When we faithful viewers of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour first met smiling John Hartford, he was singing Gentle on My Mind at what seemed like breakneck speed while playing the banjo. That was intentional on his part: in The Craft of Lyric Writing, by Sheila Davis, Hartford says, "I was very much intrigued with the fact that most songs did not run at the normal gait that speech runs at ... I tend to want to say, 'Come on, come on, say it, say it, I ain't got all day.' That's what governed the speed of 'Gentle;' I wanted a lyric that went past your ear at a faster speed that was closer to speech."
My friend Wade, who is a banjo fan, calls it "the prettiest hobo song ever written," and that it may be. However, what I especially love about Gentle on My Mind is that the woman is depicted not as a ball and chain but as someone our subject treasures. Granted, the two are hardly ever together, but when they are, the sensibility is that it is life affirming, not soul crushing and judgmental. I like that - it feels rare.
Gentle on My Mind went on to become the theme song for the Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour, which started its life out simply as Tommy and Dickie's summer replacement series before being picked up in its own right. Campbell, of course, also recorded the song and made it a huge hit. Most people probably know his version better, although the two often sang it together and both were recognized with Grammy Awards in 1968.
Wade also observes that the song "seems to have no clear progenitors and to have left no recognizable offspring," and I tend to agree. It's sort of an American original, just like its composer. Its unique qualities captured the imagination of musicians of every stripe, making it one of the most-recorded country songs in history. What I did not realize is that the song's durability gave Hartford the financial independence to do whatever he wanted to most of his life. This included earning a license to pilot a steamboat, writing books, clogging, and pursuing his own interest in nontraditionally expanding the boundaries of traditional bluegrass music - some called it newgrass and him a founder of that movement. I know next to nothing about most of what he recorded after Gentle on My Mind, but I'm about to find out, and there's a lot of it.
Discovering the talents of Earl Scruggs through the Grand Ole Opry was Hartford's life-changing early experience, and he learned how to play the banjo, fiddle, mandolin and guitar by the age of 13. When he died too young of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, Scruggs was there to perform "Home Sweet Home" at his funeral, and was one of the many musicians devoted to him who visited him in his last days.
Highlights from Hartford's career are the subject of an exhibition at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. John Hartford: Ever Smiling, Ever Gentle on My Mind, runs through January 2010.