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John Hartford: Aereo Plain/Morning Bugle - The Complete Warner Brothers Recordings

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John Hartford
Aereo Plain/Morning Bugle: The Complete Warner Brothers Recordings
Real Music
2012

This 1971 album was to the emerging newgrass movement approximately was Bill Evans' Village Vanguard recordings were to jazz piano trios: the flexible blueprint for the genre. Evans and singer/multi-instrumentalist John Hartford both successfully found ways to dissolve the "soloist and his enablers" tyranny, working instead towards the integrated ensemble as the musical engine.

Shortlived though this group was, this unit—alternately called The Dobrolic Plectral Society or just "The Aereo Plain Band"—was a revolutionary force in bluegrass music. They only lasted a year, but apparently only needed a year (much as Evans' seminal trio with bassist Scott LaFaro and drummer Paul Motian only needed about eighteen months). Hartford's ensemble was a watershed in the truest sense of the word. Fiddler Vassar Clements and dobroist Tut Taylor were the veterans, players at whom the established bluegrass world at the way jazz people look at alto saxophonist Phil Woods and pianist Hank Jones, which is to say soloing giants who are no less admired as team players. Hartford (on banjo) and Nashville session ace (sticking to guitar on this album) Norman Blake were the young players there to extend that tradition. There was no proto-punk insurgency here. Hartford was not an artistically angry person. He had his own ideas about bluegrass and other music, but he didn't seem to think he had to poke established icons like banjoist Earl Scruggs with a stick to make his point. Quite the contrary.

Hartford's name in 1971 was still synonymous with The Smothers Brothers Brothers Comedy Hour, a TV show for which he wrote and on which he often appeared. And, of course, he was singer/guitarist Glen Campbell's sidekick on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, accompanying Campbell mostly on banjo. Some of the Campbell shows give us a real display on instrumental firepower. Not only was Campbell a fantastic jazz-tinged country player, but Hartford was a banjo player worthy of praise from Sonny Osborne and Earl Scruggs, which he got. And, of course, he wrote one of the most often-covered hit songs of the sixties, "Gentle On My Mind." His own albums, which up to that time had been on RCA, were generally uneven but rife with material that has become canonical, despite woeful overproduction. Initially, he lived and recorded in Nashville, where producer Felton Jarvis treated him respectfully as something of a youthful, eccentric cross between Bob Dylan and Roger Miller. But within a few years, Hartford was living in the hills above Hollywood, hanging out, recording, touring constantly, and working in TV. His last two albums for RCA were produced by Rick Jerrard, a Sunset Strip ear stalwart who some know as the lead singer of The Bostweeds, so that is him on the classic theme from Russ Meyer's au go go Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Jerrard enjoyed more success as a staff producer for RCA records, and he did very well for the label, giving them massive hits with Nilsson ("Everybody's Talkin'"), Jose Feliciano ("Light My Fire"), and Jefferson Airplane's psyche cornerstone Surrealistic Pillow. But the two albums he produced of Hartford (only one of which came out) were long on cleverness and short on substance. Bootlegs of Hartford playing live at the time find him engaged outside of the recording studio (electric bassist Colin Cameron is particularly inventive), but Hartford dismissed the productions as "mud" and took a hard left turn. He gave his band notice, left RCA, and returned drew back to the night of August 23, 1969, when he appeared on the Johnny Cash Show and the core of the Aereo Plain lineup played together for the first time.

Johnny Cash and John Hartford had been friends for a few years at this point. The Man In Black had in fact written the liner notes for Hartford's 1967 debut album, John Hartford Looks At Life. It was no shock to anyone anywhere that Hartford would be on the Cash show. Their duo number for the episode—Cash always duo'd with the guests—was a medley of Bill Monroe songs. Cash hired Clements to play fiddle for it, and Blake—then in the show's house band—played mandolin. And as the performance unfolds, we see John Hartford come to life and full size. Even Cash—the most charismatic country singer of his era—gives him a wide, respectful berth. It's one of the most substantial highlights of the series, which is saying something huge.

Hartford rounded out Blake and Clements with dobroist Tut Taylor, an older and seemingly more traditional bluegrasser. While Taylor was the oldest player in the group, but he was as musically restless as Hartford. It is worth noting that Clements was the only player in the line-up who was not a habitual multi-instrumentalist. Hartford may have been known mostly as a banjo player, but as a fiddler he was very much Clements' peer. Also, he was a beautiful, natural guitarist. Norman Blake stuck almost entirely to guitar for this group, but was a hair-raising mandolinist and dobro player revered as a ringer in the Nashville studios. And Taylor was known at least as widely for his mandolin playing as his distinctively sparse and muscular dobro work. Hartford set a few ground rules for the ensemble. The only rule for a piece of material to be part of the repertoire was that one member had to know it all the way through. There was to be no discussion of the material except what key the song was in. And, in the studio, no listening to playbacks.

