Keeping Some Dirt Under the Grass: John Hartford and the Roots of Newgrass

At the turn of the millennium or so, when country music found its way back to the ramshackle cabin where some of its oldest roots in bluegrass had been kept for years, they found there’d been a light left on. And sitting on the porch, banjo on his lap and fiddle at his side, was John Hartford.

Born in New York City but raised in St. Louis on the Mississippi River he loved so dearly, Hartford, along with players like Sam Bush, Norman Blake and Vassar Clemens kept the home fires of bluegrass burning for decades, working as both archivists and innovators. When the genre had its first mainstream commercial success in nearly half a century with the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, Hartford, who was at the very end of his life and career, was there to provide guidance and inspiration for a new generation of enthusiasts.

Bluegrass has always been an important component in country music, particularly in seminal mid-century country music radio programs like the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride, but by as early as the ’60s, pure bluegrass rarely showed up on the country music charts. A notable and telling exception was Flatt and Scruggs’ only number one hit on the country charts, “The Ballad of Jed Clampett” in 1963.

While accepted as part of country music’s past, bluegrass had associations of hokeyness, as out of place in Nashville as the Clampetts in Beverley Hills. When bluegrass tunes were rolled out, it was often as novelty songs, a gesture to remind audiences of country music past, embedded in performances dedicated to county’s future, influenced more by the orchestral balladry of Nashville performers like Ray Price and Conway Twitty, the rockabilly rhythms of Johnny Cash and the aggressive plugged-in sound of Bakersfield musicians like Merle Haggard and Buck Owens.

Arriving in Nashville in the mid-’60s by way of pretty much everywhere else, Hartford did mostly session work as a fiddler and banjo player at first before signing to RCA Victor and producing a handful of fairly traditional country albums. Eventually, he left Nashville and RCA, heading out to the West Coast. It was here Hartford produced some of his most important musical efforts, beginning with Aereo-Plain in 1971.

The man who described himself as “a frustrated closet librarian” had an encyclopedic knowledge of traditional music, “what they now call bluegrass music, but back then they just called it old timey music,” and a voracious appetite to learn more. More than that, he had a gift for brushing off the old and making it new. Taking into account the natural depth of his voice, for example, Hartford began tuning his banjo down to E. It was almost 30 years before he found a 19th century book on banjo techniques that described exactly the method he’d stumbled onto for himself.

While in his later career, Hartford would adopt a trademark bowler hat and black vest for performances, affecting the air of a riverboat performer (Hartford became a licensed riverboat pilot and was instrumental in the development of Opryland’s riverboat attractions), at the beginning of the ’70s, Hartford and his Aereo-Plain Band cohorts look more like your average West Coast hippies.

Critic Robert Christgau described the 1971 album as “grass-meets-bluegrass” and it has been cited as an influence by jam bands as well as bluegrass bands. Certainly, Hartford and the band self-consciously play fast and loose with traditional structures, as with “Vamp in the Middle”, where Hartford proclaims, “Well, I wrote this song/with a vamp in the middle/and I knew right away/it was written for the fiddle.” But the songs also demonstrate the players’ knowledge of and affection for old time music.

Hartford’s lyrics are infused with humor and a hint of ribaldry, with the kind of word-play that was essential to old bluegrass and blues tunes: ways of saying a thing without saying it. Although much of the second newgrass revival spearheaded by acts like Alison Krauss and Union Station opted to keep on the sunny side of old timey music, Hartford always managed to bring a wink and a smirk to his tunes, whether through his lyrics or his one-man-band live performances, which featured stomps, scrapes and kicks along with his accomplished playing.

Speaking in 1986 about Steamboat in a Cornfield, a children’s book about a 1910 steamer that found itself grounded after high waters had receded, Hartford made a comment that, it seemed to me, could apply to most of his career. “It’s not aimed at children,” he said. “I aimed it at myself. I know that sounds suicidal.” Sitting on the couch with my favorite six-year old listening to Hartford growl and huff his way through “Boogie”, we both lit up with the same smiles provoked by the best of Shel Silverstein’s poems, those grins that say a little dirt don’t hurt.

Hartford’s collaborators and disciples like Sam Bush, Norman Blake and the Horseflies embraced this sense of humor and energy, but perhaps more important for the latest generation of bluegrass musicians was Hartford’s incredible graciousness and grace. Even as he struggled with the lymphoma that would take his life in 2001, Hartford continued to perform with amazing energy and brilliant voice, with a timbre reminiscent of Pete Seeger in its warmth and strength, combined with a willingness to nurture and teach others the music he loved.

With a grin and a tip of his bowler, Hartford summed up his career beautifully: “I do what I do with what I got.”