Friday, January 6, 2012

John Hartford, Fiddle: Old And In The Way (April-May 1973?)

An Oakland Tribune clipping from April 26, 1973, mentioning weekend shows by Old And In The Way. John Hartford may have played with the band on those dates.
The second most famous member of the bluegrass band Old And In The Way wrote a huge hit single, performed nearly weekly on CBS-TV for many years, won a Grammy in the 21st century for a movie soundtrack, was a Mississippi River steamboat captain and a seminal figure in modern bluegrass and country music. Yet John Hartford (1937-2001) is such an afterthought in the history of Jerry Garcia's bluegrass band that he is barely mentioned. Despite the determined scholarship on Garcia's performing career, I can find nary a tape, nor a review, nor a photo, nor even a confirmation that John Hartford played with Old And In The Way. Yet both Richard Loren and David Grisman have said that Hartford did just that, in the liner notes to Old And In The Way albums, so it must be so. If I had more evidence than this, I would write about Hartford in my research blog, but I don't. Thus the subject of John Hartford in Old And In The Way is a bluegrass Hooteroll (to use a technical term), and my triangulation and speculation about Hartford's appearances with the band appear here.

The Evidence
Hartford's name had been floated in the past as a member of Old And In The Way, but I was never really certain.  Confirmation came with the release of two retrospective albums on David Grisman's Acoustic Disc label in 1996 and 1997. In the liner notes for the '96 cd That High Lonesome Sound, Jerry Garcia manager Richard Loren wrote:
David [Grisman] invited Richard Greene to play fiddle, and when he couldn't make it, John Hartford sat in. Finally, for their first (and only) East Coast tour, the boys contacted Vassar [Clements] in Nashville and asked if he'd come and play.
Loren marks Hartford as playing with the band between Greene and Vassar Clement's debut on June 5, 1973. On the subsequent release, 1997's Breakdown cd, Grisman confirms Hartford's presence. In the notes, he writes:
We [Garcia, Grisman and Peter Rowan] casually became the now-legendary "hippiegrass" band Old And In The Way, and played local gigs with various fiddlers (Richard Greene, John Hartford and, finally, the great Vassar Clements) and Jerry's bassist John Kahn for most of 1973. 
On a later release, David Grisman's 2003 cd Life Of Sorrow, an album of bluegrass duets recorded over several decades (released on his Acoustic Disc label), Grisman adds another clue. John Hartford appears on the record (recorded in 1994), and Grisman mentions that Hartford "played a gig with Old And In The Way in 1973." Is Grisman using 'a gig' literally,  meaning that Hartford played a single show? Or does 'gig' mean a brief run? Either are plausible interpretations, particularly since Grisman himself may not have precisely remembered 30 years on.

Nonetheless, with both Richard Loren and David Grisman putting words to paper, there seems no doubt that Hartford briefly performed with the band. Yet when might have Hartford played with Old And In The Way?

The Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in Portland, OR, built 1928 and called The Paramount Theater in the '70s
The Timeline
To my knowledge, the last confirmed date with Richard Greene on fiddle was at the Record Plant in Sausalito on the afternoon of April 21, 1973. It seems reasonable to assume that Greene played with Old And In The Way at the Lion's Share that night. In the following weeks, however, there are a series of shows for which we only have advertisements, without tapes, review, photos or eyewitness accounts. I have to assume that Hartford played some or many of the following shows:
  • Monday, April 23, 1973; The Orphanage, San Francisco, CA
  • Friday, April 27, 1973: Keystone Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
  • Saturday, April 28, 1973: Keystone Berkeley, Berkeley, CA
  • Monday, April 30, 1973: The Orphanage, San Francisco, CA
  • Tuesday, May 8, 1973: Churchill High School, Eugene, OR
  • Wednesday, May 9, 1973: Paramount Theater, Portland, OR
We do have an account of the Old And In The Way show at Bimbo's, in San Francisco, on May 25, 1973. There is no mention of John Hartford or any other fiddler, but I would point out that Hartford was a nationally known television figure at the time, and not as likely to be simply ignored in a memoir. The next show is June 5, 1973 in Boston, and Vassar had joined the group by then.

