The John Hartford Stringband -- Chris Sharp, guitar; Bob Carlin, banjo; Matt Combs, fiddle; Mike Compton, mandolin; Mark Schatz, bass -- is the band that backed up Hartford on five of his Rounder Records albums. They were also his backup band for the last years of his life. Most listeners probably know Hartford for his one pop hit, "Gentle on My Mind." When it was recorded by Glen Campbell, "Gentle" was a major smash and won four Grammys. It's one of the most recorded country hits of all time. Hartford knew that the career of a pop star had a limited shelf life and switched gears; he devoted the rest of his life to folk music and bluegrass, becoming a one-man band who played fiddle, guitar, and banjo. His 1971 Aereo-Plain album is considered the first newgrass album and he contributed to the bazillion-selling Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack. He was touring to support that record when he lost control of his hands due to his struggle with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma. He died of the disease in 2001. Although he wasn't well known outside of folk and bluegrass circles, Hartford turned out an impressive body of work in his lifetime, and the Hartford Stringband pays tribute to his music here, including the first recordings of several tunes Hartford played live but never cut himself. The "new" songs include "Madison Tennessee," a tune Hartford was going to record on what was to be his last album, but the record was never finished. It's the story of a traveling musician and his tribulations given a lighthearted spin by Hartford's wry humor. Compton's mandolin and Combs' fiddle give the tune a sprightly feel. "Homer the Roamer" is a Celtic-flavored instrumental that gives each bandmember a chance to stretch out. The album also includes a few rare Hartford performances. "You Don't Notice Me Ignoring You" was written around the same time as "Gentle"; the Stringband overdubs a 40-year-old Hartford demo to produce one last great performance from the group's friend and mentor. The album closes with "Fade Out," another rediscovered demo, this time presented as it was cut, just Hartford and guitar. Hartford's playful wordless vocal and whistling bring the set to a poignant close.
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AllMusic Review by j. poet