The Graham Weekly Album Review #1000
John Hartford: Morning Bugle -- by George Graham
(Rounder 0356 As broadcast on WVIA-FM 8/23/95)

For our one-thousandth album radio review, I thought we would do something we have never done before: feature a reissued recording. It's one that came out in 1972, about a year before we started this series, and an album we played within the very first few hours of WVIA-FM's first signing on the air in April of 1973. It has also been something of a rare classic, out of print for the better part of two decades before finally being reissued on CD this just month. It therefore seems a logical choice. I refer to John Hartford's Morning Bugle.

John Hartford has been a fixture on the folk music scene for nearly a quarter century, one of the best-known names on the folk festival and coffeehouse circuit, and a performer with a large and devoted following. He first gained fame as the composer of Glen Campbell's big mid-1960s hit, Gentle on My Mind. Hartford was also a steady presence on Campbell's TV series of the period, remembered by many a Baby Boomer. Though Hartford has remained active and prolific as a composer, he never did enjoy a big follow-up hit to Gentle on My Mind, and he has become known primarily as a performer. After he recorded some pop and country-folk influenced LPs for RCA Records in the late 1960s, Hartford was signed to Warner Bros. during that label's creative and eclectic heyday. He recorded two remarkable albums that combined traditional sounds and acoustic instrumentation, with an almost psychedelic rock sensibility. The first, Aereo Plain featured more or less a small bluegrass group of Nashville musicians with Norman Blake, Tut Taylor and Vassar Clements. The second was with a scaled-back acoustic trio featuring guitarist Blake and an unlikely choice, Dave Holland the jazz bassist best known for his work with pianist Keith Jarrett. Morning Bugle is that album. After Morning Bugle, Hartford began a series of entirely solo recordings, inspired by his one-man performances, for the then-just launched Flying Fish label. The first was Mark Twang, released in 1973 and which won Hartford a Grammy.

So Morning Bugle is a kind of transitional record between his group recordings and his trademark solo format. It's also a rather quirky but endearing album that features outstanding musicianship, a vaguely traditional sound, and some lyrics straight out of the psychedelic days sung in a vaguely sardonic tone of voice. The album was produced by John Simon, who was quite busy in the 1960s working with people like The Band. In fact, Morning Bugle was recorded at Bearsville Studios, near The Band's Woodstock, NY, home base. The memory of that festival, just three years before, does work its way into this record, including several drug references in the lyrics, which Hartford has no doubt long put behind him.

John Simon's liner notes state that the recording was done mostly live, with some songs completed on first takes, with the three musicians arranged in a circle. Hartford mainly played banjo, but in the limited amount of overdubbing done, he also plays some fiddle. Norman Blake also plays some mandolin parts. Though Holland usually plays it straight on his acoustic bass, his jazz rhythmic and harmonic sensibility are felt in subtle ways throughout the album. And though the instrumentation is basically a scaled-back bluegrass band, the trio use dynamics in a way that is very much out of the bluegrass tradition.

Apparently a great number of songs were recorded during the sessions, but eleven made it onto the original album. This CD reissue on Rounder Records does not contain any bonus tracks, something that the CDs playing time would have easily permitted. Perhaps the outtakes and unused songs have been lost to time. In any case, the album's 41 minutes provide some great listening that represents a facet of Hartford's career that many of his fans may never have heard.

Most of the songs on Morning Bugle are originals by Hartford written for the occasion, though some older songs are also included, and a couple of traditional pieces are given a kind of hippie reworking.

The album begins with a Hartford composition that sets the tone for this unconventional-sounding record. Streetcar has lyrics are part of a sub-theme running through the record, about old things that are in the process of disappearing.

Also in the same lyrical vein is Nobody Eats at Linebaugh's Anymore, a reference to the section of downtown Nashville around the Ryman Auditorium after the Grand Ole Opry moved to its Opryland location. Ironically, since the time of this record, the Ryman was refurbished and that section of Nashville is again active.

One of the gems on this album is Howard Hughes' Blues, a reference to the reclusive billionaire who was still alive at the time of this album. The arrangement is more bluegrass-styled, but the song's attitude hardly traditional.

Hartford completely rewrites an old traditional song Old Joe Clark for the immediate post-Woodstock days. It's one of the pieces on which Hartford adds some fiddle by overdubbing.

One of the more musically interesting pieces is On the Road, in a very un-bluegrass-like five-beat meter. It would be nearly another decade before the New Acoustic people like Béla Fleck would make this kind of thing more common. It's another example of this album's creative and sometimes curious sound.

The one really traditional song on the album is Late Last Night When My Willie Came Home. The trio does a respectable version but with their own distinctive twist.

My long-time favorite from Morning Bugle is My Rag, a clever and appealing tune whose lyrics are mainly a description of how to play it.

The album ends with another of its eccentric classics, Bye Bye, bidding adieu not to a person but to parts of one life.

John Hartford's 1972 album Morning Bugle has long been out of print, and represents a phase of the multifaceted folk performer that even many of his fans may not have known. It's a fascinating and sometimes quirky album that features Hartford with his long-time guitarist friend Norman Blake, along with jazz bassist Dave Holland who first met Hartford during these sessions. The musicianship is outstanding, and the composition are often really creative musically combining Hartford's sophisticated pop-songwriting experience, Holland's jazz approach to the bass, and Blake's always tasteful guitar work. Add Hartford's now seemingly quaint hippie attitude in the lyrics, along with his laconic vocal delivery and you have an album that's one of a kind.

The recording quality is outstanding. Of course, it was done back in the analogue days, but the sound is very clean and mixed to create very successfully the effect of three guys playing in a living room. It always sounded good on LP, now it makes for a fine CD.

Rounder Records is also planning to re-release this album's predecessor, Aereo Plain, but Morning Bugle, is one of those great "missing links" for Hartford fans and folk music aficionados in general. Having it available again after nearly two decades out of print is definitely good news. It provides listening that's just as musically engaging now as it was back then.

This is George Graham.

(c) Copyright 1995 George D. Graham. All rights reseved.
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