John Hartford: 1937 to 2001
On June 4, we lost an American treasure — the multi-talented musician, singer and songwriter John Hartford. Many on the periphery of the music business knew John as the composer of the mega-hit “Gentle On My Mind”, while others closer to acoustic music knew him as one of the most creative and entertaining performers ever to grace the stage.
Much has been written about Hartford and his music, but I want to take this opportunity to talk about John on a more personal level. I first met John soon after my arrival in Nashville. A mutual friend of ours, Frazier Moss, brought me over to John’s house for a jam session.
This meeting was both daunting and thrilling, as John was already one of my musical heroes. However, John’s friendly, easy demeanor quickly set me at ease, and we enjoyed a good afternoon of music. Our shared interest in the fiddle, and in particular the old-time fiddle music of Ed Haley, gave us some common ground and a reason to get together and make more music.
Since then we were friends and pickin’ buddies until the day of his death. When John’s hands failed him toward the end of his touring schedule, I was the fiddler in his string band. For me and for countless others, John was an inspiration, a mentor and a consummate creative musician.
It is no exaggeration that John was totally consumed by music. From the time he woke up in the morning and even in his dreams, ideas and tunes were bubbling out of him as fast as he could write them down. Inside his well-worn vest, he kept a virtual library of material on 3×5 cards. From song ideas to fiddle tunes to show dates, John’s life was managed by these little cards. He often extolled the virtues of his organizational system to those willing to listen, and even to those who weren’t.
In addition to John’s prolific songwriting, he was a fiddle addict. He spent hours a day at his dining room table playing tunes and working on his craft. Sometimes accompanied only by his metronome, and often seconded by an endless parade of pickers, nothing brought John more pleasure that playing the old tunes. Though dedicated to traditional fiddle music, John was always experimenting with new and different ways of interpreting these tunes. He was an improviser and always put the unmistakable Hartford stamp on any tune he played.
Always eager to play, John would get in his Cadillac and go anywhere for a good jam session. Despite his legendary status, he would even show up at fiddle contests to go toe-to-toe with local fiddlers. This was an exercise John enjoyed and found more challenging than playing the largest venues in the country.
John was one of the most insatiable fiddle tune collectors in the country, especially when it came to the music of Ed Haley. He worked for years and went to great lengths to surround himself with “all things Ed Haley,” as he put it. Haley was a blind Kentucky fiddler who died in 1951 and remained relatively obscure until Hartford released Haley’s complete recorded repertoire through Rounder Records. John befriended Ed’s family and filled hours of tape with interviews and stories about Haley and his ancestors. John’s wife, Marie, even jokingly suggested that John should dig up Haley and “screw him back together.” All of John’s research and stories were compiled into an exhaustive biography titled The Search For Ed Haley, Volume One, co-written with Brandon Kirk. The book is in its final editing stages in preparation for publication.
John’s final weeks at home were arduous for him and for all involved. Watching our friend in his final decline was sobering, but John’s friends and family rallied together to make his last days as fulfilling as possible. The daily gathering of musicians was a shining example of his wide-reaching influence and his love for music.
Though he was unable to participate musically, John was regaled with music and stories by many of the best pickers and singers in the world who made the pilgrimage to his riverside home. Everyday on his porch or at his bedside, a “tribute concert” rang out for all to hear. This music honored John Hartford — one of the very best that ever was or ever will be.