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John Hartford Loved the Mississippi River

John Hartford loved the Mississippi River and the life along its banks. He was an extraordinarily talented and engaging performer who composed “Gentle on My Mind,” which was a big hit for Glen Campbell and became one of the most covered and recognizable pop songs. It started as a bluegrass tune, but didn’t stay that way when sung by Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and others.

Hartford came from good stock, according to Biography:

 He was a descendent of Patrick Henry and cousin of Tennessee Williams.  His grandfather was a founder of the Missouri Bar Association and his father was a prominent doctor.

Hartford, of course, became a musician. AllMusic has a nice profile:

…Hartford was a multi-talented old-time musician, a riverboat captain, a satirical songwriter, a one-man showman of exceptional talents, and one of the founders of both progressive country music and old-time string music revivalism.

John Harford (the added “t” was the brainchild of Chet Atkins) was born in New York City to a medical resident and his painter wife but grew up in St. Louis near the Mississippi River he would always love. His first job, on a riverboat, came at age ten. As a boy he liked the traditional country music he heard on the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcast from Nashville, and by age 13 he was an accomplished fiddler and five-string banjo player whose main influences were Stringbean and Earl Scruggs. Soon he added guitar and mandolin to his repertoire. He founded his first bluegrass band in high school and dropped out of Washington University after a year to pursue his music. Performing and working as a DJ and sometimes as a commercial graphic artist in Missouri and Illinois, Hartford made a few singles for small local labels in the early ’60s. In 1965 he moved with his wife and son Jamie to Nashville, taking a DJ job at radio station WSIX. It didn’t take him long to meet the other architects of the city’s songwriting renaissance — Kris Kristofferson, Mickey Newbury, and the Glaser Brothers, who owned a state-of-the-art recording studio and began promoting Hartford and his songs around Music Row. (Continue Reading…)

Above is “Steam Powered Aero Plane,” which features an all-star lineup. (According to the notes at YouTube, Vassar Clements is the violin player, Harry Stinson is on drums, Mark O’Connor is on mandolin, Tony Rice plays the main guitar, Glen Worf is the bassist, Jerry Douglas plays dobro, Brent Rowan is the second acoustic guitar and Matt Rollings is on keyboard.)

Below is his version of “Gentle on My Mind.”

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Duke Ellington brought class, sophistication and style to jazz which, until that point, was proudly unpolished and raucous. His story is profound. The author, Terry Teachout, also wrote "Pops," the acclaimed bio of Louis Armstrong. Click here or on the image.

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What else is there to say? Here is the story behind every song written by The Beatles. Click here or on the image.

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The Grateful Dead don't get enough credit for the profound nature of its lyrics. Many of the band's songs are driven by a deep and literate Americana ("I'm Uncle Sam/That's who I am/Been hidin' out/In a rock and roll band" and "Majordomo Billy Bojangles/Sit down and have a drink with me/What's this about Alabama/Keeps comin' back to me?").

David Dodd's exhaustive study tells the story, song by song. Click here or on the image.

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