Born on December 30, 1937, in New York, NY; died on June 4, 2001, in Nashville, TN; married second wife, Marie, c. 1981 (deceased); children: Jamie, Katie, three stepchildren. Education: Bachelor of fine arts degree, Washington University, St. Louis, MO, 1959.
Whether he performed "grass-rock," country and western ballads, or steamboat narratives, John Hartford was always a unique figure in twentieth-century popular music. Like his hero Mark Twain, he ran away to work on a steamboat and learned to narrate and sing stories that tell Americans about their own dreams. His best-known song, "Gentle on My Mind," has been recorded by hundreds of artists. Hartford died on June 4, 2001, in Nashville, Tennessee.
Although born in New York City, where his father was completing his medical training, Hartford grew up in St. Louis, Missouri. He worked on a steamboat and as a radio announcer but spent most of his time learning the instruments and musical styles of country music and bluegrass. His first ensembles included the Sourwood Mountain 3 (in high school) and the Iron Mountain Depot, with guitarist Terry Paul, drummer Mac Elsensohn, and bassist Colin Cameron. He played the guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle and credited Earl Scruggs, Stringbean, and the radio cast of the Grand Ole Opry as musical mentors. Hartford was one of the first young musicians who performed in the traditional styles of the South and mid-America to win widespread popularity. On albums and in live appearances, he combined his original songs with the classic compositions, strums, and picks of bluegrass playing.
Hartford was a popular performer with a recording contract for RCA when a ballad from his second album became one of the mega-hits of the 1960s. "Gentle on My Mind," as sung by Glen Campbell, has remained one of the most successful songs of the mid-1960s with memorable performances in jazz, folk, pop, and symphonic arrangements. The status and widespread popularity of the song was reflected in its Grammy credits. It won the 1967 Grammy as Best Country and Western Song; Hartford was honored for Best Folk Performance, and Campbell and his record producer (Al DeLory) were given Grammys for Best Country and Western Recording. The song brought Campbell and Hartford to national prominence through appearances on the television shows starring and produced by Tom and Dick Smothers.
It was also on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and the replacement Glen Campbell Good-Time Hour that Hartford was discovered as a straight-faced comic. He played the guitar, banjo, and fiddle with a skill that was unique even in that era when folk music was frequently seen on network broadcasts. Hartford's wry comic songs--and a memorable performance of "Gentle on My Mind" on a banjo filled with water and a live fish--brought him personal recognition unusual for a songwriter. His work on television and in the Smothers Brothers' live appearances was appreciated by fans and critics alike, according to the New York Times' Richard F. Shepard, who wrote in 1968 that "John Hartford drew voluminous applause with his inventive songs, attractively delivered."
When the Smothers Brothers' shows ran into trouble with the CBS censors in 1969 and the folk boom waned, Hartford returned to writing songs for his own albums and for other performers. He created seven albums for RCA that did well on the country and western, folk, and pop charts. Two albums for Warner Bros. in the early 1970s followed, but in 1976, he switched to a small label, Flying Fish, for his Grammy Award-winning Mark Twang. This bluegrass and narrative recording won Hartford his third Grammy--in his third category--when it was awarded Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording in 1977.
Leaving behind his genre-bending work of the 1970s, Hartford returned to the traditional during the 1980s and 1990s. He played and recorded with his son, Jaime, during the late 1980s and established his own record label, Small Dog A-Barkin', on which he recorded and reissued some of his earlier work. His final album was Hamilton Ironworks, which Tom Piazza of the New York Times called a "figurative trip home" for Hartford as the album revisits fiddle songs the musician knew when he was young. Piazza said that Hartford and his Hartford String Band "weave an intense magic from simple materials" on the album. Hartford participated in the resurgent popularity of traditional bluegrass and folk music with his contributions to the Grammy Award-winning O Brother, Where Art Thou? film soundtrack in 2000.
Hartford was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma in 1980, and his health deteriorated significantly in the years before his death in 2001. Though unable to play an instrument near the end of his life, Hartford enjoyed inviting guests to his home for "picking parties," as Neil Strauss of the New York Times called them, where he would watch other musicians instead of play himself. A fascination with steamboating led Hartford to achieve pilot status on the Julia Belle, a paddle-wheeler out of Louisville. Hartford was also an avid musical historian and was working on a book about the blind fiddler Ed Haley at the time of his death.
Hartford maintained his commitment to presenting traditional American music as well as original ballads in his self-described "grass-rock" style. He was considered a master of bluegrass strumming and picking on both guitar and banjo. He even accompanied himself with clogging--percussive nineteenth-century "tap" dancing on a wooden stage. It seems that, whatever the current popularity of folk music, bluegrass, talking blues, or country-and-western songs, John Hartford presented America's past in a form that commanded attention.
by Barbara Stratyner
John Hartford's Career
Began working as a country and bluegrass performer in high school; played a number of instruments, including guitar, banjo, mandolin, and fiddle; performed with groups the Sourwood Mountain 3 and the Iron Mountain Depot; comedian and musical performer on several television programs, including The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Smothers Brothers Summer Show, and The Glen Campbell Good-Time Hour; recorded and toured extensively; wrote numerous songs for himself and for other artists; contributed to the Grammy Award-winning film soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2000; in addition to a musical career, Hartford worked as a graphic artist, radio announcer, and riverboat pilot.
John Hartford's Awards
Grammy Awards, Best Folk Performance and Best Country and Western Song for "Gentle on My Mind," 1967; Grammy Award, Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for Mark Twang, 1977.
- Selected discography
- John Hartford Looks at Life , RCA, 1967.
- Earthwords & Music (includes "Gentle on My Mind"), RCA, 1967.
- Housing Project , RCA, 1968.
- Gentle on My Mind , RCA, 1968.
- Morning Bugle , Warner Bros., 1972; reissued, Rounder, 1995.
- Mark Twang , Flying Fish, 1976.
- Slumberin' on the Cumberland , Flying Fish, 1979.
- Annual Waltz , MCA, 1987.
- Me Oh My, How Time Does Fly (compilation), Flying Fish, 1987.
- Down on the River , Flying Fish, 1989.
- Goin' Back to Dixie , Small Dog A-Barkin', 1994.
- The Walls We Bounce off Of , Small Dog A-Barkin', 1994.
- No End of Love , Small Dog A-Barkin', 1996.
- Wild Hog in the Red Brush and a Bunch of Others You Might Not Have Heard , Rounder, 1996.
- Speed of the Old Long Bow , Small Dog A-Barkin', 1998.
- Good Old Boys , Rounder, 1999.
- (Contributor) O Brother, Where Art Thou? (soundtrack), Mercury, 2000.
- Live from Mountain Stage , Blue Plate, 2000.
- Hamilton Ironworks , Rounder, 2001.
- A Tribute to John Hartford: Live From Mountain Stage , Blue Plate, 2001.
- Walters, Neal, and Brian Mansfield, MusicHound Folk: The Essential Album Guide, Visible Ink Press, 1998.
- Eye, March 1968.
- Many Worlds of BMI, April 1971.
- New York Times, August 22, 1968; October 9, 1970; October 6, 1999; June 6, 2001; November 11, 2001.
- Times (London), June 8, 2001.
- Village Voice, October 21, 1971; February 14, 1977.
- "John Hartford," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (May 17, 2002).