The 5 Grammys & 5 Lives of John Hartford’s “Gentle On My Mind”
In the morning after the 2015 Grammy Awards, the big story threads were about how British singer Sam Smith won big, about Beck’s Morning Phase becoming the year’s surprise winner for Best Album, and Kanye West’s second attempt at ill-begotten chivalry. But there was another man who won big, and arguably dominated the early, non-televised country portion of the awards whose recognition shouldn’t go overlooked. And that’s Glen Campbell.
Ailing from Alzheimer’s, forced to cut his career short, Glen Campbell walked away with the evening’s Best Country Song award for “I’m Not Gonna Miss You.” Campbell wrote the song with Julian Raymond for the soundtrack of the documentary Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me about Campbell’s battles with Alzheimers disease.
And it wasn’t the only Grammy Award doled out with Glen Campbell ties. From that same documentary soundtrack, The Band Perry walked away with Best Country Duo/Group Performance for a song once made famous by Campbell, “Gentle On My Mind.”
It’s hard to not factor in that the sympathy vote was in strong order for the two Glen Campbell songs receiving awards, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t deserved. In a field thin on songs that resonated beyond their commercial performance, “I’m Not Gonna Miss You” was the only critical choice in the category, and the same can be said for “Gentle On My Mind.”
When Saving Country Music announced both the nomination, and the win for “Gentle On My Mind,” John Hartford fans were not shy in speaking up for the songwriter who has “Gentle On My Mind” as one of his credits. No disrespect was meant to Hartford, but as is so many times the case, the songwriter’s recognition through a song is subordinate to the performer who made it famous. In the case of “Gentle On My Mind” and the 2015 Grammy Awards, Campbell’s involvement was even more important to note, since the song was performed in tribute to the ailing star.
But John Hartford indeed wrote the song, performed it, and released it, and it is once again a reminder of how the quirky bluegrass player and patriarch of “Newgrass” never seems to receive the due recognition his contributions to the country music art form deserve. Hartford is a perennial A-lister in Saving Country Music’s yearly recommendations for Country Music Hall of Fame inductees because of these deep and varied contributions, and “Gentle On My Mind” winning a Grammy 47 years after it was written is yet another piece of evidence in support of this stance.
But it isn’t the song’s first Grammy Award.
Originally recorded and released in 1967, “Gentle On My Mind” walked away with a whopping four Grammy Awards in 1968. It awarded Glen Campbell “Best Country & Western Solo Vocal Performance, Male” and “Best Country & Western Recording” notoriety at the awards, while John Hartford walked away with two Grammys himself, one for “Best Folk Performance” for his original version of the song, and “Best Country & Western Song” awarded to the songwriter. “Gentle On My Mind” winning another Grammy nearly 50 years after it first received this distinction puts the song and John Hartford in very elite company.
To go along with the five Grammy Awards for “Gentle On My Mind,” it has been recorded five times by high profile artists who have either charted and/or had award success with it as a single. Beyond Hartford’s original version and Glen Campbell’s cover, Dean Martin and Patti Page both recorded the song in 1968, and both scored Top 10 hits on the Easy Listening charts with it. Then in 1969, Aretha Franklin got in the game and had another successful single.
Beyond these more decorated versions, “Gentle On My Mind” has been recorded by Elvis, Frank Sinatra, Johnny Cash, Roger Miller, Tammy Wynette, and even R.E.M. just to name a few of the dozens of versions.
It was also the theme song to Campbell’s The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.
In every sense, “Gentle On My Mind” has become an American standard by sharing the sentiment of a generational mood ever present in the human experience. And its 2015 Grammy is just more validation for the song’s timeless impact, and the timeless impact of the song’s writer, John Hartford.
February 9, 2015 @ 1:47 pm
A truly beautiful song, featuring some of the best lyricism of all time. All of the Grammys are thoroughly well-deserved.
February 9, 2015 @ 1:51 pm
The interesting thing about this classic song is that despite being recorded by so many big names it has never been a hit. ‘Gentle On My Mind’ was only the fourth country single by Campbell and it peaked at #30 in 1967 and was rereleased in 1968 (presumably after winning awards but I’m not sure) and reached #44 on the country chart. On the Hot 100 it never has been above Campbell’s original peak of #39. None of the other big names made it a hit either and even now The Band Perry version peaked at #30 on the Airplay chart.
Be hard pressed to think of another classic everlasting song that has obviously struck a chord with listeners and performers meeting with such mediocre commercial success over so many decades.
February 9, 2015 @ 1:56 pm
One example of such a song would be “The Weight”. The original version (which is now the most famous) reached only #63 on the charts, and the highest the song ever peaked was with Arethra Franklin’s version at #19.
February 9, 2015 @ 1:59 pm
This also a great example of how Glen Campbell was one of the best friends a songwriter could have. His recordings of this as well as the great Jimmy Webb songs are just extraordinary. ‘Galveston’, ‘Wichita Lineman’, ‘By The Time I Get To Phoenix’, etc can still brings chills.
His performance of ‘Galveston’ on the CMT Top 100 Country Songs concert a few years back was very impressive for a man of approx. 70 years. Both singing and playing were amazing.
Glen Campbell is an extremely talented performer who deserves all the acclaim he has received in his last days.
