Aereo Plane -- John Hartford
(released 1971, Warner Bros Records, reissued 1997 by Rounder Records)
It is probably hard for any musician to point to any single record and claim it was the single most formative musical experience of his life. There are usually a handful of such listening experiences that wind up forming the foundations of a person's musicality.
I choose Aereo Plane as the signifigant record of my experience because it not only inspired my decision to go into music more directly than any record of my young life, but also because it has stayed with and continued to influence me in as many ways as my development has continued.
John Hartford was a banjo player and songwriter who came to national fame in the late sixties as a regular member of both the Glen Campbell and Smothers Brothers television shows. He wrote the megahit "Gentle On My Mind". During this period, he recorded some highly tweaked country records for RCA that sounded like a compendium of bluegrass, Roger Miller, and early Nilsson.
In 1971, he left RCA for Warners, and made this record. Unlike his RCA output, it was heavily underproduced.
The striking thing about this record from the jump is the cast of musicians -- John mostly on banjo, Vassar Clements on fiddle, Normon Blake on guitar, Tut Taylor on dobro, and Randy Scruggs on bass. But this was not a one-time- only "supersession" as was so common in those times. This, unbelievably enough, was a working, touring bluegrass machine, who played with each other as if by telepathy. The only rule John imposed is that nobody was allowed to discuss anything about any of the arrangements. The result was a band who could not only play but, as importantly, listen . It is often impossible to tell who is taking a solo or even if there is a solo going on. It was a pretty selfless bunch of musicians.
Also, for me, it was a gateway to worlds other than my own. I first got ahold of Aereo Plane when I was twelve. I lived in an industrial factory suburb of Philadelphia (Audubon, NJ). There was nothing glamorous or romantic about my life. Here were songs about life somewhere other than a city or a suburb, and I was transfixed by this world of steamboats, the Grand Ol' Opry, country bands, and pickup trucks. I dreamt of someday finding my way to this world, and still do. I still have not ridden on any packet boat of any kind, have only flown over the Mississippi River, but (largely as a result of this album) I read the Waterways Journal and everything I can get my hands on by Captain Fred Way. And I still dream of the day I play on the Opry.
These songs, along with Merle Haggard's and Dolly Parton's, told me that songwriting was best when it said something about people's lives and hearts. They taught me the value of songs as a way to make people feel less alone in the world. They taught me the way songs can take people of seemingly different worlds and show their common points.
Aereo Plane showed me, early on, that music was best played by people who listened instead of trying to glorify their technique with millions of gnat- notes, and that songs were something special, to be given to people in the hopes of nourishing their spirit and adding something to their lives.