While he saws away a medley of old-time fiddle tunes, John Hartford's booted feet do a lazy clogging step. It seems fitting that, with a massive resume of diverse accomplishments that include steamboat piloting and writing the most recorded song in the history of popular music, this lanky, deep-voiced minstrel still gets his greatest enjoyment from performing on a stage.
"Music is one of those businesses that you don't retire from," the 53-year-old Hartford said from his home near Nashville. "The challenge of getting better at singing and playing makes it that much more rewarding."
He has an unusual perspective on his performances. A careful read of the audience tells how far he can lure them into his groove. If everything works as planned, he'll have the crowd humming and clapping and foot-stomping along with him.
"Actually, I'm a dance band even though I'm by myself on stage," he jokes.
Hartford's music is somewhat eclectic even to his own fans. In the early 1970s, using bluegrass and folk music as a springboard, he launched such bizarre songs as Steam Powered Aeroplane, Boogie and Don't Leave Your Records In The Sun into cult classics. However, Hartford's most well-known work is a song that seems an awkward fit into his repertoire.
Hartford wrote and was the first to record Gentle On My Mind, but, with more than 3-million licensed performances, it is most widely known as the 1967 middle-of-the-road country hit by Glen Campbell.
"Personally, I've always loved the song," says Hartford, who has heard every imaginable version of it. He performs it the way he wrote it _ with solo banjo accompaniment. "The words fit together wonderfully, and it's got a nice, easy beat to it."
Indeed, Hartford's music is based on an art-imitates-life concept _ which explains why his Don't Leave Your Records In The Sun hilariously repeats the last line over and over.
His boyhood interest in country and bluegrass music was fueled by Saturday night Grand Ole Opry broadcasts that crackled in his St. Louis home.
"I liked Stringbean, Uncle Dave and, of course, Earl Scruggs," he recalls. "All of them inspired me to learn to play banjo."
As a teen-ager he was a sought-after sideman in local hillbilly bands, where he switched from banjo to fiddle to guitar. On weekends he worked as a lineman on the paddlewheel steamer Delta Queen.
In the mid-1960s Hartford headed west and soon found employment as a staff writer on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. He recorded some for RCA records but eventually left when the record label wouldn't back his looser, roots-based efforts.
In the early 1970s Hartford tried to bend the music establishment to his way of thinking. His Steam Powered Aeroplane album was one of the more critically praised recordings for Warner Bros., but the company pulled a follow-up from the shelves just two weeks after its release.
His 1975 release of Mark Twang for the tiny Flying Fish label was the first to feature his unaccompanied playing and dancing. The landmark recording enabled him to try out some of his more off-based concepts, including absurd lyrics and making odd noises with his hands and face. He received a Grammy for the album.
These days John Hartford divides his time between his music and his hobby as a licensed steamboat pilot on the Julia Belle Swain, which he cruises up and down the Mississippi River. The two worlds often meet as song material on Hartford recordings.
"The river has always been a source of inspiration to the music," he says. "I recharge my batteries by playing the banjo and watching the riverbank ease by."
AT A GLANCE
John Hartford, 8 tonight at the State Theater, 687 Central Ave., St. Petersburg. $13.