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Gentle On My Mind
Gentle On My Mind
recorded February 3, 1967 (14:00-17:00) RCA Victor Studio, 806 17th Avenue South, Nashville, Tennessee; Producer: Felton Jarvis
with John Hartford: vocal/guitar; Norbert Putmam: bass/leader; Jerry K. Carrigan: drums
Sometimes a songwriter plugs into the zeitgeist of an era. John Hartford's original version of Gentle On My Mind was released in April 1967 just as thousands of college kids were flocking to San Francisco instead of more common Spring Break destinations. The Aquarian age had dawned, and needed songs to capture its quintessence. Gentle On My Mind reflected a generation back at itself, a generation trying to escape the nine-to-five grind and suburban mindset of its predecessors. John Hartford (born Harford in New York on December 30, 1937) grew up in affluent circumstances in St. Louis. After finishing university, he became a dee-jay and banjo player and began writing songs during an early morning radio shift. "When John came to me with the first tape of his songs, I couldn't believe what I was hearing," said Chuck Glaser, who signed Hartford to Glaser Brothers publishing. In 1964, Jimmy Payne (who recorded the original version of What Does It Take To Keep A Woman Like You Satisfied) was the first to record one of Hartford’s songs, and that was sufficient encouragement for Hartford to move to Nashville. Chet Atkins had let Roger Miller go, and saw Hartford as a replacement. It was Atkins who insisted that John Harford become Hartford. The first LP sank without a trace.
"John and I were living in a mobile home on Lebanon Pike in Nashville," said John's ex-wife, Betty. "My mother babysat our son, Jamie, one night so we could go see 'Dr. Zhivago.' When we came home, John said, 'I need to go write down a few things.' He was in the second bedroom about thirty minutes while I was putting Jamie to bed. He came out with his guitar, and said, 'Let me play you this.' I think it was the relationship between Dr. Zhivago and Julie Christie's character, Lara, that inspired him." John Hartford: "Everyone's made a whole lot out of me going to see 'Dr. Zhivago' the night I wrote it. I know it gave me a feeling that caused me to start writing, but as far as saying it came from that, I don't know. It just came from experience. While I was writing it, if I had any idea that was going to be a hit, it probably would have come out differently and it wouldn't have been a hit. It just came real fast, a blaze, a blur." Betty Harford: "There was that line about 'crying to your mother 'cause she turned you were gone.' I said, 'Is that me?' He said the right things, but we were divorced a few years later so I'm not sure. He said the song was a 'word movie.' No chorus. I worked for the Glaser Brothers' publishing company as an administrative assistant. John was a staff writer for the Glasers and he was a dee-jay on WSIX. He made a quick demo of 'Gentle On My Mind' right after he wrote it. He played it for Chuck Glaser and they did a little better demo and Chuck took it over to Chet Atkins."
The Glasers pitched Gentle On My Mind to Johnny Cash, who wasn't interested. A&R guys said that it was about shacking up, and they wouldn't touch it, and so Hartford recorded it himself. The limp backing couldn't undermine the song's blithe spirit. Most country songs could be memorized after a few spins; Gentle On My Mind could not. Only its essence stayed with you. Hartford's record stalled at #60 on the country charts, but out in Los Angeles it reached the ears of Glen Campbell. Some minor hits notwithstanding, few outside the Los Angeles studio scene knew of him. "The song had such a freshness of spirit," he wrote later. "It was an essay on life as I viewed it then." Campbell's record reached #30 on the country charts and #62 on the pop charts, but sold far better than those lowly peaks suggest. Hartford's record won a Grammy for Best Folk Performance and Campbell's LP won for Album Of The Year. Hartford never scored another hit. He became a scholar of Mississippi River lore and a grand old man of the banjo, saying once, "A banjo will get you through times of no money, but money won't get you through times of no banjo."
- Colin Escott -
Various Country & Western Hit Parade 1967
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