Even if multi-instrumentalist John Hartford found a cure for cancer, the discovery would probably be overshadowed by what the public sees as an even greater achievement--his writing of "Gentle on My Mind," a hit for Glen Campbell in 1968. But it's been almost thirty years since Hartford, looking soulful and anxious, opened episodes of Campbell's TV variety show by standing up in the audience and plucking his banjo. And Hartford certainly hasn't spent the time since "Gentle" won two Grammy awards trying and failing to re-create it. Rather, he's gone on to become one of the most revolutionary players in the history of bluegrass.
Still, Hartford, 57, knows that the first line of his obituary will identify him not as a man who's influenced a generation of pickers, but as the composer of you-know-what. And he's not complaining. "It isn't my favorite song--but it sure has made a lot of things possible," he notes in a weird, rapid-fire style that makes him sound like a good ol' boy on Benzedrine. "I do it just about every show."
That's practically Hartford's only concession to good marketing. In fact, he's been criticized over the years for his lack of ambition--and for his genial, anti-show-biz stance. Hartford's heard these gripes before, but he insists that he isn't fazed by them. "I don't see myself like that, but it's all right however people want to perceive me," he says. "I work real hard at what I do. I work at it every day. I try to make my music as honest as I can. I would say that, basically, I hear music a certain way in my head, and my life has been spent trying to make my fingers and my voice and my words match what I hear in my head. It's an ongoing thing. Just about the time I think I'm getting on to it, then I hear it a different way and I realize that I've got that much further to go."
By contrast, many observers feel that Hartford has already gone too far. Particularly in the Seventies, he was branded a heretic by the hardcore bluegrass community for penning folk-pop tunes rather than concentrating on keeping the genre pure. Not everyone has bought into this rap: For instance, Vassar Clements dismisses complaints about Hartford's "checkered musical past," while Bela Fleck calls him "a fascinating example of somebody staying in the music a long time and growing and changing with it and finally coming back to the tradition." Hartford, though, sees his legacy differently.
"I do what's in my heart," he explains. "If it works, that's great, and if it doesn't, well, at least I haven't wasted my time. Besides, Bill Monroe was seen as a renegade back in his day.
"Now, I've always considered myself a traditional musician," he goes on. "But then I got to thinking about that the other day. To be a traditional musician implies that you play like everybody else within the tradition--which means that what you are doing is average, and that implies mediocrity. But in all traditions, the people that you follow are not the traditional players. It's the eccentrics who are the ones handed down. And really, they're kind of ostracized by their tradition."
Of course, Hartford fits perfectly into the oddball category. In addition to his musical interests, he's a licensed riverboat pilot and spends part of every year working "as a labor of love" on a friend's excursion boat on the Mississippi. He's also a record-company mogul: After a career spent recording for companies such as MCA, Warner Bros. and Flying Fish, he created his own label, Small Dog A-Barkin' (named for his noisy Lhasa apso), five years ago. His most recent effort on the imprint, 1994's The Walls We Bounce Off Of, features Hartford on "vocals, banjo, fiddle, guitar and shoes." About the last: Hartford dances on a miked plywood board while performing. To get the right sound, he reveals, "I've tried everything from dance shoes to loafers to tennis shoes to great big, heavy, clumpy work shoes. Right now I'm wearing loafers. Old Ivy League loafers with loose heel support. They work real well."
Hartford supplements his footwork with comedy that he sprinkles liberally through his lighter tunes and between-song monologues. "Humor is serious business. Tremendously serious," he points out dryly. "One of the most serious things about humor--one of the most important things, and certainly one of the hardest things to maintain--is not laughing at it. To laugh at self-originated humor is a terrible thing. So I've always maintained that I'm not a humorist for that reason."
As for what Hartford is, he claims not to know. But in avoiding a description, he unintentionally comes up with an epitaph that suggests his mind isn't so gentle after all. "I think it's better to be able to do it and not know what to call it," he says, "than to know what to call it and not be able to do it."
John Hartford, with Southern Exposure. 7:30 p.m. Friday, July 14, Arvada Center for the Arts and Humanities, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, $17/$10, 431-3939.
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