spent summers working as a pilot on the steamboat Julia Belle Swain. The lifestyle eventually wove its way into Hartford's music when, in 1976, he released an entire album of original river-oriented songs, "Mark Twang." The album received a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording. It was Hartford's first album without a band, and it mirrored his newly honed stage act, which consisted of Hartford switching between banjo, fiddle and guitar, while dancing and tapping his feet percussively on an amplified plywood board.

For the remainder of his career, Hartford delved deeper into old-time music and its history. He worked on a biography of West Virginia fiddler Ed Haley while recording many of Haley's tunes. His contributions to "O Brother, Where Art Thou?'s" Grammy-winning soundtrack once again thrust Hartford into the limelight.

Hartford's other forays included voiceovers for film and television documentaries, notably Ken Burns' Civil War series on PBS. In 1986, he authored a children's book Steamboat in a Cornfield, which recounted the true story of the steamboat Virginia.

On June 4, 2001, Hartford lost his 20-year battle with non-Hodgkins lymphoma.

Artifcats in the exhibition include:

Hartford's handwritten lyrics to "Gentle on My Mind."

Hartford's 1967 Grammy Awards for Best Folk Performance and Best Country & Western Song.

A guitar built by Roy Noble for Hartford in 1969.

A jacket, pants, and cowboy boots worn by Hartford on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.

Hartford's gold-plated Fender Concert Tone five-string banjo used on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and on his album Aereo-Plain. The banjo includes a riverboat sketch drawn by Hartford on the banjo head.

Hartford's black Stetson bowler, thirteen-pocket vest and Italian wingtip shoes worn during many performances.

One of Hartford's riverboat sketches for the cover of his 1979 album "Slumberin' on the Cumberland."

Hartford's steamboat pilot license, issued in 1987.

Hartford's custom-made 1988 Barnes & Lamb violin. The instrument features a carving of his bust on the scroll, lyrics from Gentle on My Mind on the sides, and a carved anchor and painting of a steamboat on the back.

A 2001 Grammy for Album of the Year awarded to Hartford for "O Brother, Where Art Thou?"

CD reviews for John Hartford

Memories Of John CD review - Memories Of John
It's ironic but somehow fitting that the song that made John Hartford famous is omitted from this tribute CD. Gentle On My Mind was released with limited success by Hartford, but then covered by Glen Campbell (one of more than 300 covers). Campbell's version became a giant hit, and Hartford was a regular guest on Campbell's TV show. Hartford followed his whimsy and never let the boundaries of genre influence his music. This tribute album by friends and his last band reflects that »»»
Good Old Boys
Long considered a national musical treasure for his championing of traditional old-time music, John Hartford has written his fair share of classics, too. His best known composition, "Gentle On My Mind," was a big hit for Glen Campbell. The breezy locomotion of that tune is echoed faintly in the title track to this collection of all new originals, and Hartford is so obviously at ease with the material and his fellow players that it takes a lot less than the song's 6 1/2 minutes for »»»
Steam Powered Aereo-Takes
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, »»»
Editorial: Walking the talk – When names like Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Waylon and the Hag are invoked, you're talking hard core country. These are the touchstones of country , the guys who made country music what it was and still is (or maybe can be). When these folks would sing about being down-and-out and the rough-and-tumble, they knew of what they were singing about. Fast forward a few years to the country singers of today. »»»
Concert Review: Lambert refuses to rest on laurels – Watching this stop on Miranda Lambert's "Livin' Like Hippies Tour," one is struck by just how many great songs the country singer/songwriter already has in her repertoire. With most artists, it's relatively easy to guess which song a performer will choose to close a show. But Lambert has so many winners to pick from, many... »»»
Concert Review: DBT rocks on – Drive-By Truckers still sometimes get miscategorized as alt.-country, but who's kidding whom? With three electric guitarists upfront exchanging hard rock licks all night, this is a blistering Southern rock band. Hitting the stage just before 10, the band played a satisfying 2-hour-plus set. At 11:40, Patterson Hood announced the band would be... »»»
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