The last album in my review of top five albums to take to a desert island may be my all-time favorite. I’ve long loved John Hartford’s quirky, hippy-bluegrass Aereo-Plain album. So it was only fitting that last night, as I was returning from a dinner in Nashville with a long-time friend, I turned on Del McCoury’s Hand Picked show on XM Radio’s Bluegrass Junction and what was coming out of the speakers but Steam Powered Aereo Plane. Damn, Del has great taste in music! I was reminded all over again of why this album is on my list.
What do I love about this album? Let’s start with the cover.
My mother hated this cover when I was a teenager and my wife hates it still. I loved it so much that I had the father of a high-school friend who was a commercial artist do a charcoal drawing of Hartford with his shaggy beard and aviator glasses. (My friend Judy’s father had a side business of doing spot-on drawings of photographs from 1970s record albums.) Mother never wanted to see it and Candice makes me hang it in the closet…but how could a scruffy 17 year old guitar player who was getting into bluegrass not love a picture of a scruffy, hippie, banjo picker who had just made a fortune as the writer of the monster Glen Campbell hit Gentle on My Mind.
Then there are the songs.
The first thing you hear is a gospel quartet led by Hartford singing a snippet of A.J. Brumley’s Turn Your Radio On. This morphs into a set of the most amazing mixture of original Hartford tunes he’s ever produced. Steamboat Whistle Blues recalls his days as a riverboat pilot. Back in the Goodle Days has a bunch of old-timers lamenting the end of bluegrass and old-time music and has the great preservation line, “It looks like a ‘lectric shaver now where the courthouse use to be.” That’s followed by the infectious Up on the Hill Where They Do the Boogie, which my friend Ben Jamison and I sang at a Baptist talent show (with slightly cleaned-up lyrics) and brought down the house. The next tune is simply titled Boogie. Its about sex and may be the weirdest tune this side of Revolution #9. I was going to tell you what it features, but this is a family blog. First Girl I Loved and Presbyterian Guitar are two very sweet and simple tunes that showcased Hartford’s guitar playing. Side two began with Vamp in the Middle, as Hartford describes how his fiddle tune “with a vamp in the middle” got the girl. Fiddler extraordinaire Vassar Clements plays a mean vamp. After a short instrumental (Symphony Hall Rag) followed by an even shorter ditty entitled Because of You, Hartford launches into the best tune on the album and the title track Steam Powered Aereo Plane. (Yes the spellings are different for the song and the album title.) Then since this was the early 70s, there’s a song about drugs (Holding), a preservationist’s lament (They’re Gonna Tear Down the Grand Ole Opry) and the traditional fiddle tune Leather Britches played as a fiddle/banjo duet by Vassar and John. Hartford’s vocal take on radio station announcers (Station Break) then leads into the reprise of Turn Your Radio On.
You may not believe this, but I love the production values of Aereo-Plain.
David Bromberg, who is a pretty fair picker in his own right, was the album’s producer. Hartford has said he gave Bromberg almost total authority in putting this record together, and the choices were inspired. Bromberg had the band play everything live, and it was all completed in a few short takes. There were many more songs recorded during the sessions, but Bromberg stuck primarily to the originals and produced the entire album with a freshness and originality that one didn’t see in albums from the period.
Finally, I love the players.
Besides Hartford on banjo and guitar, Aereo-Plain featured Norman Blake on guitar and mandolin, Vassar Clements on fiddle, Tut Taylor on flat-picked dobro, and Randy Scruggs on bass. They were among the best in the business and here they were on top of their game. I’ve heard their playing on Aereo-Plain compared to that of a jazz quintet. It is hard to believe that both Hartford and Vassar Clements are no longer with us.*
For so many people who played acoustic music, Aereo-Plain gave them permission to try new things. Sam Bush has described it as a seminal recording for the newgrass movement. Hartford simply showed how to mix a hip, youthful sensitivity with a love for bluegrass music.
There’s been some great stories and reviews written about the album through the years. Here’s one on Amazon that hits the nail on the head;
“Aero-Plain” has been called the “Revolver” of bluegrass. This 1971 release by John Harford, preceded the Dirtband’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (presumably the “Sargeant Peppers”), by well over a year. “Aero-Plain” is a song cycle which celebrates the rise and fall the old time music subculture. Ironically, Hartford’s coda to bluegrass was premature, as “Aero-Plain” found a hip young audience. As a result, bluegrass began to morph into “new-grass” and “progressive” variations for 30 years. Producer David Bromberg had as much to do with the success of “Aero-Plain” as Hartford. Bromberg, a fellow traveller in folk circles, resisted efforts to do second takes, or embellish the tracks with overdubbing. Bromberg captured a pristine sound quality with the freewheeling ambience of a back-porch picking session.
On the same site, another reviewer wrote about the impact on musicians:
Well, many here have said it more eloquently than I, but I was a friend of Hartford’s, and spoke off and on to many musicians over the past 30 years and every one, including myself, point to this recording as Life Changing. After we all heard this, we stopped being afraid. It’s that simple. Sam Bush, Tim O’Brian, Pete Wernick, Tony Trischka, everybody that ever played progressive Bluegrass or New Grass points to this Album as the shining beacon that inspired them to take the risks that lead them to where they are today. I’m still trying to imitate what Vasser was doing on this album 30 years later… It’s one of the few Perfect recordings of all time that I can genuinely recommend and say if you don’t like it, I’d be absolutely amazed.
Here’s Hartford and a group of all-star acoustic musicians (including Clements) playing Steam Powered Aereo Plane. Go back to the Goodle Days, do the Boogie, and enjoy…
More to come…
*Since this was written, both Tut Taylor and Randy Scruggs have passed away – the latter much too early. Norman Blake is the only member of the original group still with us as of May 2020.