Album Review: John Hartford Stringband "Memories Of John"

John Hartford was known worldwide as a master of the fiddle and banjo. Even though he passed in 2001, his music lives on through the five musicians who appeared on his last several albums on Rounder Records. And 10 years after his death, "Memories Of John" is a fitting tribute to one of the most talented musicians ever to grace a bluegrass festival stage.
The album features Chris Sharp (guitar), Bob Carlin (banjo), Matt Combs (fiddle), Mark Compton (mandolin) and Mark  Schatz (bass). It begins with the upbeat "Three Forks of Sandy" which brings back great memories of John Hartford. It's followed by a truly brilliant performance of  "M.I.S.I.P."

The laid back melodic gem "Love Grown Cold" is a winner, but the album really sizzles with "Madison, Tennessee," but the best track on the album is "Half Past Four." This cut is bluegrass perfection that has a musical relevancy and urgency that is not often seen on tribute albums of this kind.

Special guests on the album include Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, Tim O'Brien, Alan O'Bryant and Eileen Carson Schatz.  But the biggest surprise is that John Hartford himself also appears on banjo, guitar and vocals.

The traditional "Delta Queen Waltz" offers a passionate vocal interpretation by Alan O'Bryant. However, the most unique track on the album is "For John," which is a riveting poem honoring John Hartford. Mark Schatz's vocal and syncopated feet provide a moving tribute. It's followed by "Homer The Roamer," which may be the most pleasurable cut on the entire album and is a fitting bookend to the unique poem in song "For John."

The bluesy fun of "Bring Your Clothes Back Home" is infectious, and "Lorena" shows why Tim O'Brien is a widely sought after vocalist. George Buckner also deserves special praise for his 3 finger skills on the track. Next, the lyrics of "You Don't Notice Me Ignoring You" could penetrate even the hardest of hearts. And, finally, the album ends on a high note with John Hartford himself on "Fade Out." It is a reflective and memorable performance.

The album also features the rowdy bar song "She's Gone (And Bob's Gone With Her)," the traditional country "The Girl I Left Behind Me" and "Royal Box Waltz." Of all the songs on the album, "The Girl I Left Behind Me" has the best chance to become a radio chart hit. With Chris Sharps' vocals, Bela Fleck's 3 finger and the Stringband's instrumentation, the track hits on all cylinders and offers a memorable melody.

John Hartford is now in the clouds, but his spirit can rest easy. His friends have honored his memory in the best possible way. They have created a remarkable album that breaks new ground while exploring the music of a legend. Indeed, a new generation of music buyers will now be wanting to seek out the music of John Hartford. "Memories Of John" will also allow John Hartford's fans to reflect on his rich musical heritage. Thank you, John.