Monday, April 23, 2007

John Hartford - "Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry"

As promised, I'm leading off the week with a John Hartford track. Unfortunately, I don't have enough in my collection to make a whole week of it, so I'll make this bluegrass week. You can certainly argue about whether Hartford counts as real bluegrass, but he's a descendant who reveres the tradition, and stands in some ways as a forerunner of iconoclasts like Bela Fleck. I'm going with it; I'll make the next two a little more old-school.

After he left RCA, 1971's Aereo-Plain was Hartford's first album for long-running folk indie Rounder, and it's the very definition of a lost gem. He lets his oddball sense of humour run wild here while a crack band of Nashville then-outsiders follows him wherever his muse leads. The result is both confusing and charming.

"Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry" is a perfect example of Hartford's subversive streak. The title seems an obvious swipe at tradition: screw the past, he cries. Kill yr idols! But the lyrics say just the opposite:

They're gonna tear down the Grand Ole Opry

They're gonna tear down the sound that goes around our song

They're gonna tear down the Grand Ole Opry

Another good thing has done gone on, done gone on

He pokes fun at the past, but at the same time he treasures it, and recognises its timeless value.

I first became aware of Hartford's music a few years back while riding around Nashville in C—'s truck. I heard a sound unlike anything I'd heard before, and asked him to back it up (the CD, not the truck) and play it again. The album was Steam-Powered Aereo-Takes, a collection of studio outtakes from the Aereo-Plane sessions; the song was "The Vamp From Back in the Goodle Days", an extended take on the riff from the song mentioned in the title. It remains the most truly psychedelic sound I've ever heard made exclusively on acoustic instruments.

Unfortunately I don't have a copy of the album, so you'll have to seek it out yourself. What I do have is a copy of Aereo-Plain I picked up shortly thereafter. I found it on GEMM for about six bucks. The record's a little worn and the sleeve's a wreck, but the music can't be stopped.

Buy it... on vinyl.

NOTE: Aereo-Plain appears to be out of print on CD, and I can't find "Opry" on any of his extant compilations. I've linked to Aereo-Takes instead, which doesn't have "Opry", but has "The Vamp".

From my deck to you: John Hartford - "Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry"

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