By Danny Mayer
John Hartford is one among a generation of artists—Kentuckians Hunter S. Thompson, Ed McClanahan, and Gurney Norman among them—who came of age during the 1950s, soaked in the cultural and social upheavals of the 1960s in hippy-dippy California as relative (and relatively old) unknowns, and then proceeded, in the early Seventies, to produce some of the most thoroughly saturated “Sixties” works one could ever hope to encounter.
It wasn’t until 1971 that Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas appeared in the iconic ’60s startup Rolling Stone magazine. That same year McClanahan’s “Greatful Dead I Have Known” hit the Playboy stands. Ditto for Norman’s Divine Right’s Trip, subtitled A novel of the counterculture, which began to run serially in the back-to-the-earth publication The Whole Earth Catalog.
For the song and dance man John Hartford, 1971 brought the release of Aereo-Plain, an album best described as a perfect expression of counter-cultural bluegrass music. The sound was a distillation of Hartford’s two different decades as a musician. There was the 1950s teen years spent listening to late night country radio, playing old time fiddle and banjo music, and dreaming about the Mississippi River. And then there was the Sixties, spent as a radio DJ in Nashville, later as a witty but otherwise undistinguished California-type folkie with a banjo, and later still as an accomplished session player for albums like the Byrds’ Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
In Aereo-Plain in 1971, Hartford synthesized those two decade pulls. The new and the old matched. Critics cite the record as ground zero for the newgrasss movement with good reason. It fused the more conservative old school bluegrass traditions of Hartford’s youth to the feel-hippy adventure-seeking wit and punch he encountered as a studio musician playing at the height of the 1960s acid rock craze. Even his Aereo-Plain band, new-school long-hairs Norman Blake and Randy Scruggs and old-school short-hairs Vassar Clements and Tut Taylor, split generationally down the middle. Jim Morrison talked about doors; and here was Hartford, the old hippie with the old-timey goggles, a veritable time and sound portal.