Graded on a Curve:
John Hartford,
Aereo-Plain

Aereo-Plain, singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist John Hartford’s seventh album and his first of two for Warner Bros., is a progressive bluegrass classic. It has influenced scores of players and remains a favorite of listeners to this day, so Real Gone Music’s fresh bone white vinyl reissue is no surprise. Limited to 1,000 copies, it’s already sold out at the source, so parties interested in procuring the platter should start visiting stores toot sweet.

Released in 1971, Aereo-Plain features John Hartford on banjo, guitar, and fiddle, Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, Vassar Clements on fiddle, viola, and cello, Tut Taylor on dobro, and Randy Scruggs on electric bass. As was his custom, Hartford sang lead on the album and everybody else contributed backing vocals.

At the point of Aereo-Plain’s release and for a good while after, Hartford was best known for his appearances on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour television program and for writing “Gentle on My Mind,” which was originally a modest hit on the country chart as recorded by Hartford and included on his second album, Earthwords & Music, issued in 1967 by RCA Victor, the label responsible for the half dozen Hartford LPs that precede Aereo-Plain.

Campbell’s version of “Gentle on My Mind” was a bigger country hit and was a pop crossover (notably, not a high-climbing smash on either chart), with numerous interpretations (Elvis Presley, Aretha Franklin, Dean Martin, Patti Page, Frank Sinatra) hitting record stores thereafter. Hartford and Campbell both won Grammy Awards for the song in 1968, an achievement that surely helped to secure Hartford’s substantial run of albums leading up to Aereo-Plain.

A big part of Hartford’s posthumous mystique is an eccentricity that’s often cited as the reason for his backseat stature in what came to be known as Newgrass, but with one exception (and we’ll get to it shortly), Aereo-Plain is about as agreeable as music gets, opening and closing with the sharp playing and rich harmonies in country gospel chestnut “Turn the Radio On” and laying down a solid dozen gems in between (there are 16 tracks in all).

To circle back, the murderer’s row of players assembled is a huge part of the record’s success, but more specifically, the amassed paydirt relates to how the recording transpired, as the tapes rolled on a loose but disciplined session. As the story goes, Hartford and band deigning to listen to a playback until the master was cut. The longer they were at it, the farther they strayed from county/bluegrass convention (it’s impossible to deny the conservatism at the heart of those overlapping genres), but in an utterly relaxed, unforced manner that was only elevated by the musical dexterity on display.

To be sure, Hartford’s lyrics, which include a rather exquisite weed tune in “Holding,” contributed to the record’s living on the margins. Ditto “Boogie,” a song clearly about fucking, delivered a cappella by Hartford in a raw croak that sounds like he’s smoked 25,000,000 unfiltered cigarettes and is the record’s one brief plunge into full-blown Holy Modal Rounders-esque irreverence.

The faux-radio disc jockey snippet “Station Break,” delivered by Hartford (a former DJ), reinforces his penchant for humor that’s more colorful than gag oriented. The piece, penultimate in the sequence and leading into the reprise of “Turn the Radio On,” helps to deepen an Americana sensibility that can border on the nostalgic, e.g. “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” and obviously “Back in the Goodle Days.”

But the reality is that Hartford’s vocal norm is warm, smooth, and sturdy, and it’s difficult to pick the Aereo-Plain song that best exemplifies the appeal of his singing. “Back in the Goodle Days” might have the edge, but there is also “With a Vamp in the Middle,” “Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie” and “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” to consider. And yet, Hartford is comfortable stepping away from the frontman role, as “With a Vamp in the Middle” is bookended by the instrumentals “Presbyterian Guitar” and “Symphony Hall Rag.” Later in the record, “Leather Britches” dishes a superb fiddle showcase.

It’s “First Girl I Loved” and “Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry” that drive home Hartford’s skill as a songwriter, an extra boost of brilliance that lands this record in masterpiece territory. Listening to the whole illuminates the lack of exaggeration in Sam Bush’s declaration that there would be no Newgrass music without Aereo-Plain.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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