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?"