February 2000

John Hartford and the Hartford String Band - Good Old Boys
Rounder ROUN0462
HDCD Encoded
Released: 1999

by Doug Blackburn

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ****
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Massive prejudice alert: I am a huge John Hartford fan, have been for 30 years or more. From his appearances on The Smothers Brothers Show and The Glenn Campbell Show in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s to his height-of-hippie-dom release of Aereo-Plain to his mid-'70s Grammy-winning Mark Twang, to the times I saw him perform live in the 1980s and his impressive string of albums in the ‘90s with more Grammy nominations, I have followed Hartford. In the 1970s, Hartford developed a solo performing style of playing fiddle or banjo while simultaneously doing a clip-clop dance on a sheet of plywood that had a microphone attached to it. It was mesmerizing, even on the few occasions he appeared on television back then. His trademark wearing of a black derby can be pulled off by few living human males, yet it looks perfect on Hartford. His love of steamboats led to a several-years-long apprenticeship on the Julia Belle Swain, where he eventually earned a river-pilot license. It was a dream of mine to book a riverboat trip when John Hartford was on board because I just know that every evening there would be pickin’ and fiddlin’ on the decks at sunset and in the evening. The opportunity has never presented itself, but I still hold out hope that I’ll be able to do this one day.

Hartford has recorded several albums with the Hartford String Band. Yet this one is different -- different musicians, different style, different feel. Hartford seems to come up with a selection of help (ha! what an understatement!) that changes from album to album. There are comings and goings, but I don’t think the same personnel lineup has appeared on any two of his "String Band" albums. Of course, Hartford is a wizard on his own. I find his collaborations with three to eight other musicians don’t give me enough of a Hartford fix.

In spite of my expectations that Good Old Boys might not be one of my favorite Hartford albums, it has proven me wrong. This is actually a great album. Hartford and his String Band cohorts reach new heights of expression in their playing. They use far fewer notes than you would ever expect from a traditional bluegrass band, but they put so much expression and interplay into this style of playing that you can’t help admire the effort. The 50+ minutes of music are captivating and showcase a slightly different side of Hartford.

The performances here completely lack flash, speed pickin’ and the tired "everybody rotates playing a solo while the others noodle in the background" format that can make traditional bluegrass boring after a while. No, here there is fairly continuous ensemble playing. But it varies from sparse punctuation for the vocals to full-tilt jams and everything in between. The playing is just too cool most of the time. With no speed contests and no one-upsmanship soloing, the band settles down to some of the tastiest playing together that I’ve ever heard. You hear bluegrass influences of course. Hartford plays banjo and fiddle, and the String Band adds banjo (when Hartford is fiddling), guitar, mandolin and bass. Pretty much your standard bluegrass lineup.

But this music transcends bluegrass. There are elements of folk and jazz, and best of all, every song here was written by John Hartford. Some contain simple thoughts briefly expressed ("Dixie Trucker’s Home," "The Waltz of the Golden Rule," "Owl Feather," "Mike & John in the Wilderness," "Keep on Truckin’"). Others are longer explorations of particularly delightful stories, memories and deeply felt sentiments ("Good Old Boys," "On the Radio," "The Cross-Eyed Child," "Watching the River Go By," "The Waltz of the Mississippi"). "The Cross-Eyed Child" annoyed me the first time I heard it because it has a lot of narrative and I tend to not like talking mixed with music. But Hartford got to me. I now love this song. It is made up of anecdotes about things John Hartford has experienced or learned about the life of the late Bill Monroe, perhaps the legitimate father of bluegrass music. Monroe grew up being a "cross-eyed child," as Hartford learned from Monroe’s friends and family. Hartford is a hypnotic storyteller, and he can do it while speaking or singing -- both are used to great effect in the 10+ minutes of "The Cross-Eyed Child."

A word of warning for those who are annoyed by less-than-perfect vocal performances: John Hartford’s voice is not what you could consider commercially flawless. Sometimes he quavers, wavers or croaks. His raspy baritone is not Harry Belafonte smooth, but he’s not as vocally challenged as Lou Reed or Tom Waits. Personally, I find his voice perfect for him. He doesn’t need to sing better technically -- in fact, if he did, his music would lose a considerable amount of charm and naturalness. The effect is human, real and invitingly comfortable. When he sings, he sounds exactly as you would imagine -- just a regular guy singing about boyhood memories, riverboat dreams, friendship, a girl at a dance, or a special teacher.

The sound of this recording sets a new high for the Rounder label based on what I’ve heard in the past. For many years back into the ‘80s and even ‘70s, I’d always found Rounder’s CDs and LPs to be kind of compressed and gray-sounding. The music was always wonderful, but the sound was lackluster -- not bad, but I knew that it could have been a lot better. Well, on this CD the sound is a lot better. It’s right up there with other good-sounding CDs as released by most record labels these days. There isn’t a lot of soundstage depth and the performers are all right up front, as if you were sitting no more than a few feet from them. There is a good spread to the sound, the transparency is pretty good and all the instruments are well presented, including the bass, which is neither obtrusive or inaudible, just as it should be. I was surprised when the HDCD light lit up on the Sonic Frontiers DAC 2.6 Signature since there was nothing on the outside of the CD indicating that it was an HDCD recording. Upon checking out the CD booklet, I found there was mention made that the CD was mastered using the HDCD process.

While I’m now officially nuts about Good Old Boys, this album alone doesn’t really give you a picture of John Hartford the artist since it is a bit of a departure from his solo performing and even different from other group performances. To get a more complete overview of Hartford and his work, try Anthology: Me Oh My How the Time Does Fly (selections from the Flying Fish Albums, CD reissued by Rounder), Mark Twang (Flying Fish, CD reissued by Rounder), Headin’ Down Into the Mystery Below (Flying Fish, out of print; note to Rounder: please reissue!), Aereo-Plain (Warner Bros, CD reissued by Rounder), Gum Tree Canoe (Flying Fish / Rounder cassette only now), and Down On the River (Flying Fish, CD reissued by Rounder). You can find out more about John Hartford at his website or at the Rounder Records website.