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Last Visit With John Hartford

Notes From The Road: This is my “Pete’s-eye view” feature on this site, with reports on interesting people and events I encounter in my travels. This was my last time with a beloved friend and unique creative force.

Photo by Bluegrass Hall of Fame

John Hartford is one of my dearest long-term friends, as well as a great influence and inspiration. We met about 30 years ago and have shared a lot of great times and music every year since then. He’s been battling cancer for most of that time, though until a few years ago it was mostly in remission. Early this year he started losing the use of his left hand. By April, he had lost the use of both hands and contracted a bad case of pneumonia that has hastened his decline.

To me this is a tragedy for a host of reasons, not the least of which is that he and his wife are raising two of their grandchildren. John has made colossal contributions to music and American culture (many well-appreciated, many not), and has been busily involved in many diverse projects despite his illness until just recently. It’s especially sad when I think of what a healthy John Hartford could be doing in the next 20 or 30 years.

But most of all, John has been a true and generous friend to a great many people — reaching out, sharing with, and appreciating others, in what is after all, a very competitive business. At this difficult time for him, his friends have made a unique and impressive show of support. One Sunday around the beginning of May, one decided that if John couldn’t get out and play music, his friends could bring it to him. So that night, 15 or 20 people brought over some tents and camped out in his yard and played music festival campground-style on into the night. John would sit and listen and visit as he was able. Over the days to follow, musical friends have been showing up from far and near, and the music has been going strong every day since. John has difficulty walking or even speaking, but he enjoys sitting on his porch and listening to the talents of his many friends.

I made the trip from Colorado to Nashville on a Tuesday in mid-May. As I drove up to his beautiful, cozy home on the banks of the Cumberland River, it was a heartwarming sight — three fiddlers and three guitar players jamming away. I recognized Luke Bulla and Casey Driessen, both in their early 20s, and some less-young fellows as well. One was Jimmie Don Bates, a great fiddler from Texas whom I hadn’t seen since one night in Nacodoches, Texas when we had jammed till all hours. We both remembered that jam, and figured out that it was in 1983, the one and only time we’d met. He and some Texas buddies had come up to play some music for John. Laura Weber, Larry Franklin, quite a few others were there, making a sad time into a good time. John’s wife Marie was a quiet and wonderful presence, and we had a good visit. Young Ryan Holladay (who will be 9 in June) and his dad Mark were there into the evening. We picked and said goodnight to John.

Next day I came early. For a while it was just Jim Rooney and I visiting. He brought a recently made sampler with one of his grandmother’s favorite sayings, “Do it your own ignorant way.” John liked it.

I asked John for a mini-lesson, helping me with his tuning and chord positions on Streetcar, from the Morning Bugle album. With some effort, he told me a few things I needed to change, and then I glanced up and saw Tim O’Brien and Mark Schatz walking down the driveway. Tim’s wife Kit was with him, and so was Maura O’Connell. Tim went inside and got a fiddle and a few of us did several bluegrass songs for John, including Wild Bill Jones at his request. Maura did some beautiful unaccompanied Irish ballads, just haunting. I sang John’s song, All in My Love For You, which he’d liked when I did it at the Merlefest tribute to him last year. A little later I got a call from Gary West at Compass Records, asking about recording that song for a record of John Hartford songs they’re planning.

Here came some other folks down the driveway, going real slow. One was using a walker, one leg in a big cast. It was Terry Eldredge! I was amazed to see him this soon after a terrible car crash which put him in the hospital in critical condition. He looked surprisingly good, hobbling along with Larry Cordell. This was stirring. Yes, everyone was coming to see John. I think it’s going to keep up like this for a good while,

John is not resigned to his declining condition. He told me several times, “I’m going to beat this,” and “I’m not going anywhere.” You’ve got to admire his fortitude against the odds. But that is what his entire life has been about, when you think about.

I told him to kick butt, and gave him my best goodbye. Then I went off to Sound Emporium studio with Tim and Mark to record All In My Love For You.

Read about my visit to John’s grave.

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