Even if you’re unfamiliar with John Hartford, his presence looms large over roots and bluegrass music. On the Road: A Tribute to John Hartford gathers many of those bands who have been influenced by Hartford, as well as some of his peers, for a tribute to his legendary songwriting. To a generation of bands Hartford was an eccentric, pioneering musician – a guiding spirit who showed it was possible to infuse the traditional sound of bluegrass with the hippie ideals prevalent in the late 60s and early 70s.
The release of Hartford’s masterpiece Aereo-Plain helped usher in newgrass, a progressive version of bluegrass that allowed for the use of electric instruments, non-traditional chord progressions, and lengthy improvisation.
A younger generation of bands who wanted something different out of their bluegrass found Hartford’s irreverent approach to the staid genre a refreshing, mind expanding trip. On the Road stays true to that idea; bands including Leftover Salmon, Yonder Mountain String Band, Infamous Stringdusters, Todd Snider, Railroad Earth, the Band of Heathens, Horseshoes & Hand Grenades, and more re-image his songs into their own unique visions.
Much as Hartford did when he reinvented bluegrass music with masterpieces like Aereo Plain, Morning Bugle, and Nobody Knows What You Do, the bands on the album follow that same spirit and seek to find new avenues which to drive some of his most familiar songs down.
Some of those songs come off as more of a tribute, like the Infamous Stringdusters’ beautiful rendition of the classic “Gentle on my Mind,” or the straight-forward reading of “Tall Buildings” by John Carter Cash, Jamie Hartford, Norman Blake and Jerry Douglas. Others find a whole new soul and personality of the song and cast them into an entirely new life, like Greg Garrison’s slowed-to-a-crawl “Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry” with breathy vocals by Sydney Clapp, Railroad Earth’s dreamy “Delta Queen Waltz,” or the Band of Heathens’ relaxed, “Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie.”
With so many bands tackling so many different songs of one artist, there is the concern that the album can become a car crash of sounds. On the Road avoids that due to the forward-thinking songwriting of Hartford, who was already crafting his own unique musical universe. On the Road follows suit – a glorious homage into Hartford’s deep catalog by musical friends.