Gentle on My Mind

        John Hartford wrote a song called “Gentle on My Mind.”  If there was ever a tune where the title and the author’s personality matched better, I don’t remember it.  I met John Hartford a few times along the way, and he was truly a gentle spirit.

        The relationship with Hartford started with Blinky and Indie.  One time Blinky was hospitalized with DTs.  Indie was his Doc and I covered one weekend when he was gone.  (I was the only Doc besides Indie Blinky would see)  It was a rocky stay for Blink, and he was so appreciative he got us tickets to see Hartford at the old Roxy Theatre at Sandhills.  The two were like a couple of children who were gonna see Santa at the mall, and I have to admit I was enthusiastic too.  

        You might remember Hartford.  He played banjo and fiddle and clogged on a plywood board he’d strap on top of his 57 Chevy and lug around to his gigs.  He had the thing rigged up with a mic and would tap on it with his fiddle bow as he “tuned it up.”  It was quite a show. 

        John was the slender fellow in the derby cap who played on the old Glen Campbell Hour.  He made some remarks on T.V. the executive folks didn’t dig, and the network canned him.  Indie loved his fiddle work, but on that night John Hartford became Indie’s hero.  Blink knew it, and not only got tickets to the show, but wrangled some backstage passes out of Hartford’s roadies.  The road trip was on.  I agreed to go as long as I could drive.

        We got there hours ahead of time, and the boys brought Hartford’s crew some of their finest white corn liquor.  We all played some music backstage and Hartford sat in with us.  He fiddled two hours before show time and coulda gone on a lot longer.  Man, did that guy love to play.  He autographed a copy of his LP, “Gum Tree Canoe” for me, and it is still a favorite album.

        Me and Blinky got along with Hartford, but I think Indie was his favorite.  The two gee and hawed right from the get go.  

        Come December, I got a call from Indie.  “Bibey, ole boy, now who is your best fiddle buddy?”  (Some folks only call when they want something.  When Indie called he couldn’t wait to tell you about what he was gonna do for you.)

        “Why that would be you, Indie.  There ain’t another one like you.”

        “You’re a good young’un.  Wanna go on a road trip?”

        “Where ya headed?”  I had learned not to give an unqualified yes till I got some info.

        “John Hartford’s house.  He invited me and any three pickers I want to his Christmas party.  It’s me and you and Blink.  Reckon the Moose would want to go?”

        “You think?  Heck yeah, we’ll go.  Indie you’re a genius.”

        “Good.  Me and Blink need a driver.”

         “Between me and the Moose we’ll get there.”  I was thankful Indie didn’t want to drive.

        It was some kinda trip.  Indie and Blink sat in the back seat and played old time tunes the entire drive to Nashville. By the time we got there, I’d learned a dozen new fiddle numbers.  When we walked in Hartford’s house, there sat Benny Martin fiddling away.  Indie had died and gone to heaven.  Hartford had invited folks from all over the country.  Some were pickers like us he’d met at a gig somewhere, and other were famous.

        I got to pick mandolin and sing harmony with Marty Stuart, and after a while Bill Monroe arrived and we played “Rawhide.”  I did good till the third time through when Monroe went to warp speed to show who was boss. 

        There were guys there like Elmer Bird, the banjo man from Turkey Creek- Blinky dug him, and a number of musicians from the Grand Ole Opry House band.  Hartford’s road crew cooked chili all night.  As we say in bluegrass, it was a large time.

        The highlight of the night for me was the fiddle jam.  Hartford, Benny Martin, and a real estate man named Fletcher Bright out of Chattanooga joined Indie in the Lee Highway Blues, and they tore it down.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen Indie so happy.  He told me was afraid to drink too much ’cause he wanted to remember it all.   Indie brought his camera and got a picture with the group.  Other than that night I don’t recall him ever with a camera at a jam session.

        By three am, the music was still going strong.  I needed to lie down, and since I was the designated driver, Indie had no choice but to leave with me.  He didn’t want to go.

       “D@^#, Bibey.  You’re a young’un.  I ain’t tired.  We don’t gotta go, do we?”  Indie was a big kid.

        “Come on Indie, I worked all week, and drove you out here.  I’m whipped.”