One issue to consider is why Hartford was invited to play with Old And In The Way at all. I don't mean this in the musical sense; Hartford was a great bluegrass musician and playing with him must have been really fun. However, Hartford was not based in the Bay Area, and would not have been nearer than Los Angeles, so there had to have been a certain amount of planning if not actually a plane ticket involved. It appears that Richard Greene was not available for a certain show or shows, and the band must have felt a need to get an A-list replacement. Grisman would have known Hartford from the bluegrass festival circuit in the 60s, so that was clearly the connection. 

One possible consideration might be the performance at the Paramount Theater in Portland, opening for the New Riders Of The Purple Sage. The Paramount would have been the largest venue that the band had played up to that point, with an official capacity of 2,776, and I have to think they would not have wanted to play that show without a fiddler. Old And In The Way, like any bluegrass band, could play without one instrument, but the sound wouldn't be complete. That might be all right at, say, Monday night at the Orphanage, but not debuting in a new city in front of a few thousand people. If Greene had had a conflict for the Oregon shows, then Old And In The Way would have had an incentive to bring Hartford in. If that were the scenario, I would assume that Hartford played the two Keystone shows (April 27-28) and the second Monday night at The Orphanage (April 30) as a warmup, and then met the band for the two Oregon shows.

However, Old And In The Way was opening for the New Riders of The Purple Sage for both of the Oregon shows, and that may legislate against my elegant little hypothesis.  The New Riders archival setlist site lists fiddlers sitting in on various songs on both May 8 and May 9. Vassar Clements is listed on the first night, and Richard Greene the second. Needless to say, Vassar wasn't there, but it adds to the air of confusion. If John Hartford was Old And In The Way's fiddler, did he then sit in with the New Riders? It's possible, but extremely unlikely that a headline band would invite a new acquaintance to sit in for an entire set. Conversely, Greene was an old friend of Nelson's, and had played on the previous NRPS album (Gypsy Cowboy), so he would be an obvious candidate for a guest appearance (as a sidelight, OAITW's opening sets for the New Riders point to another layer of cooperation between the Dead and the New Riders in 1973 that has been ignored, but that would the topic of another post).

Yet if Richard Greene was the fiddler on Oregon, 'proven' by a guest appearance with the Riders, then when did Hartford actually play with Old And In The Way, and why? If needed, the New Riders could have played as a quartet, even if they preferred not to go without a fiddle. The band must have felt a need to fly in such an important player, and his presence has been confirmed. Why does it remain such a mystery? If Hartford played a single night at the Orphanage or the Keystone Berkeley, what was the urgency? Perhaps Hartford was just in San Francisco that night and Greene wasn't, but it's still a peculiar conjunction.

It's important to remember that Hartford definitely played, it's only a question of when. Hartford had been established on the bluegrass circuit since the 1950s, and Grisman knew him from the festival circuit. Hartford had a certain amount of financial independence due to the success that Glen Campbell had with Hartford's song "Gentle On My Mind," so he was free to take gigs for low pay. Nonetheless, it's striking that Hartford agreed to one or a few dates with a part-time bluegrass band playing oddball songs about dope along with bluegrass classics. Hartford himself was one of the most important figures in progressive bluegrass in the early 70s, but he wasn't close to any of the band members, as far as I know. Somewhere out there has to be a photo, a review, a tape or a recovered memory of Hartford playing with Old And In The Way in April or May of 1973. Here's hoping someone can point us there in the Comments.

