Friday, June 15, 2018

[467] Center for Popular Music keeps John Hartford gentle on our minds with new book

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. —A wealth of previously undiscovered creativity from the pen of one of America’s most original musicians will come to light this month with help from MTSU.

“John Hartford’s Mammoth Collection of Fiddle Tunes” will make its debut at the John Hartford Memorial Festival May 31-June 2 at Bill Monroe Music Park in Bean Blossom, Indiana. The book will be widely available at bookstores starting June 4.

Greg Reish, musician, musicologist and director of MTSU’s Center for Popular Music, compiled materials and wrote the text for the book with Hartford’s daughter, Katie Hartford Hogue, and Matt Combs, former member of the John Hartford String Band.

Hartford, perhaps best known for penning the Glen Campbell hit “Gentle on My Mind,” died of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2001. He left behind more than 1,000 unpublished and unperformed tunes, which now are protected by copyright. 

The book contains 176 of Hartford’s original fiddle tunes and more than 60 of his own drawings and photos previously seen only by family members.

“The narrative in the book is focused primarily on John’s life with the fiddle,” Reish said. “He’s known, I would say first and foremost, as a banjo player and a songwriter, but also a fiddle fanatic.”

Reish and his co-authors worked on the book for more than a year and a half, with Reish interviewing Hartford’s family, friends and fellow musicians, including luminaries such as Marty Stuart and Bela Fleck.

A man of wide-ranging intellectual curiosity, Hartford wrote music that combined a reverence for the traditional with contemporary twists that revealed a lifelong love affair with words. 

“His lyrics could be delightfully weird, eccentric at times, but always thought-provoking,” Reish said. “There’s always something distinctive and original in John’s music, and that’s true of his instrumental tunes as much as it is of the songs with words.”
As part of the “New Grass” movement of the 1970s, Hartford’s authenticity gained currency with the counterculture generation that yearned for something genuine in their music.

Reish asserts that, because Hartford was both a free spirit and a deep thinker, he is as much of an influence today as he was during his lifetime.

“He is just about the only person I can think of who, posthumously, has the full respect and adoration of the folk music community, the country commercial songwriting community, the singer-songwriter community, the Americana community, the bluegrass community, the old-time music community,” Reish said.

The Center for Popular Music now houses a donated treasure trove of Hartford’s papers, pictures, index cards and music manuscript books, which will be made available to students and other scholars for study.

To contact the MTSU Center for Popular Music, call 615-898-2449, send an email to or go to

For more information about the book or John Hartford’s legacy, go to To learn more about the John Hartford Memorial Festival, go to

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