For Clements and Taylor, this was some new math. They came through the conventional bluegrass world, a world of efficient rehearsal, band uniforms, and old country music performance mannerism. Blake was part of the newer generation (he's prominent on Dylan's Nashville Skyline, for instance) but conversant with the older, so he just did his sideman professional best and invested the role with humility and true genius. Again, think Hank Jones, if Hank Jones was a bluegrass musician.

Bootlegs of the group jamming, in the studio, and playing live reveal that Hartford was unafraid of failure. Some of what would end up as full songs on this album started as little jamming vehicles that evolved over time.

Hartford was clearly not looking to have any sort of hit single nor to score a new "Gentle On My Mind" coup. He knew his ensemble idea was his own, and he knew his new crop of songs was not bound for the charts. He signed with the more "underground" major label Warner Brothers and brought in a young David Bromberg (another forward-leaning roots music multi-instrumentalist) to produce, telling him he had full autonomy over the record but that that he didn't want the ensemble's methodology questioned or disturbed in the recording process. Bromberg agreed, but suggested that a bassist be brought into the group. Earl Scruggs' guitar playing son Randy Scruggs was drafted on electric, even though he had never played bass before. He turned out to be the right guy, because he was at once conversant with the bluegrass world his father helped define, but also he was fully a product of his own musical generation. It's odd that he never returned to bass playing after this album, because his playing is so perfect. Not only does he lay down the firm bluegrass two beat, but there's a sinew that would do (The Band bassist) Rick Danko very proud.

The record opens and closes with the War-era country hymn called "Turn Your Radio On." As if to drive the message home that this is still bluegrass, Hartford carbon copies the Flatt & Scruggs arrangement almost to the note. It was in fact Scruggs playing the guitar part that Hartford recreates. The second song, "Steamboat Whistle Blues," starts off sounding like conventional bluegrass, but with Clements and Taylor weaving through each other as if to take a dual solo, the next message Hartford drives home seems to be that bluegrass is evolving. Instead of a lyric about the little cabin home on the hill, Hartford sings of steamboats, getting high, and listening to the Rolling Stones. Actually, there are a few lyrics here about getting high, including the delightful "Holding," which features Clements singing high harmony and flatpicking (instead of bowing) his fiddle to impressive effect.

Hartford's love for Earl Scruggs is as implicit in his playing as Cannonball's was for Bird. Aereo Plain certainly reflects that instrumental enthusiasm. Another influence stamped all over this record is Roger Miller, whose unbridled novelty songs inspired Hartford greatly, and of whom he always spoke with veneration. Into the 1990's, he spoke of making an album with steel guitarist Buddy Emmons of Roger Miller songs. Hartford took Miller's concurrent examples of scat singing, vocal gimmickry, word play, and sad clown pathos into so much of this record.

One of the radiant moments of this record is "First Girl I Loved," a ballad Hartford wrote about his guitar playing cousin Kate. With a bass run lifted directly from Paul McCartney's "Maybe I'm Amazed" a diminished chord placed prominently in the harmonic structure, and a lyric that rarely rhymes, it does not look on paper like the recipe for a bluegrass classic, but it very much became one even as it bucked tradition. The lyric is one of Hartford's very greatest, and Clements' fiddle and Blake's mandolin grow like flowering vines through the song.

(Her guitar is among Hartford's personal effects.)

On the instrumental breakdowns (a breakdown is the medium-to-fast traditional bluegrass style), the group never fails to mesh and break harness from gravity. To get five musicians in any genre to listen that closely and react with such discretion is beyond difficult. With a trio, it's easier to control. But among five? It's more than rare. Blake and Hartford—each a technically dazzling player—keep themselves in the rhythm section, letting Clements and Taylor initiate the action as they react and punctuate. If Doc Watson was the Charlie Parker of bluegrass guitar, than Norman Blake is certainly the Cannonball Adderley, and just as Cannon kept his virtuosity in tasteful check for his album with vocalist Nancy Wilson, so does Blake on this record. His opening on "Symphony Hall Rag" is tossed off so effortlessly that one has no idea that it is fiendishly difficult stuff.

The "newgrass" musicians that found their mission statement in this record—banjoist Bela Fleck (who now has Hartford's touring banjos), mandolinist Chris Thiele, and many more—speak of this record almost exactly as pianists speak of Bill Evans' or Ahmad Jamal's landmark trio recordings. Indeed, I can think of only one other acoustic record from the 1970's that did for another genre what Aereo Plain did for bluegrass, and that record is Keith Jarrett's The Koln Concert. And it is worth noting that both Hartford and Jarrett put the greatest premium on the pure act of improvising.
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