It’s rare to find any artist so determined to pay homage to another that they devote an entire album to the songs of that particular predecessor. Pop music artists Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, and Leonard Cohen have received that steady show of devotion, as have Bill Monroe and The Stanley Brothers in bluegrass, but beyond those few, it’s hard to find any singular example of entire albums given over to one person’s work, or for that matter any performer that’s willing to share that degree of heartfelt homage.
Consequently, Sam Bush can be credited with showing such a degree of absolute admiration for his friend, mentor, and bandmate, John Hartford, that he devotes an entire effort to select songs from Hartford’s catalog. While most people know Hartford for penning Glen Campbell’s signature song, Gentle on my Mind, the bulk of his work remains well below the radar as far as the mass populace is concerned. That’s a shame, because as much as any other aritst, Hartford helped bring roots music to the fore while establishing a timeless template based on contemporary credibility.
Bush, of course, is no slouch himself. As one of the cofounders of the progressive bluegrass ensemble New Grass Revival, he too played a major role in taking tradition forward and widening its appeal as far as its populist credentials were concerned. Notably too, Bush plays every instrument on each of the new album’s ten songs, the only exception being the title track – the only non-Hartford song on the record – which finds him bringing his Sam Bush Band on board. In a sense, Bush is endeavoring to share the spotlight, given his astute abilities on fiddle, mandolin, guitar, bass, and banjo. The two instrumentals, Down and John McLaughlin, actually allow him to play off his own relentless riffing courtesy of the fact that he’s driving each song in sync.
That said, Hartford’s work ultimately takes ceter stage, just as it’s intended. So too, the material runs a gamut, from revelry to reflection. At times, it’s autobiographical, as expressed in the title track and the telling I’m Still Here. In a larger sense, it finds room for both mirth (Granny Wontcha Smoke Some Marijuana) and musing (California Earthquake, No End of Love, Morning Bugle). Hartford’s particular persona defines the music entirely, whether it’s defying the tedium of the work-a-day world (In Tall Buildings), or his other life, as a riverboat pilot navigating every bend and stretch of the mighty Mississippi (the title track).
By giving voice to Hartford’s musical mantra, Sam Bush has provided his hero and friend with the ultimate tribute. With Radio John on Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, he’s found a position on the dial midway between commitment and creativity.