Prescription Bluegrass – Book Review: John Hartford – Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-Plain



Release Date:





John Hartford – Pilot of a Steam Powered Aerie-Plain

Andrew Vaughan

September 2013

Stuffworks Press Inc.

Essential Works

Non-Fiction / Biography

I have always liked John Hartford. If you have taken the time to read this book review simply because you saw his name on the title, you probably like him too. Before we get to that review, let me reminisce for a moment about the man.

As most of his early fans, I first saw him playing banjo in late ‘60's on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour which aired every Sunday night on CBS. The only other five string banjo player I had ever seen on television up to that point was Earl Scruggs, and all I ever got to see him play was Foggy Mountain Breakdown or The Ballad of Jed Clampett. I remember being awestruck as I watched and listened to John Hartford play lead and back-up banjo on a variety of songs, some having nothing to do with bluegrass or country music.

If you were ever a fan of John Hartford or his unique brand of music, I recommend this read.

- Marty Warburton / Prescription Bluegrass

When my older brother turned 16, got a job and a car, he could go to the record store and buy any music he liked. He brought home a John Hartford album. We knew John as “the guy on the Smothers Brothers show.” In those days you put a record on the turntable, sat on the couch and listened to it, only getting up to flip it to side B.

We sat on the couch and listened to the “Gentle on My Mind LP” released by RCA Victor in 1968. This music was different; it was unlike the music we heard daily on the AM Country & Western station that was always on in the house. It was unlike the rock music that we got to listen to when we were cruising around Vegas in my brother's Corvair. Songs such as “The Six-O'Clock Train and a Girl with Green Eyes,” “I Would Not be Here,” “A Simple Thing as Love” and of course “Gentle on My Mind” became our favorites, and we listened to them over and over.

In 1970 when Glen Campbell's Goodtime Hour took over for the dismissed Smothers Brothers, we saw our buddy John on television again, this time backing up Glen Campbell on Glen's latest hit “Gentle on My Mind”. What a rip off, we thought! John had recorded that song three years earlier, and now all of a sudden Glen Campbell sings it and it's a big deal. It was an “I knew him when moment”.

Over the years I had the good fortune of being able to see John Hartford perform live several times before his passing in 2001. Again, I always felt and still feel a connection to John because of how my musical eyes were opened wider by his free flowing influence. Sometimes it's OK to put the rulebook on the shelf ... and just play.

Author Andrew Vaughan obviously has an equal or greater amount of respect for John Hartford. His book, entitled John Hartford – Pilot of a Steam Powered Aereo-Plain, takes us much further back than 1967. Back before the world saw him in living color.

Included in the book is a treasure of photos, mementos and inside information dealing with John's early career and private life. Although the book centers on and leads up to the recording of Steam Powered Aereo-Plain, I found the journey to that point just as interesting, if not more so.

We follow John, subsequently his family, and then back to just John, as he crisscrosses the country trying to figure out where his talents will be of best use to him. The book is loaded with quotes from friends and contemporaries shedding light on the circumstances and opportunities that shaped Hartford's career. There is a choice to be made between being a Hollywood stereotype, which he becomes dangerously close to doing, or staying true to himself, his roots and his music. I say “his music” because it was just that. No one did it, or thought it, like John Hartford.

The writer eventually takes us to the intended destination, which is the concept, recording and cultural impact of the 1971 album, Steam Powered Aereo-Plain. An impact whose ripples, according to the author, are still being felt today.

As an observer on the outside looking in and speaking solely of the end result, it's no secret that this album fell painfully short of any kind of commercial success. It was poorly sold and poorly received at the time. Partial blame of the LP's commercial failure can be attributed to Warner Brothers marketing, or lack thereof. We should also be reminded that this was 1971. There was no i-Tunes, no Internet, no Pandora or Spotify. At that time most, if not all, music was presented to the public by way of AM or FM radio, courtesy of your local DJ, Fred's Grocery and the dashboard of your car.

From my experience there were only three kinds of radio stations back then: Country, Rock, and Easy Listening. Which of these three stations would be most likely to seriously program songs such as Hey Babe Ya Wanna Boogie,” “Presbyterian Guitar” or even the title cut “Steam Powered Aereo-Plain”?

Our author says it best when he cites on page 100 that John Hartford refused to be pigeonholed into any one format. If a song wasn't heard on local radio, it wasn't heard. The numbers tell us that the concept of producing and recording an album that was un-pigeonholed and meant to fly in the face of commercialized, cookie cutter music was the very culprit of its dismal debut. That is the business viewpoint. That, as they call it, is the bottom line.

The cultural viewpoint cuts a little deeper. Let's say a lot deeper. In Vaughan's book we are privy to John's mindset during the times leading up to the recording of Steam Powered Aereo-Plain. We get a feel of why he told Norman Blake, Tut Taylor and Vassar Clements to go in the studio and literally play whenever and whatever they wanted to play.

This concept, this approach, the “let's just go in there and jam” plan, was the strategy that still has people talking more than 40 years later. David Bromberg, who was hired by Hartford to produce this album, recalls tense, sometimes heated conversations between him and Hartford regarding the execution of this out of the box concept.

“One of the most influential records in acoustic music history?” Perhaps not quite that deep. But Andrew Vaughan is correct when he says this album opened many doors and stomped down a lot of grass for countless musicians to follow.

Neatly attached to the back cover of this book is a CD of the Steam Powered Aereo-Plain reunion concert which was recorded live at The Ryman Auditorium in 1994 and features Tony Rice sitting in for Norman Blake. In this live recording we get to hear John Hartford himself explain the rules of being a member of the Steam Powered Aereo-Plain Band. In that explanation John inconspicuously describes his own life: “just one long jam session”.

Well I'd like to be a pilot on a Steam Powered Aero-Plain.
Well I'd pull that pilot wheel around and then back again.
Well, I'll wear a blue hat, yeah, that says Steam Powered Aero-Plain
With letters that go around the rim and then back again.

If you were ever a fan of John Hartford or his unique brand of music, I recommend this read.


Reviewed for Prescription Bluegrass by:

Marty Warburton                                                                                              Cedar City, Utah


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