World’s Finest Acoustic Musicians Come Together To Bring Unheard John Hartford Songs To Life

“You know how you repopulate a river by dumping a bunch of fish in there? We kinda liken this to dumping a bunch of new tunes into the fiddle-verse,” Katie Hartford told American Songwriter

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Katie Hartford is the daughter of one of the most endearing and enduring personalities in American acoustic music: John Hartford. Following her father’s death in 2001, Katie Hartford ended up discovering a new side of the iconic songwriter responsible for “Gentle On My Mind” and other classics. That discovery? 68 notebooks containing over 2,000 unheard original tunes.

Now, she’s teamed up with virtuoso fiddle player Matt Combs to release those tunes into the ‘fiddle-verse’ via a book and a record featuring some of the most talented acoustic musicians in the world bringing the tunes to life. “The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Volume 1” had a soft release in March, but now the first official single “Tennessee Politics” has been released. 

“Dad was a collector, he called himself a ‘frustrated librarian,’” Katie Hartford said. “In the process of going through all his archives, I kept finding these spiral-bound notebooks. A lot of them were music notebooks that were full of handwritten music. I started setting them aside and I ended up with a pile of 68 of these notebooks. Matt Combs started going through the notebooks one by one and he evaluated all of these tunes. He wrote down everything that he thought was a real representation of Dad and his style. We widdled it down to 176 fiddle tunes, only 13 of which Dad had ever recorded or published.”

Those 176 tunes ended up becoming the book “John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes,” which shows readers John Hartford’s original versions of these tunes written in pencil as they appear on the pages of his notebooks. The book also features unique and insightful stories and photos from throughout John Hartford’s colorful career. But, as Katie Hartford pointed out, “tunes are supposed to be played, not just seen on the written page.” This spurred her and Matt Combs to put together the aforementioned “John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Volume 1,” which features musicians such as Combs, Sierra Hull, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge, Chris Sharp, Dennis Crouch, Mike Compton, Ronnie McCoury, Kate Lee O’Connor, Forrest O’Connor, Alison Brown, Shad Cobb, Mark Howard, Paul Kowert and more. 

“John is such a hero to all of us,” Eldridge told American Songwriter. “He didn’t record a lot of these songs. There’s this whole treasure trove of things from his brain that we all got to look into and hopefully we were able to bring it to life so other people can hear it.”

Eldridge — who is best known as the guitarist in one of the finest instrumental groups on the planet, the Punch Brothers — has been a longtime fan of John Hartford and described the importance of his legacy in the American music ethos.

“By the time I was in college I had ‘Aereo-Plain,’ which was a classic record that revolutionized bluegrass and what would become newgrass,” Eldridge said. “It was this super forward-looking album. I remember playing songs from it with my buddies in college. As I got older, I started to really realize how brilliant Hartford was in terms of the bigger picture. Being a great instrumentalist or being a great songwriter… it’s one thing to do one of those well but did both of them well. He was also a great showman. He was a scholar of the Mississippi river and riverboat life. There were all these things that he really loved and he gave his all to all of them. From whatever angle you look at him from, everything was passionate and brilliant. That became inspiring to me as I got older and realized ‘okay, I’m not going to be the greatest guitar player who’s ever lived.’ When you’re a young person you have these crazy ideas, but as you get older you see the bigger picture of these things. For me, once I started seeing that bigger picture he became larger than life, like a superhero.”

Which is a sentiment that rings true for any fan of John Hartford’s work. From the palpable creative freedom of “Aereo-Plain” to the devoted and passionate way he lived his life, John Hartford was — and is — the personification of a certain American spirit that is as timeless as it is ingrained in our collective cultural heritage. 

“I think we’re all kinda tired of this surface stuff, of facades, of everything being presented as ‘well this is the way you’re supposed to do this.’ No! We’re sick of that,” Katie Hartford said. “We’re ready to be who we are and to think the way we think. To me, what I like about the way Dad does things is that he was very live-and-let-live. He is my Dad, so there’s a similarity in our thinking, kinda a ‘what would Dad do?’ that made me think about what the spirit of this project is. It’s never been about money. Honestly, fiddle music doesn’t sell that well anyway — we just want this to be out there. This level of creativity and effort needs to be shared. Maybe it’s a tool for the greater good, to help artists and things like that. I think the music is very happy and very joyful, and we just want it out there so people can feel that joy. Dad wasn’t writing these songs for commercial purposes, I don’t think there was an agenda when he wrote these songs. Because of that, it’s very pure.”

Perhaps America really could learn a lesson from John Hartford right now. His passion and genuineness captured the essence of an American social fabric that is becoming harder and harder to find but is always present — albeit, ever-changing. Even the nature of fiddle music is unifying — it, arguably more so than any other genre, is built around a family-esque community. From Berklee camps to bluegrass festivals to fireside get-togethers, people from all sorts of backgrounds from all over the world come together in the art of fiddling. Perhaps this project serves as a reminder that through thick or thin, we are all still Americans and the things which unite us far outnumber the things which divide us.

“I feel like what he stood for was something that was timeless,” Eldridge said. “He stood for creativity, beauty, art and a certain kind of freedom. He was so wide open, even as he was really reverent towards tradition. The musical world I come from is string band music, so that’s always been something that I’ve considered as well. How does the past interact with the present? I feel like he was so good at that. His spirit was timeless and good.”

Katie Hartford agrees, adding that “whatever his thoughts were, that’s where it went. These tunes reflect so much of his inner-thinking. That was his attitude. America is our creativity and our spirit, I think we could really use that right now.”

Listen to Matt Combs, Ronnie McCoury, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge and Dennis Crouch play John Hartford’s “Tennessee Politics” below:

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