John Hartford wrote "Gentle on My Mind," one of the most recorded songs in mainstream American popular music, and he championed the old-time fiddle tunes of Ed Haley and other original American masters.
Hartford died at 4:30 p.m. Monday (June 4) at Centennial Medical Center in Nashville after a 21-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was 63.
"John Hartford was one of the nicest and most unassuming people I've ever known," said Frances W. Preston, president and CEO of BMI, the performing rights organization that collected royalties for performances of Hartford’s songs.
"I don't think he realized how great he really was even though his 'Gentle on My Mind,' one of BMI's most performed songs, is now in its fifth decade of popularity. He was a gifted songwriter, a music historian and a wonderful storyteller. As a friend I will miss him."
Hartford appears twice on the soundtrack for O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the million-selling CD credited with inspiring a revival of interest in acoustic traditional music. He emceed a concert May 24, 2000, at Ryman Auditorium in Nashville featuring artists who appear with him on the soundtrack.
Hartford was born Dec. 30, 1937, in New York City. He grew up in St. Louis, where he acquired a lifelong love of riverboats. After achieving some success as a professional musician, Hartford found time to pursue his love of riverboat lore, even working for a time as a boat captain.
A talented multi-instrumentalist, Hartford also was drawn to the music of Flatt & Scruggs. He moved to Nashville in 1965 and released his debut album, John Hartford Looks at Life, in 1966, on RCA Records.
Hartford’s own version of "Gentle on My Mind" went to No. 60 in 1967 on the Billboard country chart, and Glen Campbell’s recording of the song went to No. 30 country and No. 62 pop the same year. A year later, Campbell released the song again and it climbed to No. 39 on the country chart.
The song’s popularity is better measured by the number of times it has been recorded -- between 400 and 600 times by one estimate -- and performed -- more than 6 million according to BMI's count. "Gentle on My Mind" also won two Grammys and earned highest honors from BMI four times: BMI Pop Song of the Year in 1968 and 1969 and BMI Country Song of the Year in 1969 and 1970.
Hartford wrote the song after going to see Dr. Zhivago. "I have never really understood commercial music like I’ve wanted to," Hartford admitted in Dorothy Horstman’s book, Sing Your Heart Out Country Boy, "and I have no idea, except for the message in that song, why it was a hit."
Hartford’s fame increased through regular appearances on ‘60s TV shows The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour and The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour. His first love, however, remained traditional American music in all its forms.
"He was more devoted than any musician in Nashville to the history of the music," said country music historian and Middle Tennessee State University professor Charles Wolfe. "He would talk to older musicians and get their stories. His last big project was a massive book about Ed Haley, a legendary fiddler who never made any commercial recordings."
Wolfe also praised Hartford for his musicianship. A popular entertainer, on stage Hartford always sported a black bowler hat. "He was probably the most respected musician in Nashville. During the last couple of weeks, there's been virtually a who's who of musicians who have dropped by to pay their last respects to John."
Hartford was "joined at his home by his family and friends telling stories and reliving a wonderful life," his Web site says. "He enjoyed having some of his musical heroes play old songs and recount stories of ‘show business.’ Although he could no longer join in, he delighted in listening to the music that he so dearly loved and spent a lifetime creating."
Visitation will be at Mr. Hartford’s home, 1025 Falls Ave. in Madison, Tenn., 2-4 p.m. and 6-9 p.m. Wednesday (6/6) and Thursday (6/7). The funeral will be 2 p.m. Friday (6/8, also at the home. Survivors include his wife, Marie; a son, Jamie (also a singer/songwriter); a daughter, Katie Hogue; and stepchildren Ricky, Gerry and Christy Barrett.
The family has asked that donations be made to the Sarah Cannon Cancer Center, 2221 Murphy Ave., Nashville, TN 37203.
Michael Gray contributed to this story