John Hartford: Pilot of a Steam Powered Aero-Plain

Andrew Vaughan

Henry David Thoreau said “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”  After reading John Hartford: Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-Plain, I would say that John Hartford was such a man.  But, he was his own drummer and his drum had a banjo neck and five strings attached to it.

When Hartford’s Aereo-Plain recording was released in 1971, the first indication that this album was going to be different was Hartford’s photo on the cover.  He had long-hair, a scraggly beard, and was wearing weird goggles.  Was this really the same guy that we watched on the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour?  John was different, the music was different, and although sales of this album were not great when it was released, it has become a landmark recording in the history of bluegrass music because it helped launch a new era.  In the book, a quote from Sam Bush states, “Aereo-Plain made newgrass a reality.”

This beautiful hardbound, large-format book presents John Hartford’s musical life from his early days in St. Louis, to his first move to Nashville, to the Hollywood years, and then back to Nashville. It culminates with the recording and release of Aereo-Plain.  Although Hartford certainly continued to have a very successful career following the Aereo-Plain recording, in the book’s introduction author Andrew Vaughan states, “John Hartford’s story and John Hartford’s personality are far too complex for any one book to do his multifaceted talents justice.  This book is focused on John’s switch from clean-cut TV star to the unrecognizable longhaired and bearded maverick that showed bluegrass and old time music a new way in 1971.  This book will tell the story of John’s journey to Aereo-Plain, his trials and tribulations, and his personal conflicts and artistic visions.”

Within the context of this focus, Vaughn does an outstanding job helping the reader understand John Hartford through the written word and nearly one hundred photographs.  To me, the photographs alone would be worth the price of the book.  Before I even read one word of the story, I got a sense of who John Hartford was during those years just by looking at the photos and reading the photo captions of this coffee-table quality book.  Included with the book is a live concert recording of a show at the Ryman Auditorium in 1994 featuring John Hartford, Vassar Clements, Tut Taylor, and Tony Rice—a welcomed bonus.  

The overall message of the John Hartford story is to be true to yourself and follow your dreams and passions despite the temptations of money and fame. Here was a guy who had a very successful songwriting and television career in Hollywood and he gave it up to return to a simpler life and the music that stirred his heart and soul.  The book reports that in a Rolling Stone interview in 1971 Hartford opened up “admitting that he’d lost his way in Hollywood and was looking for something simpler and more real to fuel his musical passions.”

The result of following those musical passions was moving back to Nashville, joining forces with Norman Blake (guitar), Tut Taylor (Dobro), Vassar Clements (fiddle), Randy Scruggs (bass) and David Bromberg (producer), and recording one of the most significant albums in the history of bluegrass music.  It is a fascinating story. 

I highly recommend this book to any fan of bluegrass music and to anyone who is looking for the courage and inspiration to step out and dance to the beat of their own drummer.    

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