The cover to John Hartford's 1971 album Aereo-Plain, with Vassar Clements, Norman Blake and Tut Taylor
John Hartford (December 30, 1937-June 4, 2001)
John Hartford had such a fascinating and important career that it's impossible to summarize. One problem with researching his time in Old And In The Way is that Hartford's career had so many highlights that playing with Jerry Garcia doesn't even get mentioned. Rather than trying to cram Hartford's interesting career and life into a few paragraphs, I will just point out a few highlights, and leave you to pursue the rest.
  • Hartford was raised in St. Louis, MO, and learned banjo, fiddle and guitar as a teenager
  • Hartford's version of his song "Gentle On My Mind" was a modest hit in 1967. However, Glenn Campbell had a giant country and pop hit with it in 1968, as did (amazingly enough) Dean Martin and Patti Page
  • Hartford moved to Los Angeles in 1968 where he became a regular performer on CBS's Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour
  • When Glenn Campbell got his own musical variety show, The Glenn Campbell Goodtime Hour, from 1969-72, not only was Hartford a regular performer each week, but "Gentle On My Mind" was the theme music, insuring that the royalties would provide financial security for Hartford for the rest of his life
  • In 1971, Hartford recorded the forward looking bluegrass album Aereo-Plain on Warner Brothers Records, joined by Tut Taylor, Norman Blake and Vassar Clements. Sam Bush of Newgrass Revival and many other musicians credit the album as setting the stage for modern, progressive bluegrass
  • Hartford was a certified steamboat captain on the Mississippi River
  • Hartford contributed several songs to the award winning movie O Brother Where Art Thou (2000), including the theme song "Man Of Constant Sorrow." Hartford won a Grammy for his recording
  • The soundtrack to O Brother became a huge hit, reaching #1 on the country charts. Hartford went out on top, having led the huge cross country Down From The Mountain tour that features artists and songs from the soundtrack album. Hartford died in 2001 after a long struggle with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma.


8 comments:

  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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  2. The connection between Greene and David Nelson was The Pine Valley Boys bluegrass band. Butch Waller and Herb Pedersen formed the group about 1962, in Berkeley. Nelson joined the group in 1964, and stayed until early 1966.

    When the Pine Valley Boys played Southern California, then teenager Richard Greene would join the group on fiddle. Greene had been a classically trained violinist who had been infected with the high lonesome sound of bluegrass, and he had been playing with the
    Pine Valley Boys prior to Nelson joining the band. Greene joined Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys around 1965, when Peter Rowan was already a member.

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  3. So, to be clear, Greene and Nelson had shared the stage during Southern California Pine Valley Boys gigs in the period bracketed by Nelson's entry into the band (1964) and Greene's (even local/SoCal) unavailability while committed to Monroe.

    Later there was at least a day of tight crossings at the Golden State Country Bluegrass Festival in San Rafael on its last day, Sunday, April 28, 1974.

    Hartford's set included a little Aereoplane reunion.

    During the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band set a few hours later, Garcia seems to exit just as Hartford enters, a near miss. "The Crowded Stage", as LIA has poetically constructed it ... if Garcia and Hartford had played together live (again!), shared a stage, would represent a closer bond (in the formal sense of an agent linking two people) than a relationship that only has a shared billing, for example. Instead, that's what we get is a mere shared billing.

    Later in what I note as the Dirt Band set, Nelson and Hartford share a stage, so there's a direct link.

    In short, on this later occasion of 4/28/74, Garcia and Hartford appear to have had only near-misses in terms of playing together. I know of no specific occasion of them sharing the stage, so the motivation for your post remains: when, exactly, did Hartford play with them? I'll try to join the conversation as I can ... should be interesting!

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  4. I had forgotten about Hartford's presence at the Golden State Festival in '74. Of course, Hartford was such a bluegrass legend that he had probably played with every single performer on the bill at the Festival, some of them many times. To Hartford, Garcia was probably just another banjo player that day.

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  5. Wouldn't peter rowan have had a better chance, as one of the bluegrass boys, of meeting and esablishing a relationship with Hartford than Grisman?

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  6. Anon, that's a good point about Rowan. He would have been just as likely to know Hartford, or perhaps even more so.

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  7. Anon, I don't see the Hartford-Monroe connection. Or do you just mean that Rowan, in Monroe's band, stood at the center of the bluegrass universe, whence he would have encountered John Hartford? Just trying to understand, because that'd be the case for Richard Greene, as well.

    Even at the relatively modest pace at which everyone is posting, it is hard to keep up with "the literature"! This is a post that I need to spend some time around, but it's just so hard to come by ...

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  8. on a side note, i saw a very memorable show in the mid 70's at carnegie hall. the dirt band were the headliners and support was provided by a duet of hartford and vassar and a set by steve martin. at the end of the show everyone, including martin on banjo, played together. it was the only time i recall square dancing in the aisles of carnegie hall.

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