John Hartford won Grammy awards in three different decades, recorded a catalog of more than 30 albums, and wrote one of the most popular songs of all time, Gentle On My Mind. He was a regular guest and contributor on the Glen Campbell Good Time Hour and the Smothers Brothers Show. He added music and narration to Ken Burns’ landmark Civil War series, and was an integral part of the hugely popular "O Brother, Where Art Thou?" soundtrack and Down From The Mountain concert tour. But that hardly explains John Hartford.
John Hartford was an American original. He was a musician, songwriter, steamboat pilot, author, artist, disc jockey, calligrapher, dancer, folklorist, father, and historian.
Born John Cowan Harford in New York on December 30, 1937, John grew up in St. Louis. He was a descendent of Patrick Henry and cousin of Tennessee Williams. His grandfather was a founder of the Missouri Bar Association and his father was a prominent doctor.
At an early age, John fell in love with two things: music and the Mississippi River.
They were passions that would last his lifetime, and their pursuit would be his life’s passage.
In 1965 he moved to Nashville. The following year he was signed to RCA Records by the legendary Chet Atkins. It was Atkins who convinced John to add a "t" to his last name, becoming John Hartford. In 1967 his second RCA release "Earthwords & Music" featured the single "Gentle on My Mind", a song Hartford wrote after seeing the movie Dr. Zhivago. That year, the song earned four Grammy awards. Hartford would take home two awards, one as the writer and one for his own recording of the song. The other two went to Glen Campbell who had heard Hartford’s version on the radio and decided to record it. Campbell’s rendition became an instant classic, and the song became one of the most recorded and performed songs of all time, covered by everyone from Elvis Presley to Aretha Franklin.
Hartford often said that Gentle On My Mind bought his freedom.
He used that freedom to explore his various creative curiosities, and was usually happy to take his friends along on the trip.
In 1968 John Hartford left Nashville for Los Angeles, where he played on the Byrds’ classic album, Sweethearts of the Rodeo. He became a regular guest and contributor on CBS's Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and later on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. He would also earn his riverboat pilot's license by the end of the decade.