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John Hartford Link:

John Hartford

A Tribute To John Hartford–Live From Mountain Stage

2001, Blue Plate Music

The late John Hartford was a pioneer who brought traditional string music into several other genres, so it’s probably fitting that this tribute album seems a little scattered. A Tribute to John Hartford is basically a “concert highlight” album from one of Hartford’s last live performances in 1995. The album opens with Tim O’Brien and Kathy Mattea covering Hartford’s biggest hit, “Gentle On My Mind.” (And although that might seem like an easy, overplayed choice, the stripped down and acoustic arrangement and harmonies between O’Brien and Mattea make it alone worth buying the disc.)

Other Hartford covers include Riders In the Sky with a swing version of “Billy the Kid,” Bela Fleck and old Newgrass Revival bandmate Pat Flynn on the instrumental “On the Road,” and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings with their dark old-tymie take on “In Tall Buildings” (Welch remarks that the song probably made more than one person quit their job).

Then there are the odd choices: O’Brien with his own “More Love,” ex-Newgrass Revival vocalist John Cowan on a powerful rendition of Merle Travis’ “Dark As a Dungeon,” and Hartford’s old pal Norman Blake doing Blake’s “Savannah Rag,” All fine tunes, but they seem out of place. Jamie Hartford (Hartford’s son) makes an appearance with his band, but “Who Cut Your Heart Out” is a loud blues number, which seems out of place.

Still, there’s a good reason to buy this album, and that’s for Hartford himself, who appears on the last five tracks. You get a sense that Hartford knew this was one of his last shows, but his spirits are up, along with his sense of humor. At one point he remembers a woman from a show years ago who said “I wish you’d play something I know, so I can tell if you’re any good or not.” He then adds, “So here’s something we hope you haven’t heard.”

A Tribute to John Hartford would probably have made a better double album, which could have accommodated more Hartford-penned tunes. Still, as an epilogue to a master instrumentalist, writer, and one who was more than admired by his peers, it’s a must-have album.—Michael Gaither

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