The Rare & Unreleased John Hartford — Backroads, Rivers & Memories
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
We can likely thank the success of the 2017 movie Lady Bird for the appearance of this set. In the flick, John Hartford’s relatively obscure 1968 tune “On the Eve of Parting” is played prominently in the background of a scene.
That’s all it takes these days to resurrect interest in a somewhat fringe Americana artist like Hartford, who passed away in 2001 at the rather young age of 62. It’s reminiscent of how Nick Drake’s career was suddenly hot 25 years after his death when “Pink Moon” appeared in a Volkswagen ad, although Drake never had a hit as mammoth as Hartford’s “Gentle on My Mind.” Whatever the reason for its existence, this collection of Hartford’s odds and ends is a substantial find for his cult fans and a revelation for those unfamiliar with his colorful music and career. Of the 27 tracks, 19 are previously unreleased with five of those songs never having been recorded on an official Hartford album. The rest are so impossibly rare that even hardcore Hartford followers probably never heard them.
The bulk of this compilation is comprised of solo demos recorded from 1965-‘69, all remastered, as Hartford with his guitar or banjo performs the tunes in the starkest setting imaginable. But since he typically toured solo, this is a fair representation. It’s also a treat to hear “Gentle on My Mind” before it was a hit for Glen Campbell, probably recorded not long after it was written. And there is more just as tasty.
The demo of “On the Eve of Parting” is skeletal but fully formed. The humorous “California Earthquake” (covered by Cass Elliott), along with “George” (a black humored story about cleaning and dressing the body of a corpse for his funeral showing) and the clever “Left Handed Woman,” prove just how dry, wry and witty Hartford was.
The closing eight tracks reference Hartford’s earliest days with a band called The Ozark Mountain Trio. This obscure group that many Hartford biographies don’t even mention, played straightforward string bluegrass. While deep Hartford fans might find some interest in these sides, they are average and if he wasn’t present, would have been forgotten as an able but ordinary outfit.
But there’s still plenty to enjoy. You don’t need to know about John Hartford to appreciate the lyrical craft in his songs or to realize that “Gentle on My Mind” was just the tip of his iceberg. Those new to his story — he led a wildly interesting life including being a riverboat pilot, backing up acts like the Byrds and James Taylor and his many TV appearances on Campbell’s show — can catch up by way of this disc’s compiler and Hartford historian Skip Heller’s fascinating and detailed 19 page essay. Even though these are raw recordings, most never made to be heard by the public, his talent shines through. Hopefully this will spark interest in one of America’s most fascinating and gifted singer-songwriters whose intriguing and influential life story has stayed under-the-radar for too long.