Two years ago, a book of biography, art and musical manuscripts was published under the title John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes. Assembled by his daughter Katie Harford Hogue and musicologists including MTSU Center for Popular Music Director Greg Reish, it was the first-ever public documentation of John Hartford’s prolific composing, culled from 68 hand-written journals spanning 22 years. Now, the same team has brought some of those tunes to a recording.
The John Hartford Fiddle Tune Project, Vol. 1, has been released on CD and digital. The LP version, originally set for this Friday, has been delayed by the coronavirus. The album was produced by another of the book’s authors, Nashville fiddler Matt Combs.
“He wrote quickly. It was a fountain for him,” says Combs of Hartford’s remarkable output of about 2,000 songs. Combs got close to Hartford in the late 90s and was in his band just before the legendary artist died of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001. “For him it was just like trying to catch it and write it down as quickly as he can. Because that’s the way I think it showed up to him. It just kind of played in his head. And he just captured it. It was constant, this outpouring of music.”
This was only possible because Hartford figured out how to read and write music in mid-life, something rare for traditional-minded musicians of his generation. The spark came in the early 1980s when he was diagnosed with and began treatment for cancer. The 2018 book documents some of the story of taking on the facility to write, inspired by his son Jamie and folk cellist Nancy Blake. To have a curated selection of the tunes published in manuscript form and now arranged by string bands in the Hartford style offers the first real opportunity to consider Hartford as an important American composer.
On the new album’s 17 tunes, we hear a who’s who of modern Nashville’s string band and bluegrass musicians, including Tim O’Brien, Ronnie McCoury, Tristan Scroggins, Allison Brown, Mike Compton, Jordan Tice and Sierra Hull. The one fiddler with as prominent a role on the recordings as Combs is musician and educator Megan Lynch Chowning. “What Matt accomplished in terms of culling those tunes and then getting that project produced is monumental,” she says of the book and album. “It blows me away that it even happened.”
Chowning says working on the album as a performer dovetailed with her sense of mission as a teacher. “John Hartford, first and foremost was able to answer the question that I pose at the beginning of every single workshop I ever do,” she says, and that question is ‘What was fiddling originally for?’ The answer, she reveals, is dancing. “John Hartford never forgot that. The fiddling and the dancing were forever intertwined. They did not exist without one another and you hear it in every aspect of his playing.”
Hartford was a performer on stage and screen, author of the massive hit “Gentle On My Mind,” pioneer of newgrass music, a collector, calligrapher and archivist. Combs says the term Renaissance Man fits. “I don’t know of anybody like him other than like Mark Twain,” he says. “He could do it all and did. He was so highly productive and motivated and it wouldn’t leave him alone. It came through this fountain that was John. I’m glad it happened that way.”