If you’re a fan of the music of John Hartford – and I know there are a lot of you out there – you may want to have a look at Pilot Of A Steam Powered Aereo-Plain, a new book by Andrew Vaughan, published by Hartford’s estate. It’s the first biographical work on this seminal artist, produced with the cooperation of his family.
The 120 page book is ornamented with color illustrations and a good many family photos that have not been published previously to add to the story, which while including information on John’s childhood, is primarily focused on period in the early 1970s when the classic Aereo-Plain album was conceived, recorded and supported live.
Working with Hartford at the time were future fellow legends Vassar Clements, Norman Blake and Tut Taylor. All were masters of traditional bluegrass and old time music, but John wanted to try something quite different on this album, which might be described as a change of attitude as much as a different approach to the music. It was to be his first record for Warner Brothers, who had green-lighted him taking a new direction.
David Bromberg had undertaken to serve as producer for the project, which barely created a ripple in the sales figures of its day. But the passage of time has seen it recognized as a major turning point in the development of modern bluegrass and tradition-based string music.
In a 2011 interview about the record, Bromberg described the odd process John had outlined for Aereo Plain.
“He asked me to produce the record in a way I’ve never heard of any other record being produced. He didn’t want anyone to hear a single playback, note one, until the record was mixed and sequenced. I basically produced it in a vacuum. I had nobody to consult with. Then again, with musicians like those on it, I can’t claim any huge credit, because those guys were just incredible players.
About halfway through, John and I had an argument. We’d finished the sessions that I had booked. He called and said, ‘I can’t wait to hear it.’ I said, ‘We’re about halfway done.’ He said, ‘We’ve got enough tunes.’ I said, ‘Some of these sound like filler, and some are great. We want all of them to be great.’ He hung up furious. He called back a half-hour later and apologized. He said, ‘I asked you to produce it.’ And we did.
Someone once told me that John had told them he asked me to produce it because he wanted a New York City viewpoint. I think that is correct. In New York, we’d sit around and smoke pot and play Sally Goodin for an hour and a half. That approach kind of became, after a while, newgrass. John wanted some of the wild playing that we did in New York. After about 30 choruses of Sally Goodin, it begins to get strange. And that’s what he liked. I think if he had gotten a Nashville producer, he wouldn’t have gotten that. I think I was chosen because I understood that direction.”
Songs that eventually formed a major part of his performance repertoire, and would be played and recorded by others, were first introduced here. Vamp In The Middle, Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie, Steam Powered Aereo Plane and Boogie landed like a thud among traditional bluegrass fans, but hit the ears of a younger audience as something wholly new.
It was released at roughly the same time that Cheech & Chong’s first album hit, with its irreverent, marijuanna-obsessed comedy. The same folks who laughed themselves silly in smoke filled rooms listening to “Dave’s Not Here, Man” were also discovering Hartford, and would soon help make him an irrestible force and an agent of change in acoustic string music.
Those who never witnessed the star power Hartford possessed in the middle to later part of the ’70s – long before a newgrass, jamgrass or hippiegrass scene existed – may have trouble imagining how he dominated so much of the festival scene. Nobody wanted to follow him on stage, not Monroe, nor The Osborne Brothers, nor anybody else.
After the huge success of his Mark Twang record in 1976 – where John performed all the music by himself, alone in the studio – the sight of Hartford dancing on his amplified piece of plywood with just banjo or fiddle to accompany his voice on stage was the highlight of many an outdoor festival. Even older, more traditional fans and musicians put off somewhat by the more ribald aspects of his performance would marvel at the command of the banjo and fiddle he displayed, while generating an almost hypnotic effect on his audience.
Pilot Of A Steam Powered Aereo-Plain is available now in hardcover from the official John Hartford web site. It is packaged with an audio CD taken from a 1994 concert at The Ryman Auditorium reuniting Hartford with Vassar and Tut, with Tony Rice on guitar.
A review wil be forthcoming.