Although John Hartford toured primarily as a solo song and dance man for much of his career, his later years featured the extraordinary support of the John Hartford Stringband. A decade after the great man’s passing, Chris Sharp reassembled bandmates Bob Carlin, Mike Compton, Mark Schatz, and Matt Combs to pay tribute to a unique American music treasure who looked straight down the barrel of pop music and TV success and decided that he preferred Flatt & Scruggs and Ed Haley. That he loved both equally allowed him to navigate seamlessly between oldtime and bluegrass.
Memories Of John captures that fluid recognition that it is all string band music, whether the bluegrass of “Love Grown Cold” or the Ohio Valley fiddle music of the kickoff track, “Three Forks Of Sandy.” The material delights of this album come from three basic areas. The first consists of two demos that John recorded more than forty years ago. Mark and Eileen Schatz worked “You Don’t Notice Me Ignoring You” into a finished track, while the closing “Fade Out” appears just as Hartford left it.
The second and perhaps most intriguing set consists of previously unreleased Hartford compositions, most intended for a Hartford Stringband project that he did not live to record. All three were well worth the wait, especially the delightful “Madison Tennessee” and live favorite “Homer The Roamer.”
The remaining ten selections include a Schatz’ tribute poem “For John,” two Ed Haley tunes, the classic “Lorena” sung by Tim O’Brien, and renditions of six Hartford originals. Most of the latter feature John’s friends joining the Stringband. O’Brien sings and Alison Brown plays John’s banjo on a version of “M.I.S.I.P.” that stays close to the original. Alan O’Bryant brings his unmistakable voice to “Delta Queen Waltz,” the same song he sang at John’s funeral. Béla Fleck delivers a captivating personal interpretation of John’s banjo style on “The Girl I Left Behind Me.” And if that’s not enough, the album and several tracks start with John’s instructions to the band, all from previous rehearsal tapes.
The John Hartford String Band has succeeded in creating in just one package an excellent new John Hartford album, a wonderful tribute to John and his music, and a real world demonstration that bluegrass and oldtime don’t have to be an either/or proposition. (Red Clay Records, 916 19th Ave South; Nashville, TN 37212, www.redclayrecords.com.) AM