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Sam Bush Celebrates The Whimsical “Radio John” Hartford

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In today’s bluegrass and string band scene, John Hartford is a patron saint. With his honor for his elders, his hippie humor, and his relentless quest for new refinements and ideas, the late singer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, archivist and raconteur may be the single greatest influence on pickers under 50 years old working in traditional Americana. For Sam Bush, himself a hero of modern bluegrass, Hartford was all that and more - a friend and picking buddy and sometimes a touring partner or boss in the studio. So there’s a feeling of inevitability about Bush’s new tribute Radio John.

Sam Bush first got wind of Hartford when he appeared on The Willborn Brothers Show on regional TV in 1967. He was fascinated to see somebody play Scruggs style banjo while singing lead, he says. Then on a visit soon after to Nashville with his father, Sam saw that same face on an album at the Ernest Tubb Record Shop. He bought Earthwords & Music, launching a lifelong love of Hartford as an artist and as a songwriter. The world learned of Hartford’s compositional skills when his song Gentle On My Mind became a smash hit for Glen Campbell and then one of the most widely covered songs of its time. But Hartford had many gems across the decades that are widely recorded now, including “Back In The Goodle Days,” “In Tall Buildings,” and “Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie,” a favorite of this year’s Molly Tuttle tour. Hartford songs all broke molds and undercut expectations in some way.

Bush’s new album began when he was messing around during a winter break at a beach house in Florida. He had a variety of instruments and some basic recording gear. He experimented with making solo recordings of Hartford songs, possibly with a Sam Bush Band album in mind. But when they had chemistry, he brought in a friend to handle the engineering and the tracks began coming together. So with the exception of the Bush co-written title track, the album’s something Bush never made before - an entirely solo outing where he plays all the instruments. As for the repertoire, we get the elegant and nostalgic “Morning Bugle,” “A Simple Thing As Love,” with some of the flowing meters Hartford used in “Gentle On My Mind,” and the sardonic singalong “Granny Won’t You Smoke Some Marijuana.”

In this final show of 2022, Sam Bush and I speak about his first impressions of Hartford when they met in 1971, the sessions where Sam played for John on some of his 1970s albums, and the relationship of Hartford to the elders of bluegrass.

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Craig Havighurst is WMOT's music news producer and host of The String, a show featuring conversations on culture, media and American music. New episodes of The String air on WMOT 89.5 in Middle Tennessee on Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. Twitter and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org