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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

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.


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