By Barry Gilbert
St. Louis Post-Dispatch


August 9, 2005

Jamie Hartford
"Part of Your History: The Songs of John Hartford"
New Sheriff

"A lot of good things went down one time back in the good ole days," John Hartford sang on "Back in the Goodle Days" in 1971, when the St. Louisan was just a half-dozen years into a career that would end with his untimely death at age 63 in 2001.

For his son, guitarist-mandolinist Jamie Hartford, John's catalog holds a lifetime of good ole days, and he has rounded up the cream of bluegrass, newgrass and acoustic players to pay tribute to Dad's songbook. The musicians include Norman Blake and Vassar Clements, who played in the elder Hartford's earliest bands, as well as younger stars such as "jazzgrass" stud Bela Fleck, whose banjos unify the project.

Jamie Hartford dusts off 11 of his father's songs and adds one of his own, the title tune, in a voice that recalls John's, who gave his original versions of many of these songs a playful bounce and funky instrumentation. John Hartford was, after all, a hippie playing old timey acoustic music. Jamie tips his hat to that era with "Holdin'," a 1971 what-me-worry ode to enjoying, running out of and finding more of a favorite herbal smoke.

But Jamie has taken a more polished, reverential approach, one that places these songs squarely in the mainstream of the modern bluegrass revival and allows John Hartford's wonderful spirit to come through.

"Gentle" is probably the key word in describing John Hartford's music, and Jamie's choices show how charming and disarming his father could be. "In Tall Buildings," for example, a waltz from 1976, is a bittersweet lament for growing up and having to go to work in such places. Jamie and duet partner Nanci Griffith bring out that melancholy.

"Today," from 1967, features Jamie and Emmylou Harris on a song that has a live-in-the-moment message on the surface but hints at darker feelings: What if there is no pot of gold at the end of the rainbow? What if this is as good as it gets -- and what's wrong with that?

John Hartford also was a river pilot, and Jamie pays homage to his dad's love of the river and riverboats. The up-tempo "Don't Put Him Down for It Now" (1976) tells the story of a man's life on the river, and "Old Time River Man," (1989) asks, "Where does an old time river man go/after he's passed away?"

With the help of his son, deeper into his fans' memories.