The John Hartford Stringband
Memories of John
Red Clay Records/Compass Records
4 stars (out of 5)
Had John Hartford done nothing but write “Gentle on My Mind” and bring the banjo to national attention on the The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour and The Johnny Cash show in the late 1960s and early 1970s, his service to bluegrass and old-time music would have been immense. But, given the financial freedom that comes with having penned a megahit song, he spent a long, fruitful career in acoustic music that dipped deep into the past while looking far into the future.
Of his extensive list of recordings, this, though a tribute album made by his close musical associates, can be considered his final album, as his presence permeates it both figuratively and literally. (Hartford also participated in another tribute album recorded live a few months before his 2001 death.)
Chris Sharp (guitar), Bob Carlin (banjo), Matt Combs (fiddle), Mike Compton (mandolin) and Mark Schatz (bass), who comprised Hartford’s band for his last five Rounder recordings and for live gigs during the last few years of his life, are the house band here, choosing a mix of Hartford favorites and a couple of songs—”Madison, Tennessee” and “She’s Gone (And Bob’s Gone with Her)”—that Hartford wrote but never recorded.
The results of a quick recording session, the Stringband tracks are perfect realizations of the Hartford sound, and guest vocals from Tim O’Brien (“M.I.S.I.P.” and “Lorena”) and Alan O’Bryant (“Delta Queen Waltz”) are moving without being mawkish. Bela Fleck, George Buckner and Alison Brown also guest on individual tracks with their interpretations of Hartford’s banjo style.
The biggest treats here are two short demos recorded by Hartford in the 1960s: the lighthearted “You Don’t Notice Me Ignoring You” and the album’s fitting closer, a gentle, sweet, wordless, whistling tune called “Fade Out.”
Memories of John, depending on your exposure to his music, can serve as either an introduction to Hartford’s tremendous body of work or a capstone for his career. Either way, it’s great listening.
by Aaron Keith Harris