John Hartford - Aereo-Plain
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John Hartford smiled a lot; I know this from his photos, in which he hams and mugs and rears back. He was a joker’s joker, an entertainer’s entertainer; you learn this from his music, which shuffles and pokes and goofs. His most fascinating recorded moments sound like privileged conversations, between Hartford and his strings, Hartford and himself, you and Hartford. There is an open-endedness, even when his songs circle into parody, that encourages dialogue. John Hartford was grandfatherly and knew a variety of card tricks; I am assuming.
By any objective measure, Hartford had a brilliant career. He wrote hit songs, won a Grammy, received critical acclaim, played behind his idols, with his idols, and eventually supplanted his idols. He established himself as an inarguable master of American string music, inhabiting the same sepia headspace as the Band or Gram Parsons. Rather than front as a lover of things American like, say, the Band, Hartford took his Americana tropes to heart—in accordance with a boyhood dream, he was a licensed riverboat captain.
It’s fun to imagine the only real crisis in his life being his talent on a banjo—prodigious, by all accounts—clashing with his undying love for the fiddle, on which he was significantly less gifted. It’s not true, though: Hartford struggled with bandmembers and labored over surpassing his boyhood heroes. In the early 1980s, he contracted the cancer that eventually took his life in 1996.
Even at his peak, Hartford never got a fair shake. His early recordings strained under his instrumental prowess and ambitious arrangements. His most famous song—“Gentle on My Mind”—received serious airplay only when sung by Glen Campbell. When he finally recorded his masterpiece, 1971’s Aereo-Plain, it crumbled in the hands of a clueless label and has remained woefully out of print since the late ‘90s. In the archival minds of music obsessives, Hartford is suffocated, never having fingered his way into folk or blues. Of his passions, bluegrass is the redheaded stepchild of American music while country remains permissible only in its most dour and narrative incarnations.
Aereo-Plain found Hartford at his hairiest, most riddled “artist” moment. Having exhausted poignant—believe that Jeff Tweedy or Ryan Adams would trade careers to have written “Before They Take My Car Away” or “In Tall Buildings”—and with ramshackle goof on the horizon—1976’s Grammy-winning Mark Twang—Hartford laid brick upon old-time radio programs, Nashville myth-making, and a weird alternate reality in which he captained a steam-powered aereo-plain to Kansas City. He buttressed these themes with some of his most airiest, most efficient banjo slurs, constructions that left room for his band’s washboard symphony. Pragmatism even took a major victory over passion, as Hartford allowed Vassar Clement to play fiddle.
Aereo-Plain was his most insular album and this was by design: Hartford surrendered full tracklist control to rookie producer David Bromberg, who prodded Hartford throughout the sessions. (The curiously still in-print Steam Powered Aereo-Takes confirms that Hartford was turned-on full time, regardless of what his producer thought.) Bromberg is responsible for the inclusion of Aereo-Plain’s most singular song, a reprise of “Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie” plainly titled “Boogie,” the song’s chorus farted sans accompaniment in a comical bass huff for an almost interminable minute and a half. It is precisely this manner of oddity that governs Hartford’s Aereo-Plain, though, clearing the slate for all manner of left-field exploration.
Hartford never played Hartford better than “With a Vamp in the Middle,” a gas-pedal country jam on which his tongue rolls off his banjo—and Clement’s power-line fiddle riffs—with devastating humor: “Well I wrote this song / With a vamp in the middle / And I knew when I wrote it / That I’d written it for the fiddle.” And if the fiddle’s godly importance hadn’t already been established, “I’m making my living / With a hillbilly fiddle…Well I got me a gal / From’a playin’ on ma fiddle.”
Hartford’s not much of a lover—he never had the eyes for it—but he was a committed sentimentalist, and he’d paint a pretty picture now and then. “Back in the Goodle Days” lopes along teary-eyed, and “First Girl I Loved”—“Your brother was my closest friend / He drove a pickup truck / He used to bring me home sometimes from high school”—suggests that fondly remembering love was more important than loving.
Hartford found his giggles in girls and God, singing, not un-romantically, that he “Dreamt that you were Joan of Arc, and I was Don Quixote…But I gave up dreaming and became a priest,” but he was dead fucking serious about music. Which explains why the leakiest song on an album of not-that-sad-songs is “Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry.” And it ain’t because he loved the stage or the architecture. The group chorus goes “They’re going to tear down the Grand Ole Opry / They’re going to tear down the sound that goes around my song.”
The beard and mane that Hartford sports on the cover of Aereo-Plain were easily his most unkempt. And despite his traditional background—Hartford was well versed in standards, getting his start on “The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour” and in his later years was considered an academic authority on fiddle music—the gospel-country standard “Turn Your Radio On” that bookends Aereo-Plain was one of the few times Hartford turned to the material for his own recordings. It would be easy to call Aereo-Plain an “Old Weird America” classic, but Hartford’s loves were never so static, and he seemed in on the joke besides. Shame, then, that the augurs of American music never smiled on Hartford the way he beamed on them.
Note: I'd like to acknowledge a debt to Skip Heller’s “A Good Act: John Hartford, Hippie Eclectic Southern Riverboat Intellectual” from the Winter 2006 edition of The Fretboard Journal, which provided details on Hartford’s career and recording sessions. Interested listeners unwilling to foot the bill for Aereo-Plain are advised to seek out Steam-Powered Aereo-Takes or this trio of preceding albums.