Radio John: Songs of John Hartford
If you can’t have a good time listening to Sam Bush play and sing nearly every note of music on his new tribute CD to friend and mentor John Hartford, well there just may be no hope for you, friend. Filled with memories both happy and sad, this isn’t an album to obsess over how it was recorded, the technical chops or artistic interpretations Bush made in selecting and presenting this material, or its place in the grand canon of Bush’s inordinately oversized impact on modern bluegrass.
No, no, this one honors Hartford in the goodle dayz, the boogie up on the hill, the resolutely vamped middle, and the records left out in the sun warping to their own sublime gentle mindedness, all floating in a deck chair high up over.
Sam says he recorded Radio John “to complete my love letter to John Hartford’s music that I hold so dear.” Across a musical voyage of ten tunes here, Bush cherrypicked his personal favorites like “Morning Bugle.” But it also includes tunes, one imagines, he felt Hartford would have wanted him to record, like the odd instrumental “John McLaughlin” inspired by the jazz fusion guitar legend. Recorded during the dismal downtime of the pandemic for touring musicians, the dazzlingly multi-talented Bush chose to play almost every instrument here, even playing Hartford’s banjo on some tunes. From start to finish, it’s abundantly clear that each of these tunes holds a special memory or soft spot in Sam Bush’s newgrass heart. This is personal, not business.
The elaborate CD packaging includes excellent, informative liner notes from Jon Weisberger outlining Hartford’s twainspotting career and obsession with riverboat culture. Like a U.S. Coast Guard marker buoy along Hartford’s beloved Mississippi River’s shipping channel, Weisberger charts Hartford’s impact on so many aspects of bluegrass and trad music in his day. In addition to his abundant solo work, Hartford recorded with David Grisman, Vassar, Peter Rowan, Bush, Norman Blake, Tut Taylor, Ronnie McCoury, Mike Seeger, Mike Compton and more before cancer ended his career. Here, one of his best friends brings his own closure to losing John Hartford, delivering a near-perfect tribute to one of America’s greatest bluegrass exponents and explorers.