The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project – Vol 1

Fiddle aficionados and students of the work of John Hartford should be delighted with this recording.  Note, these seventeen tracks do not contain “the lost” performances of Hartford, nor is this a tribute album.  It is the first effort in documenting some of his work that was found in his archives by family members and interpreted by some of today’s leading artists.  

John’s daughter, Katie Harford Hogue (John’s original spelling of his name before changing to Hartford at the suggestion of Chet Atkins), serves as executive producer of the album after having found, along with other family members, a treasure trove of over 2,000 original and unrecorded fiddle tunes Hartford filed in cabinets under his desk.  In promotional materials, Hogue reports, “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 sides.”  Choosing the tunes to be recorded from this huge collection, as well as the artists who either knew him well, or who grew up admiring him, must have been a difficult task.  (Thus we’re given Volume 1, implying there’s more to come.)

The album was preceded a couple of years ago by the book John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection Of Fiddle Tunes, which involved Hogue, Combs, and musicologist Greg Reish.  Hogue further indicates all of the tunes, along with any lyrics, are previously unrecorded compositions by John Hartford, and featured in the book.  

Fifteen tracks are instrumentals, including Sierra Hull performing alone on mandolin and octave mandolin.  Two tracks contain vocals, one being Tim O’Brien’s narration and fiddle work on the poem “On Guitars, the Ends of New Fingers Get Sore,” and “The Old Man’s Drunk,” an amusing story.  Hogue writes, “Tim O’Brien, being the master storyteller that he is, had the brilliant idea to sing the poem at the back of the book.  She goes on to report coincidentally that John has written a tune to go along with the poem, which was found after the book was published.  Thus we get to hear the tune and poem together for the first time on this album.

At the risk of leaving out some artists due to space limitations, listeners will be treated to Matt Combs on fiddle, Ronnie McCoury on mandolin, Noam Pikelny and Alison Brown on banjo, Chris Eldridge on guitar, and Dennis Crouch on bass.  We also hear Hartford’s former bandmates Mike Compton on mandolin, Mark Howard on banjo, and Chris Sharp on guitar.  

Several tunes are performed in a style consistent with one of Hartford’s trademarks, the shuffling of his feet on a wooden board with a somewhat loping feel, which will have your toes tapping along.  Alison Brown’s banjo work on “Little Country Town” and “Just Enough Room to Turn Around” are fine examples.  “Over At The Side Of The Road” receives the most bluegrass drive with Noam Pikelny’s banjo, McCoury’s mandolin, and Eldridge’s guitar work.

An excellent peek into the depth of Hartford passion for fiddle music, this collection just scratches the surface.  It may not bear repeated playing by listeners who enjoy a wider variety of styles but it will certainly be used valuable to those who want to study Hartford even more.  It has earned a 2021 nomination for a Grammy in the Best Bluegrass Album category, with winners announced on January 31, just after this publication goes to press.  

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