Review John Hartford Live at College Station Pennsylvania

John Hartford

Live At College Station Pennsylvania

Small Dog A-Barkin’ 8D-594CD

Review by Art Menius for Old-Time Herald

John Hartford–banjo, fiddle, vocals

Gum Tree Canoe/Gentle On My Mind/In Tall Buildings/Wrong Road Again/Bring Your Clothes Back Home/Run Little Rabbit/Loreena/The Girl I Left Behind Me/Learning to Smile/Cacklin’ Hen/I Would Not Be Here/Boogie/Old Time River Men/Piece of My Heart/Natchez Whistle/The Julia Belle Swain/Skippin’ in the Mississippi Dew

John Hartford is perhaps the only full-fledged “success in the entertainment industry” whose recordings deserve review in The Old-Time Herald. One has to respect that while Hartford had the talent, connections, and track record to “sell out,” whatever that means, perhaps continuing as a Hollywood comedy writer, he chose instead to perform the music he loves. He has, moreover, used his position as a bully pulpit to advocate on behalf of both old-time music and bluegrass. Once he wrote for the Smothers Brothers TV show, now he contributes fiddle tune transcriptions to The Devil’s Box. Perhaps that integrity is why he has succeeded in cultivating a rather well-recognized John Hartford identity, rather than enduring a tenuous survival in the pop world as the answer to several ‘60s trivia questions.

After recording nigh on thirty years for well-known companies including RCA Victor, Warner Brothers, Flying Fish, and MCA, John and wife/ concession manager Marie Hartford have started their own label, Small Dog A-Barkin’. Looking far more like Marie’s puppy than RCA’s proudly posed Nipper, the Small Dogcan boast about the release of Hartford’s current CD, Live At College Station[,] Pennsylvania. Now, I’m familiar with State College, PA, home of the Nittany Lions from whence agent Lee Olsen came to Nashville to work with Keith Case, Hartford’s agent for years. Standing in my driveway on a cold, windy Sunday morning, however, I cannot find a College Station, PA in my Rand McNally Road Atlas. I did locate one in Texas. Indoors I read in Cary Ginnell’s new book that Milton Brown & His Musical Brownies used to play for dances at there.

The location does not matter anyway, since Hartford, who at home would rather play old fiddle tunes by himself or jam with people like Earl Scruggs, settled comfortably more than a decade ago on a basic format for his shows. His engaging and effective stage performance blends time honored minstrel techniques with such recent technology as his miked dance floor and the wireless pick-ups that permit him to fiddle through the audience. None of that works, however, without genuine talent for entertaining the folks. That Hartford has developed to a high level, especially for a guy who less than 30 years ago was a former bluegrass banjo picker who sat on a tall stool singing his self-described “weird songs.” He didn’t know about signing autographs after the show until Ernest Tubb told him.

Today Hartford has mastered the fine art of connecting with the audience on what is perceived as an individual level. That proves no mean feat for it demands involving each one in the show, convincing each listener he’s singing on a personal level, delivering the songs desired. Hartford accomplishes this with every aspect of his program. His stage attire, combining imagery from railroad conductors, steam boat pilots, minstrel men, and a once wild man comfortable with middle age, projects both authority and approachability. His on stage mannerisms, facial expressions, and body language all open himself up to the audience. Like Jonathan Richman’s depiction of “Pablo Picasso,” he can consummate a connection with just one glance. Only Pete Seeger can claim to be his superior at drawing listeners into singalongs.

What’s more remarkable is that Hartford can project earnestness from a stage to an audience of several thousands. That accomplishment is to sincerity as verisimilitude is to truth. Hartford can pull it off because he honestly cares: about entertaining and about old tunes and old musicians, well known or obscure. He also genuinely cares about the people who buy tickets for his performances. Once at the Merle Watson Festival a fan handed a copy of 1968’s The Love Album, requesting that I obtain an autograph for him. He would surely had been overjoyed had I merely returned with an example of Hartford’s calligraphy. Instead, he excused himself from an all-star dressing room picking session and followed me back to the fellow, with whom he visited for perhaps 10 minutes.

“I Would Not Be Here” from The Love Album appears on Live At College Station Pennsylvania. See, I hadn’t forgotten about that at all. To review a live project both demands analyzing the artist’s live show. Especially when the artist is also an entertainer. My only major criticism of the album concerns those wonderful qualities described above which cannot be transferred to an audio-only medium or, I think, even to video or the celebrated multi-media. We get the music, but not the full performance.

Yet and still, the music proves pretty enjoyable all by itself. Hartford performs all by himself, although he has often appeared with son Jamie on mandolin or bassist Roy Huskey, Jr. With full responsibility for the show, Hartford delivers delightfully simple and effective renditions of varied material drawn from every aspect of his recording career , although providing only “Boogie,” with Hartford at his most playful, as the lone representative of his stunning Warner Brothers albums Morning Bugle (1972) and Aereo Plain (1971).

He reaches back as far as “Gentle On My Mind,” a true piece of Americana as one of the most recorded songs of all time, first released on Hartford’s Earthwords & Music (1967). He performs more recently recorded material including “Run Little Rabbit” from his 1991 disc of duets with Jamie, Hartford & Hartford, and the venerable minstrel song “Loreena,” and “The Girl I Left Behind Me,” supporting himself with both three-finger and rapping accompaniment on his low-tuned five-string. Hartford has nurtured his love of traditional fiddling over the past 15 years. This shows to good effect whenever he picks up the instrument, whether on such recent original compositions as “Learning to Smile” or the traditional “Cacklin’ Hen.”

The Flying Fish era that spanned most of the 1970s and 1980s gave birth to many of the selections. Hartford reprises “Gum Tree Canoe” from 1984’s album of the same name, “In Tall Buildings” off of Nobody Knows What You Do (1975), and “Bring Your Clothes Back Home” first heard on Down On The River (1989).

Since they come so close to him heart, the river songs prove the high points of the disc. Hartford lands in a strong groove with “Old Time River Man,” which comes off of Down On The River, “Natchez Whistle” from Headin’ Down Into The Mystery Below (1978), “Skippin’ in the Mississippi Dew,” which lead off his Grammy-winning album Mark Twang (1976), and “The Julia Belle Swain,” also from Mark Twang.

Poor recording of the audience lessens the impact of the singalong on the captivating “Learning to Smile,” first heard on 1987’s Annual Waltz. We plainly hear Hartford’s fiddle accompaniment to their group vocals, but can barely make even that the audience is singing. This also causes the audience appear not to sound particularly enthusiastic. One simply cannot hear them.

Live At College Station, Pennsylvania documents an enduringly successful American entertainer, who has created an individual entertainment out of various pieces of American folk and popular culture connecting the 1860s with the 1960s. The CD shows how Hartford has charmed his way along the edges of mainstream success for thirty years, somehow marrying Uncle Dave Macon and Bob Dylan on a riverboat. Nineteenth century American music pervades the whole disc, but those more focused on old-time music would find more enjoyment in Hartford’s new CD of duets with Bob Carlin on Rounder. Those wanting a well conceived sampler of the John Hartford experience certainly find that on this delightful set. Buy it at a show; you’ll enjoy meeting Marie.