It’s been said that the fiddle has ruined many a good banjo player. “Ruined” isn’t the right word in John Hartford’s case, but it’s true that he favored the devil’s box on his later studio recordings, and this, his last one, is no exception.
Backed his veteran string band — Bob Carlin, Mike Compton, Larry Perkins and Chris Sharp — Hartford offers 22 fiddle tunes learned in his youth. The arrangements employ the strategy developed for 1996’s Wild Hog In The Red Brush, effectively varying textures behind the fiddle by using different combinations of instruments at regular intervals within each performance — an approach that might sacrifice stylistic purity but is more likely to sustain the interest of a broader range of listeners.
The material is drawn from Hartford’s early days in Missouri; the most distinctive feature of Hamilton Ironworks is the way in which he weaves in reminiscences of that time, and of the fiddlers from whom he learned the tunes. Half sung, half spoken, these recollections are at once funny and sad, reminding us — even as we smile at their dry country humor — that just as the community of musicians in which he was raised is now long gone, Hartford himself is no longer with us.