Country, bluegrass and especially newgrass lovers love John Hartford, and there is much to love.
Generally, though, despite his fame being built on (covers of his songs on) his RCA albums from 1967 – 1970, the country music enthusiasts prefer his post 1970s work with the Warner Brothers or Flying Fish labels.
John Hartford, himself apparently, was slightly embarrassed by his RCA output because it was generally more produced, filled out , mainstream and well, poppy.
As albums stand his later work is better but I don't have a problem with his earlier work because unlike the country music people I discovered John Hartford by tracking him down from rock and pop sources.
"Iron Mountain Depot" is John Hartford's sixth and final album issued by RCA.
The RCA albums really try to fit Hartford's music in with what was happening at the time. Light pop overtones when pop was in, light psych overtones when psych was in. Here, there are country rock and up-tempo overtones.
They never overpower the songs but there are clear commercial decisions made. By all accounts Hartford didn't have much say in this but he needn't be embarrassed though you can hear that Hartford is perhaps a little tired (or bored) with RCA and was perhaps looking for a change.
And if there was ever any indication that a dramatic change was about to come compare the clean cut Hartford on this LP sleeve with the Hartford on his next album, for Warner Brothers, "Aereo-Plain" from 1971. (see end).
This is a final album and a transitional album in that it hints at some of the sit down and play sessions or country porch music that John embark on in the 70s.
John may have wanted a change but his music, even when he may be tired or bored, is still magnificent. This is well crafted country music with pop and rock influences which is always interesting and occasionally inspired.
Richie Unterberger in allmusic said in relation to this album, "it's still among the goofiest, normal-save-constant-sly-winking country-pop ever made. The singer/songwriter remained seemingly unable to resist coating his attractive, easygoing tunes with dry humor that almost leaves the impression he was trying to self-sabotage any chance he had of selling a lot of records to the mainstream"
When people compare this to his later work it may be lacking because he was a singular talent, always inquisitive and very smart but it should be compared to other albums by other acts of the era.
This album sits well next to any of the country rock of the time. It's less poppy that any of the Kenny Rogers and the First Edition of the time. It's as quirky as Lee Hazlewood. Think, perhaps, The Byrds if they played bluegrass.
Ultimately, the beauty in Hartford's music (to me at least) is that, regardless if the song is an original or a cover, it expresses the nature of Hartford himself. That doesn't always happen in music and a lot of the times when it does happen it's less than inspiring. Not everyone is sufficiently interesting as a musician or a person.
Or he seems to be, given I've never met him.
He comes across as a guy you would love to meet and have a drink with whilst listening to his stories. His songs are uninhibited expressions of joy, melancholy, occasional regret and sadness all laced with a dry humour at every corner. So much that there seems to be as much Marx Brothers in his albums as there is Bill Monroe.
So why wouldn't you want to have a drink with him?
Check my other comments from biographical details.
All songs written by John Hartford, except where noted.
Tracks (best in italics)
- Like Unto a Mockingbird – a big production number (with shades of "Hey Jude" that relate to the last track on the album – the fiddles become strings. The banjo is irresistible. Hartford did this in a more stripped down version on his first album "Looks at Life" (1967).
- Meanwhile You Sit by My Banjo – a beautiful song
- I Won't Know Why I Went Till After I Get Back – a sly humorous song
- Maybe – a long groove
- Go Home Girl – Sublime ..many of the usual country motifs are here. A great song.
- Natural to Be Gone – Another up-tempo country song which has bee given the big band Billy Vaughn treatment. Hartford did this in a more stripped down version on his first album "The Love Album" (1968).
- Before They Tow My Car Away – ha, what a great title
- To Say – a glorious song with some magnificent lines.
- Frustrated Bird – minor but glorious.
- Hey Jude – (John Lennon, Paul McCartney) – ha, a hilarious instrumental cover. The Marx Brothers annihilate The Beatles tune. Pure anarchy. This is all Hartford …very little Lennon and McCartney.
It isn't one of Hartford's best but it's still miles ahead of other albums…. I'm keeping it.
I Won't Know Why I Went Till After I Get Back
Go Home Girl
Natural to Be Gone
John : album sleeves – this and the next.