John Hartford was a ceaseless innovator who traversed many musical landscapes. Among them, he explored the free-flowing, spiraling notes of jazz and wove them into old-time string music and bluegrass. Whether he was playing banjo, fiddle, or guitar—or singing—he never passed up an opportunity to follow new musical currents. This was as true when he was performing at festivals as when he was writing for and playing on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour or the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour.
On a new album titled Radio John: Songs of John Hartford (out this week on Smithsonian Folkways), Sam Bush pays tribute to Hartford, his dear friend and mentor.
Bush and Hartford first met at Bill Monroe’s Bean Blossom Festival in 1971. In a recent interview, Bush recalled, “The Dobrolic Plectral Society, as [Hartford’s] Aereo-Plain Band liked to call itself, loved to jam offstage, and we would end up back at a campfire for a few hours, jamming. … John Hartford enjoyed playing his instruments.” As it turned out, that meeting in ’71 threw together two of bluegrass music’s creative geniuses.
While Hartford was writing playful and eclectic songs that blended jazz, bluegrass, and jugband music, Bush and the Bluegrass Alliance were carrying bluegrass into then-uncharted territory with his supercharged mandolin and the quicksilver runs of “newgrass.”
Hartford admired Bush’s musicianship so much that when Tut Taylor left the Aereo-Plain band, he asked Bush to take Tut’s place. But, “New Grass Revival was just beginning,” Bush says, “and that’s the direction I wanted to head.”
Bush’s and Hartford’s friendship continued to grow. “We would open shows for John when he was performing solo,” says Bush. “We would jam with him during his encores, and sometimes we’d play the entire set with him.”
Hartford even wrote the poem “The Arrival of the New Grass Revival” on the back cover of the band’s first album, using his DJ name Radio John.
It was like a dream come true. As a kid growing up on a farm in Bowling Green, Kentucky, Sam Bush couldn’t have possibly known that he’d one day be playing with the banjo player he first saw on the Wilburn Brothers’ television show.
“On Saturday afternoons,” Bush chuckles, “my daddy would climb up on the roof to adjust the antenna so we could bring in those shows from Nashville hosted by Opry stars like Bill Anderson, Porter Wagoner, and Flatt & Scruggs. One day I saw this guy doing a three-finger roll on the banjo while he was singing, and I’d never seen that before.”
Bush missed the player’s name that afternoon, but a short time later, he and his father took a trip to Nashville.
“I went to the Ernest Tubb Record Shop,” he recalls, “and was looking through the records and saw the same guy on the cover of an album, and I learned that his name was John Hartford. I bought the album—Earthwords and Music—which contained a version of ‘Gentle on My Mind’ and ‘No End of Love.’ … He had a unique voice, and his songwriting was superb.”
Over the years, Bush says, he bought all of Hartford’s RCA records.
We’re delighted to premiere this live performance video of the title track from ‘Radio John.’
In the meantime, Hartford had moved to California, appearing on Glen Campbell’s show and becoming known to the world as the writer of “Gentle on My Mind,” the guy who clogged as he was playing and singing. Hartford was pushing into new territories. “That was the first time I’d heard ‘Great Balls of Fire’ being played as a bluegrass song,” Bush says and laughs.
As he readies Radio John for release, Bush notes: “[My wife] Lynn and I have a place in the Florida Panhandle; we’ve been going there since 1985. I always take several instruments and recording devices so I can work on ideas.”
A couple of years ago when he was down there, Bush says, “I [thought,] ‘I’ll start playing some of these Hartford songs’. I was making demos, playing all the instruments on the songs, hoping maybe to share them with my band so we could record them some day.”
He bought a copy of Hartford’s 1971 book Word Movies, a collection of his poems and other lyrics, which further inspired Bush. He soon realized that his own equipment and engineering skills could take him only far. “I was jamming one night with my good friend, Donnie Sundal, who’s a superb keyboard player,” he says. “I was telling him what I was doing and about my lack of recording skills.” The next day, “Donnie, who co-owns a local recording studio, shows up with an entire rig of recording equipment, and we started laying down tracks.”
He never had a plan in mind. “I’d start stacking instruments. I’d usually start with guitar, add bass, then mandolin, and banjo last.” Working with Sundal, Bush knew that this had to be a solo album, not a band album, to express his deep love for Hartford and his music and its enduring influence in his life.
It opens with cascading fingerpicked guitar on “California Earthquake,” an early song Hartford wrote in California, in the 1960s. Bush’s mandolin evokes the anxiety of the “fault line running right through here.”
The album includes two electrifying instrumentals—“Down” and “John McLaughlin”—both from Hartford’s 1976 album, Nobody Knows What You Do. Bush played in the original sessions for both of these songs. “I got a lot closer with John during this period,” he says. “We were listening to a lot of John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Orchestra then. These songs were inspired by McLaughlin’s music around that time.”
He also played and sang harmony on the original version of the elegant and poignant waltz “In Tall Buildings.” On Radio John, the song floats via Bush’s crystalline fingerpicking on both guitar and mandolin.
The plaintive “Morning Bugle,” Bush says, “has always brought me comfort. I started listening to it one Thanksgiving weekend when I was out on the road and away from my family and missing them.”
Radio John closes with the title track, which Bush wrote with his friend John Pennell, the original bass player for Union Station. “Radio John was [Hartford’s] DJ name when he was a DJ in St. Louis in the 1960s. We started thinking about all of John’s many talents. We really wrote the song over the phone and FaceTime [and] wanted to make the song a tribute to him.”
With Radio John, Bush captures Hartford’s enthusiasm for life and music in the ingeniously crafted versions of these Hartford songs. You can hear his deep love and friendship, honoring a man who selflessly shared his passion for the music.
Radio John: Songs of John Hartford is available HERE.