John Hartford at Merlefest, April 2000: ‘It’s going to be straight ahead, with allegiance to the music and not tricky.’ (Photo: Forrest L. Smith, III)

Ever Smiling, Ever Gentle
By David McGee

The John Hartford Stringband
RedClay Records

The voice and its cadences are as familiar as the sentiment being expressed is illustrative of what made the speaker a most remarkable man and musician. “This is not going to be a show-stopper,” he says, before the band kicks in. “It’s going to be straight ahead, with allegiance to the music and not tricky,” emphasis on “not tricky.”

The voice belong to John Hartford, who left this mortal coil on June 4, 2001, way too young at 63, a victim of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He left behind one of the great songs of 20th Century pop music, “Gentle On My Mind,” and a trove of others equally good, collected on the more than 30 albums he released in his lifetime—albums of country, bluegrass and old-timey music that both hewed to tradition and broadened it with progressive ideas. The people who played with or orbited around Hartford’s universe take these facts for what they are—evidence of a productive, influential life in music—but truly treasure the man’s overflowing humanity, more than anything else. The music will always take care of itself, timeless as it is.

John Hartford and Glen Campbell perform ‘Gentle On My Mind’ on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour 1968 summer replacement show for The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

Which is the point of this most perfect of tribute albums, on which the band that accompanied Hartford on his last five Rounder albums—Chris Sharp (guitar), Bob Carlin (banjo), Matt Combs (fiddle), Mike Compton (mandolin), Mark Schatz (bass)—is joined by Hartford admirers such as Tim O’Brien, Alison Brown (who plays Hartford’s banjo on a delightful, gently rolling take on the folksy “M.I.S.I.P,” backing O'Brien's warm, genial vocal), Bela Fleck, Alan O’Bryant, George Buckner and Eileen Carson Schatz. Collectively they send up a joyful noise and do right by Hartford’s music and memory, bringing out its humanity with an easygoing grace appropriate for an album for all seasons. Fittingly, Hartford is more than a spectral presence in these proceedings—in addition to his abovementioned instructions preceding the start of a song he wrote to celebrate the small-town virtues of his long-time home base of “Madison Tennessee,” we hear him speaking to the band before they go romping through one of their beloved numbers, Ed Haley’s sprightly, fiddle-fired instrumental, “Three Forks of Sandy” (at the time of his death Hartford was working on a biography of Haley); the album closes with a Hartford solo performance, playing guitar and humming a wistful melody to a song awaiting his lyrics, appropriately titled “Fade Out”; and, from a reel of mid-‘60s demos, the Hartford wry wit is on full display, in the playful vocal (with some echoes of Roger Miller in it) and lyrics of “You Don’t Notice Me Ignoring You,” truly a skewed look at breaking up as only Hartford could imagine it.

John Hartford performs the Civil War-era ballad, ‘Lorena,’ sung by Tim O’Brien on Memories of John

But the Stringband and its guests do a wonderful job on their own, with O’Brien in particular standing out for evoking Hartford in both tone and attitude on his stellar vocals, not only on “M.I.S.I.P.” (a song close to Hartford’s heart, being his self-penned slice of the steamboat life he loved so passionately—to the point of actually earning a steamboat pilot’s license and spending summers piloting the Julia Belle Swain) but especially on the poignant pre-Civil War ballad, “Lorena” (written by J.F. and the Rev. D.L. Webster, whose “I’ll Twine ‘Mid the Ringlets” was the basis for the Carter Family’s “Wildwood Flower”) with its beautiful, Romantic Victorian lyrics embracing both the fatalistic and the optimistic (“a hundred months have passed Lorena/since last I held that hand in mine/and felt the pulse beat fast, Lorena/though mine beats faster far than thine”) and Buckner punctuating its lilting rhythm with three-finger “Hartford-style” banjo. Playing it straight and heartfelt, the band fashions a mellow, evocative scene of tenderness in Hartford’s “Royal Box Waltz” behind Combs’s sweet fiddling and Compton’s trilling, easygoing mandolin. Bob Carlin has a high old time with a comically rousing reading of a previously unreleased Hartford original, “She’s Gone (And Bob’s Gone With Her),” a strutting, high-spirited workout resplendent in buoyant spirit and further enlivened by Mark Schatz’s rumbling bass solo. For good measure the Stringband includes another Ed Haley tune, “Half Past Four,” a rousing hoedown designed to illustrate Hartford’s concept of “windows” arranging (“You can play lead, harmony, back-up, bass lines, etc. or not play at all,” Hartford wrote. “Never play the same thing for more than four measures. Change what you do every so often. And play really strange things [in other words, don’t worry about how it sounds or if it clashes with the other musicians.”]) Mostly what it does, and the entire album, for that matter, is to underscore how unique a man John Hartford was, how durable his music remains, and how profoundly his loss is felt to this day. But he’s here, spiritually present in every note his friends play and sing, and abiding in spirit in the gifts his music bequeathed to eternity. Listen closely, and you can even hear his song in the muscular blasts emanating from steamboat smokestacks along the mighty Mississippi. Roll on, big river. Roll on.

Memories of John by the John Hartford Stringband is available at

Founder/Publisher/Editor: David McGee
Contributing Editors: Billy Altman, Laura Fissinger, Christopher Hill, Derk Richardson
Logo Design: John Mendelsohn (
Website Design: Kieran McGee (
Staff Photographers: Audrey Harrod (Louisville, KY;, Alicia Zappier (New York)
Mailing Address: David McGee, 201 W. 85 St.—5B, New York, NY 10024