Remembering Music Pioneer John Hartford 20 Years After His Death

by Jim Casey

John Hartford was instrumental (pun intended) in bridging the gap between old-school bluegrass and the “newgrass” movement of the 1970s. However, he was also steeped in the sounds of traditional music. The pioneering banjo picker and fiddler knew no musical boundaries. His one-man shows—complete with singing, storytelling, shuffle dancing, and interchanging instrumentation—made him a true American folk hero.

Hartford was born in New York on December 30, 1937, but raised in Missouri. His proximity to the Mississippi River—and his work as a deckhand (and eventual riverboat captain)—helped shape his musical future. John moved to Nashville in 1965 with a pocketful of songs to sell. Fortunately, he found suitors in the likes of Glen Campbell (“Gentle on My Mind”) and more.

Of course, John recorded his own albums. His discography is deep, with more than 20 solo albums. In addition, he recorded numerous collaborative albums, live albums, and compilation albums.

John Hartford died at age 63 on June 4, 2001, after battling cancer. In honor of the 20th anniversary of John’s death, let’s take a look back at a handful of my favorite Hartford compositions.

‘Gentle on My Mind’

You can’t mention John’s name without bringing up “Gentle on My Mind.” John penned the tune and recorded it for his 1967 album, Earthwords & Music. Of course, Glen Campbell also famously cut the song in 1967, scoring a Top 40 hit with it. In 1968, “Gentle On My Mind” earned John two Grammy Awards: Best Folk Performance and Best Country & Western Song (songwriter).

‘Pretty Boy Floyd’

In 1968, John left Nashville for Los Angeles. The move led to a spot as a session musician on The Byrds’ seminal 1968 album, Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Check out the album’s “Pretty Boy Floyd.” John picks the acoustic guitar, banjo, and fiddle on the Woody Guthrie-penned song.

‘Steamboat Whistle Blues’

John helped lead the “newgrass” movement with his influential 1971 album, Aereo-Plain. The all-acoustic band was comprised of John, Norman Blake, Vassar Clements, Tut Taylor, and Randy Scruggs. They combined boundary-less bluegrass with the hippie spirit of the era. Take a listen to, for instance, the album’s “Steamboat Whistle Blues.”

‘I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow’

John was introduced to a new generation of music lovers on the 2000 soundtrack, O Brother, Where Art Thou? John performed two instrumental offerings on the Grammy-winning album: “Indian War Whoop” and “I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow.”

‘Long Hot Summer Day’

The Turnpike Troubadours took the John Hartford bluegrass classic about toiling on the Illinois River and turned it up to 11 in 2010. Of course, John actually did work on the Illinois River. So, the boot-stomping, boat-rocking songwriting feels completely authentic.