John Hartford

     notes by Rick Shubb

John Hartford always did things his own way, so much so that you might say his music is a style all its own. With roots in bluegrass, his own riverboat background gave it an entirely different flavor.

His song Gentle on My Mind was such a mega hit that its royalties bought him artistic independence; a privilege that he never abused.

While he often recorded and performed with topnotch musicians, he stands out most in my mind as a solo performer. Very few people in the bluegrass / old-time genre, usually band music, could spellbind an audience all by themselves, the way John could.

As a soloist, he had the advantage of being able to set his banjo up strictly for tone, with volume not being a consideration. His various banjos always sounded beautiful. Throughout his career his banjo continued to develop a sweeter, mellower tone, finally resulting in the design of his signature model Deering banjo that features a wooden (not metal) tone ring.

I first saw John Hartford perform at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. I introduced myself after the show, since I noticed he was using both my 5th string and regular banjo capo. Our paths crossed just a few more times after that. Although I never knew him well, he seemed much like his music: immediately comfortable and familiar, as though you’d known him all your life.

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