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John Hartford and this album have been top-of-mind recently. A Kickstarter project was recently set up to make a documentary about his life, and last month when I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame, I was surprised to see a specific plaque there about Hartford (see below), and even more surprised to see this album mentioned specifically. John Hartford is not a Hall of Fame inductee, and though this album was recently made available digitally, it has been out of print for years. I have wanted to write a review for this album for a long time, and it looks like the time has come.
Simply put, John Hartford’s Aereo-Plain is one of my top 10 albums of all time. And it includes some of my favorite songs of all time. It delivers every element an album needs to be great, and every elements scores a 10 on a 1 to 10 scale: singing, songwriting, instrumentation, performance, a strong tie to tradition while still innovating, and it even scores top ratings for message, theme, and even humor. It is such a pure capture of one man’s genius that it is an album that can never stale, can never become outmoded or irrelevant, and most importantly, is very enjoyable to listen to. And it transcends genre, while at the same time creating a new one.
As a collection of songs banded into an album, Aereo-Plain may be one of the most influential bluegrass albums in the history of the sub-genre. It is given credit for creating “Newgrass”. But heavily-influential albums are not always heavily-appealing. Sometimes it takes derivatives of the influence transformed in the perspective of other artists to make the music palatable. This is not the case with Hartford’s Aereo-Plain. If anything, just like the Gram Parson’s-inspired California country trend, the master far surpasses the pupils, and the derivatives often feel diluted compared to the original.
Some took away that Newgrass should be slow, eepish, and overly-artistic or politically charged. John did slow the music down in spots, but not to make it more docile, but to imbibe it with songwriting qualities that are sometimes left behind in the rushed tempo of traditional bluegrass. There are political statements here, but they’re in the context of humor and are wisely ambiguous in polarity.
The key to Aereo-Plain was preserving the visceral elements of bluegrass, the tie to the roots and the mastery of instrumentation, while combining it with the depth of folk-inspired songwriting, intelligent humor, and then adding an enlightened sense of tempo and chord progressions.
Though there’s lots of humor here, this is an angry album at its heart. John Hartford is shaking his fists at the destruction of bluegrass and country traditions, and by proxy, the destruction of the old ways of life, while at the same time laying out a blueprint of how bluegrass can progress while still preserving those traditions; an absolute masterful feat he pulls off by being able to capture his feelings purely in song.
His use of imagination is spellbinding, and though it may be easy to assume it was chemically-induced, (there’s a drug reference in the song “Back In The Goodle Days” that goes “You’ll pass a joint, and I’ll pass the wine”. Not that radical, but for 1971, and for bluegrass, it was) nonetheless the imagination on this album is potent and undeniable.
Songs like “Boogie” and “Station Break” illustrate Hartford’s endless fountain of humor. “Tear Down The Grand Ole Opry” showed his devotion and reverence to the traditions of country music, years before The Outlaws would popularize it. Songs like “Steamboat Whistle Blues” and “With A Vamp In The Middle” are just plain fun and catchy without insulting the enlightened music intellect. And “Up On The Hill Where They Do The Boogie” and “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” are simply some of the best bluegrass songs ever.
This album also showcased Hartford’s all-star band, though maybe it didn’t seem so all-star at the time, but boasting Vassar Clements, Randy Scruggs, Tut Taylor, and Norman Blake, and produced by David Bromberg, it was like a West Coast weirdo bluegrass version of the Million Dollar Quartet.
Of course the album flopped commercially, thought it was received very well by critics, and after releasing his next album Morning Bugle through Warner Bros., Hartford was done with major labels, at least for a while. And now this album is inexplicably out-of-print, which is an atrocity on the record of the American recording industry. However even though physical copies can still go for upwards of $80, Rhino finally made it available in a digital format on August 29th.
If you consider yourself a serious music listener of any genre, you must own this album. So much more could be said about Aereo-Plain and John Hartford, but let’s just leave it at saying this is one of the greatest albums of all time.
Two guns way up!
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