O Brother, Where Are We?

New outtakes collection spotlights the visionary stoner-bluegrass of John Hartford's Aereo-Plain

The Aereo-Plain cover photo looks like a close-up shot of a grasshopper, though it's only a wild-haired John Hartford, wearing broken aviator goggles, going nose to nose with the camera. The picture could clear a field of crows, and the music inside -- no less jarring -- sounds like it would have had the conservative '70s Nashville country music establishment bearing torches, hunting down the local hippie responsible for this bluegrass monstrosity. Oddly, it didn't turn out that way.

"Actually, I remember his music going over really well wherever we played," laughs Tennessee-based Tut Taylor, dobro player and mandolinist on the album, commenting not only on Hartford's Aereo-Plain, one of the most eccentric bluegrass albums ever, but also on a recently released collection of equally weird 30-year-old outtakes, Steam Powered Aereo-Takes.

1971's Aereo-Plain should have been subtitled Freaks Invade Appalachia/Appalachia Invades the Freaks. Hartford presents blatant songs for heads -- the who's-got-the-dope theme of "Holding" and the mysterious antics of those people "Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie" -- only to schizo-flop into the nostalgic yearning of someone three times his age, bemoaning the rise of the Opryland theme park on "Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry," longing to be "Back in the Goodle Days," and wishing he could fly -- legally, this time -- in a "Steam Powered Aereo Plane." Yeah, Hartford burned the ears of Flatt and Scruggs devotees grunting a dirty-old-man impersonation on a piece called "Boogie," but it was hard to dismiss an album that reverently begins and ends with the old-timey gospel standard "Turn Your Radio On."

John Hartford, center, is best remembered for "Gentle on My Mind," but Aereo-Plain is his most enduring work.
John Hartford, center, is best remembered for "Gentle on My Mind," but Aereo-Plain is his most enduring work.
From left, John Hartford, Norman Blake and Tut Taylor.
From left, John Hartford, Norman Blake and Tut Taylor.

"You'd be surprised at the phone calls and e-mails and personal contacts I have with people who say that's the first album that ever turned them on. Playing on that album is one of the best experiences I've had in my life," says the still-active Taylor, now close to hugging 80 years.

Steam Powered Aereo-Takes is more of the same uncomfortable mix. Hard-core bluegrass like "John Henry" butts up against quirky Hartford songs that suggest he was smoking whatever he was holding. The hippie mantra "Keep On Truckin'" becomes the title of a surprisingly traditional up-tempo banjo-driven piece, spotted with Hartford's signature percussive grunts and yodels. "Blame It on Joann" is a sadistic tribute to an obviously real female, to whom Hartford confesses "We love you 'cause you always let us hate you/We love you 'cause you do not take it well." On the best outtake, Hartford sympathizes with the supreme eccentric on "Howard Hughes Blues," believing that "If he didn't have a nickel, if he didn't have a dime/He could do whatever he damn well pleased and do it all the time."

Yet Hartford's ability to do whatever he damn well pleased during his ganja-banjo period came from incredibly large money bags he'd earned himself a couple years earlier in California.

Only four years before Aereo-Plain, a cleaner-cut Hartford was the darling of radio and television. His song "Gentle on My Mind" became a hit for Glen Campbell, who lured Hartford to California, away from his DJ and staff songwriter positions in Nashville. Hartford appeared regularly on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour while doubling as a staff writer for Campbell's show and The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

Having already flashed his dry humor on a handful of quirky albums for RCA, Hartford proved to be just as off-the-wall live, resulting in CBS even offering him the lead role in a detective series. Hartford dismissed the gumshoe gig, soon losing interest in television and California as well. Meanwhile, "Gentle on My Mind" was becoming one of the most played songs in radio history, thanks to cover versions by nearly 300 performers as diverse as Frank Sinatra, Aretha Franklin and Muzak schlockmeisters like Ray Conniff. The airplay translated into lots of regular, fat checks. A full 15 years after the song's heyday, Hartford would find himself still pulling in $170,000 a year in royalties.

"Gentle on My Mind" was inescapable during the end of the '60s, drummed into the ears of every porch-bound grandma with a transistor radio, every yokel driving a feed-store truck with an AM radio. That the song was banjo-heavy and about a drifter didn't hurt matters, either: A pop radio hit romanticizing a rural lifestyle -- clichéd though it was -- had to go over well south of the Mason-Dixon line. Everyone knew of Hartford when he returned to Nashville, even if they didn't recognize him.

"I hadn't known John apart from seeing him on television, back before he returned from California," Taylor recalls. "But the fact that John had 'Gentle on My Mind' opened a lot of doors, led a lot of Nashville people to overlook the long hair. It was a rough time for hippie types back then, though."

Taylor soon found himself sitting in a friend's living room across from two other highly regarded session players -- fiddler Vassar Clements and guitarist Norman Blake -- and the scraggly Hartford.

"A mutual friend of ours set up the first jam session. I'd played with Vassar and Norman before but never with John. John was playing pretty heavy on the banjo then; he hadn't gotten into the fiddle yet." Taylor remembers Hartford introducing his own songs into the mix of traditional tunes they played. "I don't recall seeing anything written; he just seemed to have it all in his head. And I don't know exactly what his intentions were, but after we had a jam session one night someone jokingly said, 'Let's get up a band.'"

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