John Hartford’s nimble, whit-fueled songs have long been a focal point of the bluegrass and newgrass canon and Hartford’s musicianship, on both the banjo and fiddle, has now been doted over for generations, but until recently, little has been known about his late-in-life, academic approach to fiddle music. After Hartford passed in 2001, his family discovered over two-thousand original, hand-written fiddle tune charts in file cabinets under his desk, and in time, the idea for a way to honor Hartford’s passion has grown legs. Nashville-based fiddler Matt Combs spent months pouring over Hartford’s journals and notes to compile resources for what would become two expansive projects; a book called John Hartford’s Mammoth Collections of Fiddle Tunes and this album, The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Volume 1, which will be available online on June 26th. A vinyl LP of Volume 1 can also be pre-ordered here.
Hartford’s music and ideas certainly don’t need a qualifier attached, but if one were to look for evidence to support their greatness, the laundry list of grade-A musicians who took part in the recording of The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Volume 1 would be a righteous place to start. From track one, the guest artists flow in and out of a revolving door of virtuosity. Combs is joined by Ronnie McCoury, Noam Pikelny, Chris Eldridge, and Dennis Crouch for “Tennessee Politics,” Sierra Hull accompanies herself on both mandolin and octave mandolin for “Old Beveled Mirror,” and Brittany Haas leads Paul Kowert, Dominic Leslie, and Jordan Tice through “Long White Road.” Meanwhile, four tracks feature Hartford’s former bandmates—Mike Compton on mandolin, Mark Howard on banjo, and Chris Sharp on guitar—reuniting their bandleader’s music with the pickers who brought it to life for years. The head-turning list of contributors continues with Tim O’Brien, Alison Brown, Megan Lynch Chowning, Tristan Scroggins, Forrest and Kate Lee O’Connor, Kristen Andreassen, Mike Bub, Rachel Combs, and Jan Fabricius before the album concludes with Shad Cobb joining Combs and O’Brien for the triple-fiddle, album-closing composition “Evening Farewell.” When all is said and done, listeners will have heard a total of seventeen unreleased Hartford compositions, running the gamut from driving to lilting to waltzing to stomping, while never losing their creator’s lighthearted touch.
“We are quickly approaching 20 years since his passing, and I hear not only John’s tunes out in the ‘fiddleverse’ but so many of the old-time tunes he unearthed and brought to the world,” says Combs. “I truly hope that this record continues that trend. There are so many great tunes here that represent the breadth of John’s influences and his deep creative spark; all of the artists on this recording helped bring them to life through their unique lens.” Katie Harford Hogue, Hartford’s daughter and executive producer of the album, says, “What I love the most about this record is that each artist’s DNA comes through, and Dad is the unifying spirit that brings it all together. He pulled inspiration from every moment, every sound, every sight he encountered, and his journals were a place to explore all of his ideas.” The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Volume 1 was recorded in part at the legendary Cowboy Arms Hotel and Recording Spa in Nashville, home of the late Jack Clement, where Hartford recorded his 1984 album Gum Tree Canoe. Those album sessions essentially coincide with the start of Hartford’s musical journals, which date back to 1983.
“Ever since I pulled the first fiddle journal out of a storage box back in 2008, the whole concept has fascinated me. The idea of this much creative output from one source is mind-boggling, and yet I understand where it comes from,” says Hogue. “With the creative brain, once the faucet is turned on the ideas just keep coming. Everything builds upon everything else, and there are endless variations. That’s the great thing about art, music, and creative thinking—every idea spurs on ten more. It’s a beautiful burden.”
Combs adds, “We knew we had to bring these tunes to life and record them so that others can learn and play them. When John was still living, he felt a great sense of accomplishment when his tunes were accepted into the fiddle tune vernacular, and his greatest hope as a composer was that they would get mixed in with all the old tunes that he loved so much. This record is our attempt to do just that.”
The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Volume 1 Track Listing:
- Tennessee Politics
- Calhoun County
- Old Beveled Mirror
- Running Board Waltz
- Little Country Town
- Don Brown And The Boys
- John Rice
- On Guitars, The End Of New Fingers Get Sore
- Long White Road
- The Old Man’s Drunk
- Heartache What To Do
- How Can We Love
- Just Enough Room To Turn Around
- Every Hour On The Hour
- The Half-Price Hornpipe
- Over At The Side Of The Road
- Evening Farewell