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.'"

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 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 lotof 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-Plainalbum."

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."

The Aereo-Plain band lasted only a year, with Taylor and Hartford having little contact in the years prior to Hartford's death on June 4, 2001. "I never followed his career real close, but we'd run into each other on the road on occasion. When I'd go back to Nashville, sometimes I'd drop by and see him and we'd pick a little bit. He was always playing something, if only drumming his knuckles on a desk or whatever. He had more rhythm than probably anyone I've ever known. He just exuded it, and it comes across on the recordings. That song 'Steam Powered Aereo Plane' is a good example. And, you know, a lot of people still ask me to play it even after all these years."

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