By Carole Robinson, Senior Staff Writer
Known in the music world for his mastery of the fiddle and the banjo, Hartford penned the Glen Campbell hit “Gentle on my Mind.”
His Hollywood appearances on the Glen Campbell Good Time Hour and the Smothers Brothers Show moved his career to television.
But he is most revered for what he accomplished in the bluegrass music genre.
In 1971 Hartford experienced a personal epiphany that led to breaking barriers in the bluegrass world and the release of the album “Aereo-Plain”. The album mixes traditional bluegrass with Hartford’s own originality.
His breakout also brought about a new look for Hartford and a larger revival of this genre that remains strong today.
For bluegrass music lovers and music afficiondas in general, the recently released book, John Hartford, Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-Plain, by Andrew Vaughan is a great Christmas gift, a perfect addition for book collectors with a penchant for this popular music tradition.
Vaughan explores this very complicated, intense and multi-faceted man who dared to break barriers, forge a fresh start in his career and, most notably, “play music from the soul.”
During a recent interview, Hartford’s daughter and Franklin resident Katie (Harford) Hogue shared her father’s early musical roots in St. Louis and his move to Music City that got the attention of the Hollywood.
He made the trek to Los Angeles before ultimately returning to Nashville to begin anew in 1971.
It was this period when Hogue says her father was led through a spiritual and physical transition, moving away from the clean cut TV star, comedian and showman to “looking like Animal from The Muppets.”
Even the addition of the “t” in the Harford name was a move to propel his music career forward, an idea offered to Hartford by Chet Atkins, who suggested the name had a better cadence.
Although her father took Atkins’ advice, Katie says she decided to keep the family name.
“Warner Brothers didn’t know how to market him in his new phase,” she explains. “He went from the songwriter of “Gentle on my Mind” (to his California debut), then, he left the Hollywood life.”
“It was a mental process. The book tells what he did to get there.”
John Hartford was 63 when he died in 2001.
It took seven years for his estate to be finalized and distributed – much of it now is in what Katie refers to as “the vortex;” three rooms in her basement.
“Dad was a collector,” Katie says of her father. “He was a music historian, a river boat historian. He didn’t throw anything away. He took it all seriously.”
Hartford kept a daily journal, song lyrics, story ideas he had on 3 by 5 note cards and he recorded conversations he had with friends, tunes he was working on and jam sessions with musicians like Bill Monroe, Chet Atkins, Vassar Clements and Tut Taylor on cassette tapes.
“There are thousands of them,” Katie explains.
As she pulls out a drawer from a former library card catalog file in one of the three rooms where he
archived his note cards she shares her father’s passion for collecting.
“He kept receipts from shows, room keys, books on music and 45s he had when he was a DJ at a radio station and piles of photos. There is a table full of blank composition books in which he filled in the blanks.”
Hartford and Katie’s mother divorced when she was a baby, so she and her brother Jamie only spent holidays with him.
“Mom said she realized she had to give him the world – he had something to offer; something she couldn’t stop. Having all this in my home—I’m not a clutter person—but to be able to dig through his journals and learn more about him creatively, I realize we have a lot more in common than I thought we did. I see things in my son and daughter that come from that side of the family.”
After plowing through the hundreds of boxes with Katie, Vaughan and Katie decided to zero in on the pivotal period of Hartford’s life when he found the courage to do what he loved—the Aereo-Plain time.
“Dad was pretty intense with his music,” she says. “He was always playing—hyper-focused. There was an energy in him. He performed to make people happy.”
John Hartford: Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-Plain, which comes with a CD of a 1994 concert at the Ryman, may be found at Parnassus Books or www.johnhartford.com
With the enormity of Hartford’s collection and the historical opportunities it presents to music lovers, Katie anticipates more interest and more books.
“Every time I open another box, I find another rabbit hole to go down.”
Posted on: 12/15/2013