Sign up for newsletter

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... »»»
Follow Country Standard Time  Subscribe to Country News Digest  Follow Country Standard Time on twitter  Visit Country Standard Time on Facebook 

Elsewhere in the news

Currently at the CST blogs

Tyminski goes dark Dan Tyminski (known simply as "Tyminski" on his 2017 release "Southern Gothic") has traditional music roots and unassailable bluegrass street cred especially given his membership in Alison Krauss' Union Station. He is also a powerful songwriter and has been writing songs for himself and others for years now.... »»»
Washburn, Fleck create "Echoes" Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn have powerhouse individual talents; each has followed an estimable career path to where they find themselves today: making complex, but spare, records, writing music together and touring with their son Juno. Their new release, "Echoes In The Valley" features mostly songs written by Fleck and Washburn, banjos, Washburn's strong vocals and very little else.... »»»
Hillman bides his time Legends don't come any more legendary than Chris Hillman. The roll call of bands that comprises Hillman's half century in music reads like a wing exhibit at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, Manassas, the Souther Hillman Furay Band, the Desert Rose Band,... »»»
The Cadillac Three creates its "Legacy" William Shakespeare noted a few centuries back that a rose by any other name would be equally aromatic, and that general idea has musical implications as well. The Cadillac Three knows a thing or two about maintaining a sonic identity after a name change;... »»»
With Stanley and Watson, sound isn't elementary Those aware of the late Owsley "Bear" Stanley likely know him for one of two reasons - his pioneering work manufacturing lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD) in San Francisco during the mid-to-late 1960s and his role as an innovative sound engineer. Most notably, Bear worked...... »»»
May shifts gears, directions Headed into 2015, Imelda May was on a hit streak. Her rockabilly career was in full swing, nurtured by the likes of former Squeeze keyboardist Jools Holland and guitar icon Jeff Beck. Her albums routinely topped the charts in her native Ireland.... »»»
Staggered CD review - Staggered
East Nashville may be known as "the" Americana hotbed these days, but some of the talent there is very much verging on rock 'n roll. This is the case with Lynn Taylor & the BarFlies on their third release, a collection of personal tunes by the front man. »»»
American Folk soundtrack CD review - American Folk soundtrack
The soundtrack for the independent film, "American Folk," stars two real-life singer-songwriters played by Joe Purdy and Amber Rubarth, who also contribute the bulk of the material on the soundtrack. Understanding the plot of the film helps explain both the sequence and content of the track list. »»»
Rifles and Rosary Beads CD review - Rifles and Rosary Beads
Mary Gauthier has built her career on honest, sometimes brutally and achingly self-confessional songs. This is the first time that she has focused on experiences other than her own, and it could become not only the strongest album of her career but, in its own way, a landmark album. »»»
Work CD review - Work
Matt Hectorne's new album - his third solo effort - offers another example of the rewards that can come through the joy of discovery. While Hectorne makes no attempt to bend the boundaries as far as a patented Americana sound is concerned, the success he achieves here is the result of him doing quite the opposite, that is, sounding like a revered veteran who mastered the form quite quickly in his career.  »»»
Hallelujah Nights CD review - Hallelujah Nights
LANCO's "Greatest Love Story" is a radio single saturated in undeniable warmth and sweetness. But then, the attitude in "We Do" reeks of Florida Georgia Line and the chorus to "Singin' at The Stars" also brings country music's most annoying duo to mind. LANCO is a new act, and the jury's still on just which direction this five-piece will go. »»»
Ruins CD review - Ruins
With their stunning new album "Ruins," First Aid Kit further ascend to unexpected heights of superstardom, a status a few knowing pundits have been predicting for the Swedish sisters since the beginning. »»»