A John Hartford Christmas
My first memory of John Hartford was at the old Roxy Theatre in Greenville, N.C. He played banjo and fiddle and clogged on a plywood board. I thought he was the coolest artist I’d ever seen.
First impressions are often correct. John turned out to be that and more. You might remember him- he was guy on the old Glen Campbell show in the derby hat who played the banjo. He was a unique artist who went his own way the whole way.
Several years after the Roxy gig, we opened a show for John. Afterwards we picked backstage till the wee hours of the morning. He was the last one to give up. I wrote him after he got home and we became friends. He sent me his ‘Gum Tree Canoe” LP and a signed photo that is still in my office.
As time went by we got to know him better and he invited us out to Nashville to his Christmas party. Imagine that. Tommy Bibey picking mandolin with Marty Stuart and Bill Monroe- what a memory! There were less well known but equally fine artists such as Elmer Bird, the banjo man from Turkey Creek. Fletcher Bright of Chattanooga was there too- one of the few bluegrass fiddlers I know who travels to gigs in his private Lear Jet. (He is also a very successful real estate man.)
John was always loyal. Fiddler Benny Martin was still a great player. However, he was at the stage of his career where he was out of the Nashville limelight, but he was at every party of John’s I went to. And many of the folks he invited were just unknown pickers like me he had taken a liking to in his travels.
I liked every LP he did, but ‘Gum Tree,’ ‘Mark Twang,’ ‘Last Waltz’ and ‘Back to Dixie’ were some of my favorites. ‘Aereo-Plain’ was a good one too. It had the feel of a jam session at John’s house, but in spite of the casual nature of the recording it was the work of a genius. “Gentle on My Mind” made him famous, but it didn’t spoil him at all. He remained true to his artistry, recorded what he loved, and never seemed to worry much as to the commercial potential a tune might have.
When The Grand Ole Opry moved out to Briley parkway, there was talk they might bulldoze the Ryman, and John wouldn’t hear to it. His song, ‘They’re Gonna Tear Down the Grand Old Opry’ had much to do with saving it. They had the IBMA awards there this year. I suspect John deserves at least part of the credit for the preservation of this vital part of country music history.
In addition to his music, John wrote children’s books and followed his love of the Mississippi all the way to becoming a certified steam boat captain. I think of John Hartford every year at Christmas. He was a generous man, and a true American artist we should never forget.
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