February 9, 2015 @ 10:11 pm
“None of the other big names made it a hit either and even now The Band Perry version peaked at #30 on the Airplay chart. ”
Interesting fact , Scott …but not altogether suprising . Try pitching a song with NO repeating sing-along chorus to a publisher or an artist and you start to understand WHY . Artists , listeners and particularly radio respond to a repeating CHORUS . Not only does GOMM not have a repeatable chorus but it pushed the listeners listening limits with the sheer number of phrases, images, lines along with a distinct lack of dynamic contrast . A knowledgeable and appreciative music LOVER isn’t so concerned with these factors . The lyric and narrative is paramount . However a casual, passive music listener (which is most folks in radio-land..especially today ) usually doesn’t have the commitment quotient required to appreciate a song like Gentle On My Mind .
GENTLE ON MY MIND Hartford
It’s knowin’ that your door is always open
And your path is free to walk
That makes me tend to leave my sleepin’ bag
Rolled up and stashed behind your couch
And it’s knowin’ I’m not shackled
By forgotten words and bonds
And the ink stains that have dried upon some line
That keeps you in the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
That keeps you ever gentle on my mind
It’s not clingin’ to the rocks and ivy
Planted on their columns now that bind me
Or something that somebody said because
They thought we fit together walkin’
It’s just knowing that the world
Will not be cursing or forgiving
When I walk along some railroad track and find
That you’re movin’ on the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
And for hours you’re just gentle on my mind
Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines
And the junkyards and the highways come between us
And some other woman’s cryin’ to her mother
‘Cause she turned and I was gone
I still might run in silence
Tears of joy might stain my face
And the summer sun might burn me till I’m blind
But not to where I cannot see
You walkin’ on the back roads
By the rivers flowin’ gentle on my mind
I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’ cracklin’ cauldron
In some train yard
My beard a rustlin’ coal pile
And a dirty hat pulled low across my face
Through cupped hands ’round a tin can
I pretend to hold you to my breast and find
That you’re waitin’ from the back roads
By the rivers of my memory
Ever smilin’, ever gentle on my mind
February 9, 2015 @ 10:47 pm
Yep a song with this structure would certainly never be released as a single in this current environment and would at best may be an album cut. But sometimes we like to think that in an earlier era there might have been more openness and it does have a nice melody to it but I would say that this is a case of the song winning out over popular trends and the confines of popular radio.
The thing that has always struck about this song is how evocative the lyrics are. The line that has always struck me is ‘I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’ cracklin’ cauldron in some train yard’. You can just feel that line. Great stuff.
February 10, 2015 @ 9:06 am
I did not know that the song charted so low, but it did win a bunch of Grammys in 1968 for Hartford and for Glen Campbell, so I don’t think the charts accurately reflect its prominence or success.
Something about this song and “Everybody’s Talking” from Midnight Cowboy and “I Take A Lot of Pride In What I Am” from Merle Haggard that give me a similar vibe. All great songs from that era.
February 10, 2015 @ 6:32 pm
Good call. Another song that has a really similar vibe to the ones you mentioned is “Any Old Wind That Blows” by Johnny Cash. (Performed by Cash, and written by Dick Feller.) I heard it recently on WSM in Nashville and it knocked me out. The banjo plucking and long, flowing chain of lyrics in that song really remind me of “Gentle On My Mind.”
February 9, 2015 @ 3:41 pm
This is very nice.
Gentle on My Mind is my favorite Glen Campbell songs.
I am really crazy about him and it’s good to see his family representing him so ably under difficult circumstances.
February 9, 2015 @ 4:45 pm
“How do you spell relief, David?!”
February 9, 2015 @ 5:05 pm
This was the song that first really caught my 10 year old ears and made me wanna play guitar and write songs…
and I’ve STILL got those same goals because of that same song…
February 9, 2015 @ 7:59 pm
Good article. Reminds me of an article I read in Newsweek about Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. Cohen’s original version was good but John Cale’s and Jeff Buckley’s versions really made the song timeless. The article also ranks 60 versions of the song (most are torture).
February 9, 2015 @ 8:54 pm
Good article! John has always been one of my favorites. I own one of his fiddles, and have a John Hartford tattoo 🙂
February 10, 2015 @ 3:07 am
Gentle on My Mind is one of those songs that is truly “timeless”. I love Glen Campbell, Elvis and Dean Martin singing it.
February 10, 2015 @ 5:54 am
Yup, a great song …. fascinating history!
February 10, 2015 @ 7:06 am
Not exactly on topic, but Mr. Hartford wrote Long Hot Summer Day, made pretty famous by the Turnpike Troubadours.
February 10, 2015 @ 11:39 am
February 10, 2015 @ 10:29 am
I am another fan of the great Glen Campbell, ” Gentle On My Mind” and great songwriting. One of the reasons I have always loved country music is because within three minutes it can tell a story that affects you differently each time you hear it as you grow up. My parents loved this song and played it all the time, and we watched the Glen Campbell show. As a young adult I experienced some of the things that Hartford wrote about. And now on the edge of fifty I can appreciate Hartford’s poetry, honesty, and depth along with the continuing connection it has with my life. As I told my nephew – who likes ” bro-country”- none of that music will last because it has no story or depth of thought. Glen Campbell knew how to pick a great song.