John Hartford

RCA Country Legends (Buddha); Gum Tree Canoe (Rounder); Hamilton Ironworks (Rounder)

It was a sad day last June when country/ bluegrass innovator John Hartford passed away after a long struggle with lymphoma. Hartford was an unreasonably talented singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist, and one of the true great oddballs in hick music history. Perpetually swaying between naiveté and virtuosity, he masked his talent with a vaudevillian flair that made his art seem more haphazard than it actually was.

Hartford hit the big time early in his career, penning the countrypolitan ballad "Gentle on My Mind," which Glen Campbell took to the top of the pop charts in 1967. The royalties from that song alone enabled Hartford to drop out of "straight" show business and cater to the long-haired, dilated-pupil set. As many hippies and urban folkies dove deeper into traditional sounds, Hartford became their clown prince, dashing off a series of acoustic albums that mixed authentic bluegrass with goofy stoner humor.

Roots music fans who may have encountered Hartford for the first time through the popular O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack now have an unparalleled opportunity to sample his career from start to finish. The RCA Country Legends album gathers Hartford's early efforts in Nashville, where he was typecast as a Dylan-esque folk-pop version of novelty songwriter Roger Miller. These late-'60s recordings are a far cry from his later "newgrass" numbers -- charming for sure, but too formally produced and self-consciously nutty. It wasn't until 1971, when Hartford switched labels and brought his bluegrass pals into the studio, that his true genius emerged. On these albums, Hartford picked a mean banjo and sawed on the fiddle, while singing uniquely charming lyrics about old diners, warped records, and the boredom of office workers -- whatever crossed his mind.

The apex of Hartford's second phase is evident in the recently reissued 1984 album Gum Tree Canoe. The record includes bent-note cover versions of Janis Joplin's hit "Piece of My Heart," the Rolling Stones' "No Expectations," and "Lorena," a bittersweet 19th-century ballad of homesickness during the Civil War, as well as Hartford originals that are as idiosyncratic as his earlier material.

Hartford's final album, Hamilton Ironworks, recorded earlier this year as his health deteriorated, reflects his long-held devotion to unreconstructed mountain music. One of his most personal records, Ironworks covers little-known regional songs that Hartford learned as a child in St. Louis. As his band plays raspy square-dance reels and airs, Hartford rambles on, reminiscing about the old fiddlers and local ne'er-do-wells who taught him the tunes. The collection is an odd, endearing update of the folk field recordings of the '50s and '60s -- a fitting tribute not only to Hartford's mentors, but to the man himself.

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