John Hartford – Looks At Life/Earthwords & Music/The Love Album/Housing Project/John Hartford/Iron Mountain Depot/Radio John
The cover of John Hartford’s first album for RCA had both “folk” and “country” on it, just below the label’s logo — a tangible sign of the confusion that must have reigned in the marketing department. You can almost feel the head-scratching: What is this stuff, and how the hell are we going to sell it?
The question probably lingered throughout Hartford’s tenure on RCA, for from the first song, the music on these reissues defies categories. “It’s pretty hard to be yourself in this space-age world we live in,” he wrote in the liner notes to Looks At Life, but he managed to do it anyhow, and the mismatch between artist and corporation must surely be one of the most obvious in the history of the business. This is, after all, a guy who opened his debut recording with unaccompanied banjo and a recitation that began with the question, “Now, who’s this demon called ‘commercial’?”
To its credit, RCA more or less turned Hartford loose in the studio. Though a series of producers (beginning with Chet Atkins) were at least nominally in charge, the results constitute strong evidence that they facilitated rather than imposed their own visions. One presumes that his growing fame, both as writer of “Gentle On My Mind” and as a TV personality, accounts for that, but whatever the cause, these albums don’t sound like the result of creative strife. On the other hand, compared to the more minimalist recordings of his later career, they don’t sound much like John Hartford, either.
Instead, the music — three sets comprising six LPs released between 1967 and 1970, plus a final one that never made it to market — reveals all the essentials of Hartford’s creativity trapped in a kind of musical amber very different from the string bands and solo performances he would later settle on as his best vehicles. Drums, electric bass, electric guitars and keyboards form the basic context here (strings and horns make occasional appearances), placing the work closer to the popular mainstream of the day than Hartford’s subsequent efforts ever came.
Still, that proximity is a relative matter, serving more as a tenuous link to the emerging country-rock of groups such as the Byrds and his long-time friends and fellow Missourians the Dillards, than to what was ruling the charts. Comparing the original version of “Gentle On My Mind” with Glen Campbell’s monstrously successful cover illustrates the point: The latter’s lush instrumentation, sharply defined beat, bright tones and crisp articulation were clearly more radio-friendly than the writer’s drawled, half-spoken vocal and sparse, subdued arrangement.
The net effect was to underline Hartford’s lyrics — the wordy lines of songs in the “Gentle” vein (and there were several) and the sweetly goofy observations on life and society alike. In their later, looser versions, songs such as “No End Of Love”, “I’m Still Here”, “In Tall Buildings” and “(Good Old Electric) Washing Machine (Circa 1943)” have a kind of integrity of song and performance that, with the comic ones especially, seems to spring naturally from the old-time string-band heritage. Here, embedded in more (yet still not quite) conventional arrangements, it becomes easier to understand why he called them “word-movies.”
That’s not to say the music here is second-rate; far from it. Still, it’s inarguable that these are not for the Hartford neophyte, if only because he turned in such a different direction after the last of them. For his fans, though, buying at least one is a sound investment. After all, as Hartford himself might have said, you can’t really know where he was going without knowing where he’d been.