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John Cowan Hartford (December 30, 1937 – June 4, 2001) was an American folk, country, and bluegrass composer and musician known for his mastery of the fiddle and banjo, as well as for his witty lyrics, unique vocal style, and extensive knowledge of Mississippi River lore.
His most successful song is "Gentle on My Mind", which won three Grammy Awards and was listed in "BMI's Top 100 Songs of the Century".
Hartford performed with a variety of ensembles throughout his career, and is perhaps best known for his solo performances where he would interchange the guitar, banjo, and fiddle from song to song.
He also invented his own shuffle tap dance move, and clogged on an amplified piece of plywood while he played and sang.
Harford (he changed his name to Hartford later in life at the behest of Chet Atkins) was born on December 30, 1937, in New York City to parents Carl and Mary Harford. He spent his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri, where he was exposed to the influence that shaped much of his career and music: the Mississippi River. From the time he got his first job on the river, at age 16, Hartford was on, around, or singing about the river.
His early musical influences came from the broadcasts of the Grand Ole Opry and included Earl Scruggs, nominal inventor of the three-finger bluegrass style of banjo playing. Hartford said often that the first time he heard Earl Scruggs pick the banjo, it changed his life. By age 13, Hartford was an accomplished old-time fiddler and banjo player, and he soon learned to play guitar and mandolin as well. Hartford formed with his first bluegrass band while attending John Burroughs School, a local private high school.
After high school, he enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, completed four years of a commercial arts program and dropped out to focus on music; however, he did receive a degree in 1960. He immersed himself in the local music scene, working as a DJ, playing in bands, and occasionally recording singles for local labels. In 1965, he moved to Nashville, Tennessee, the center of the country music industry. In 1966, he signed with RCA Victor and produced his first album, Looks at Life, in the same year.
In 1967, Hartford's second album Earthwords & Music spawned his first major songwriting hit, "Gentle on My Mind". His recording of the song was only a modest success, but it caught the notice of Glen Campbell, who recorded his own version, which gave the song much wider publication. At the 1968 Grammys, the song netted four awards, two of which went to Hartford. It became one of the most widely recorded country songs of all time, and the royalties it brought in allowed Hartford great financial independence; Hartford later said that the song bought his freedom.
As his popularity grew, he moved to the West Coast, where he became a regular on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour; other television appearances followed, as did recording appearances with several major country artists. Hartford played banjo and sang the vocal harmonies on the Guthrie Thomas song "I'll be Lucky". He also played with The Byrds on their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo.
His success on the Smothers Brothers series was enough that Hartford was offered the lead role in a TV detective series, but he turned it down to move back to Nashville and concentrate on music. He also was a regular on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (as the banjo picker who would stand up from his seat in the audience to begin the theme music) and The Johnny Cash Show.
In live performances, John Hartford was a true one-man band; he used several stringed instruments and a variety of props such as plywood squares and boards with sand and gravel for flatfoot dancing.