... he died on June 4, 2001.
John Hartford was a 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.
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.
John Cowan Harford (he would change his name to Hartford later in life at the behest of Chet Atkins)was born in New York City, and spent his childhood in St. Louis, Missouri. There he was exposed to the influence that would shape 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 in Nashville, and included Earl Scruggs, inventor of the three-finger bluegrass style of banjo playing. Hartford said often that the first time he heard Earl Scruggs pick the banjo 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 his first bluegrass band while still in high school. After graduating, he enrolled at Washington University in St. Louis, completed 4 years of a commercial arts program and dropped out to focus on his music. (He did return later and receive his degree in 1960.)
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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, 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 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 Grammies, the song netted four awards, two of which went to Hartford; just as importantly, it became one of the most widely recorded country songs of all time. As his popularity grew, he moved to the West Coast, where he became a regular on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He also was a regular on The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour (the banjo picker who would stand up from his seat in the audience to begin the theme music) and The Johnny Cash Show.
As a result of the success on "SmoBro, John was offered the lead role in a TV detective series but he turned it down to move back to Nashville and concentrate on his music.
By the late '80s Hartford was battling non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, but he continued to record and perform until he lost the use of his hands shortly before his death in 2001.
He performed and recorded with his son Jamie, re-recorded and reissued his earlier work on his own Small Dog Barking label, and kept busy with a host of side projects such as narration for the Ken Burns public-television series The Civil War.