John Hartford, Tony Rice & Vassar Clements – Hartford, Rice, Clements
It’s commonplace for recordings to appear posthumously. Some artists left hours of recorded music behind. These gentleman worked and played together on and off for decades. They ran in the same circles, they blew off steam playing for the fun of it. We are lucky here.
This is great bluegrass by one of the major iconoclastic bluegrassers and some good friends. To say this is a joint effort is to touch the essence of these recordings. On “Sweet Sunny South,” we hear John’s heartfelt reading with Tony playing guitar for himself more so than for the expectant audience. Vassar throws in some licks that work, but also stretch the sound. John sings “My Baby’s Gone” with Vassar’s fine harmony. Tony and John hit the harmonies just right on “If I Should Wander Back Tonight,” getting that 7th interval that marked some of the best of Flatt & Scruggs’ duet harmonies.
Perhaps Ralph Stanley acquired the rights to “Bound To Ride” from Fiddlin’ Arthur Smith, but that doesn’t matter when you hear John’s low banjo roll through the song at the speed of light. Also defying physics, they fly through “Long Journey Home” with some of the fastest fiddling Vassar may have ever recorded. What great double-stops he throws off early on that cut, while Roy Huskey, Jr., rips off a bass break that almost pulls the strings from the bass. While much of the material is public domain, there are some little recorded gems like Benny Martin’s “Wings Of A Song.” “Poor Ellen Smith” walks along more like an old-time rendition than bluegrass, until Vassar has his say. Roy’s bass is an integral to the sound of this piece as any other instrument.
Recorded in John’s basement facing a rock wall with two mics on a digital VHS system, this nearly lost gem of a recording is not to be missed. Tony Rice and Mark Howard, who plays some very nice mandolin throughout the project, are the only two surviving members of this jam. Mark must count himself fortunate for being in the right place at the right time. We can listen and remember hearing these folks together or apart and know that we are richer for having done so. This recording allows us to hear John play straight-ahead bluegrass with Tony Rice and Vassar Clements being their ever-creative selves. To miss this recording is to miss real music made by masters who were just being themselves and playing for the simple joy of it. (John Hartford Music, P.O. Box 680488, Franklin, TN 37068, www.johnhartford.com.) RCB