O Brother, Where Are We?

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

The four did, though Hartford's weird lyrics and appearance weren't the only worry.

"I was concerned that I might not be able to play the music well enough," says Taylor. "A lot of that stuff was completely foreign to me. I'm into all kinds of music, but I don't read music and I don't know chords, and a lot of his songs don't have typical bluegrass progressions. But John always let us do our own thing. Never told us what to play or not to play. There was no friction whatsoever. We were all pretty laid-back, really. I became the road manager and we just had a ball."

Not surprisingly, Hartford was occasionally given the evil eye usually reserved for his rock peers.

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.

"John and Norman were the hippie types, and Vassar and I were the straight guys," Taylor continues. "Most every time we went to Canada, customs grabbed John and Norman and spent a little more attention on them than me and Vassar. As for his hippie habits, oh yeah, he was very open about it. He ended up being a big hit with college crowds."

The wild music that would show up on Aereo-Plain and Steam Powered Aereo-Takes was played and recorded when Loretta Lynn, Conway Twitty and Tammy Wynette were still hot stuff on the radio and Barbara Mandrell had just been voted the New Female Vocalist of the Year by the Academy of Country Music Awards. Worse yet, as conservative as country music is, the sanctified, sexless mentality of bluegrass makes the typical country love song sound downright licentious in comparison -- leaving Hartford's uneasy mix of doper's ramblings and Earl Scruggs banjo licks the equivalent of a dirty poem sung to hymn. But Hartford's band members became bluegrass bodyguards of sorts.

"What's strange is that we got booked at the Bean Blossom bluegrass festival during that time," Taylor says. "I think it was because Norman, Vassar and myself were there -- the combination of the band, in spite of John, actually. We were well-received, but it was because we always presented a lot of traditional bluegrass along with the hip stuff."

Elsewhere in the music world, rock was kissing up to its country roots. During the four years between "Gentle on My Mind" and Aereo-Plain, the Rolling Stones went honky-tonk on Let It Bleed, the Eagles and the Flying Burrito Brothers were formed, and the Byrds recorded Sweetheart of the Rodeo -- by far the most ambitious and least diluted of the countrified rock releases -- on which Hartford plays banjo and guitar. The recording labels were uneasy with the combining of rock 'n' roll and near-hokum roots material, leaving them unsure how to market the mix. The sight of Hartford bringing his band into the studio brought no joy to his new label.

Hartford had left RCA for Warner Bros., which, experimental as the label was at the time, soon gave up trying to pinpoint Hartford's target audience. "Aereo-Plain was a little bit before its time, and Warner Bros. didn't do a great job of making it available," Taylor recalls.

Hartford, naturally, couldn't have cared less. David Bromberg, an accomplished singer, guitarist and fiddler with a recording career of his own, had been called in by Hartford to produce the Aereo-Plain sessions. Hartford relied on Bromberg's New York sensibilities and own oddball musical outlook to create a balance of tradition, cartoonish personality and polish. Whether it sold well was someone else's problem.

"John gave David full control of what would end up on the record, and David, though he respected bluegrass and traditional music, tended to shy away from choosing the traditional bluegrass -- and we played a lot of bluegrass in the studio," Taylor remembers. "The tape machine was running constantly, from the moment we came in and unpacked our instruments. It was pretty expensive to do that, but the worst thing you can do is turn off the machine when the song is over -- you miss a lot of good stuff that way."

The result was plenty of leftovers that Bromberg felt didn't fit. While a comparison of the original Aereo-Plain with Steam Powered Aereo-Takes validates Bromberg having chosen the strongest lineup of songs for the original, Aereo-Takes forks over a second helping of tie-dyed tradition and Hartford originals just as engaging and eccentric.

Though Hartford's penchant for old-timey music overshadowed his goofy lyrical perspective in the decades that followed, he never dismissed Aereo-Plain as an embarrassing, dope-fueled lark of his youth. In fact, Steam Powered Aereo-Takes stands alongside Hartford's involvement in the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack as one of his career's strongest projects.

"Hartford's banjo-playing friend Bob Carlin was responsible for getting the later thing together," says Taylor, "and I'm thinking that he took the initiative at John's request to dig out those tapes from the vault at Glaser Studios for another Aereo-Plain album."

Taylor's position remains the opposite of Bromberg's, the former preferring the outtakes to the original, and not just because there is more straightahead bluegrass on the previously unreleased material. "I'm selfish -- I get more of my dobro and mandolin on there than was on the first one."

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