        “Well you don’t love music as much as I do, and don’t you forget it.  We coulda stayed.  You just don’t love it enough, man.”

        I loved to play, but I have to admit Indie was right.  I loved it, but not like Indie.  He would say. “Fiddle ain’t life or death, it’s more important than that.”  Indie was a serious musician.

        Bless his heart, I think he woulda stayed up three days straight and dropped over dead before he’d gone back to the Super 8 to lay down if I hadn’t made him.   Someone had to look after him, and I was the guy. 

        We went to Hartford’s Christmas party twice.  He shut it down when it got too big- John would invite everyone he took a liking to all over the country, and that was a lot of folks.  I’m glad Blinky got the invite for Indie, and that I could drive him out there.  He still goes on about it to this day.

        I thought Indie had a lot of hard luck in his time, but he never complained.  If fact he thought he’d been quite fortunate. If anyone tried to tell him otherwise, he tell ’em about that trip and the fiddle jam session at John Hartford’s house.  For all his rowdy ways, Indie was like Hartford- a gentle spirit.  I’m glad he got to go; it was a lifetime highlight for him.

Dr. B

      

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8 Comments on “Gentle on My Mind”

  1. Ted Lehmann Says:

    Now that’s a road trip! One of my great regrets (I really shouldn’t waste my time with regrets, but there you are.) is that I didn’t realize bluegrass until my early sixties. I only saw Hartford once that I remember. Back in the late eighties he appeared at Pete Seeger’s Hudson River celebration. (Seeger’s contribution to the cleanup of the Hudson River is one of the great ecological victories of early green activists.) I really didn’t pay enough attention, and then he was gone. His “Steam Powered Aero-Plane” album is one of the most important in bluegrass history. Thanks for the piece. – Ted

  2. drtombibey Says:

    Ted,

    Steam Powered is indeed a good’un, as was Hartford.

    Hartford was unique. He not only played great music, but liked to write (I think he got a few chidren’s books published) and was a certified riverboat captain.

    Every time I met him it was one great big jam session. “Gentle on my Mind” freed him to be anything he wanted, and I am thankful he decided to keep on being John Hartford. It changed him not a whit, except he added on to his house so he could invite more people to play.

    Hey don’t have any regrets, there is still a lot more music to be played on earth, and I am sure Hartford is in charge of Heaven’s jam session. It will never end if John has anything to do with it.

    Dr. B

  3. pandemonic Says:

    Boy, you are really making me homesick for fiddle music.

    😛

  4. drtombibey Says:

    Sometime when Marfar and I tour the frozen tundra we’re gonna pick a tune with Ms. Pande. Play hard!

    Dr. B

  5. drtombibey Says:

    Y’all Fletcher Bright commented on the “About Dr. Bibey” post. He is a very fine fiddle man, and has a nice web site about his band, the Dismembered Tenneesseans. They were featured in Bluegrass Unlimited some time back.

    Dr. B

  6. Parson Bob Says:

    John Hartford will always be one of my heros, too, beginning from the evening 10 or 12 years ago at the Mt. Airy whing-ding when I sat in on a jam (on the far edge, going “chunk-chunk=-chunk”) while he and Vassar Clements made their fiddles sing.

    A few years later, at the last Merlefest he was able to attend (2000 or so, I think) he did an unforgettable set in the traditional tent, after which I talked to him about his fiddle, a gorgeous work of art with the head of a stern looking gent carved in the scroll. John later gave that fiddle to Vassar who, I assume, still has it. (You can see it at )

    All of that is prelude to a wonderful birthday gift from Ann of a pen and ink sketch called “John’s Hands”, the neck of John’s fiddle with his left hand curved over the strings. The picture hangs over my desk and I can look at it and hear him yet. He was, in so many ways, such a gift.

  7. Parson Bob Says:

    oops! The web site to see the fiddle is vassarclements.com/fiddle.html.

  8. drtombibey Says:

    Parson Bob,

    John Hartford was indeed a special human being. I have a signed picture of him in my my office too.

    I did not know Vasser Clements, but he was a monster player.

    I’ve heard Earl Scruggs saw Vasser at a show somewhere and brought him to the session for “The Circle Be Unbroken” album. Someone asked if Vasser could play. In typical understated Scruggs fashion, Earl said “He’ll do.”

    Dr. B


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