Each week, Sunday School takes a second look at a classic album worth revisiting years after its release. EMMIE staff handpick releases that shaped a genre, defined a generation or deserve recognition despite being left in the distance. Keep up with Sunday School for your weekly dose of dusted-off classics and throwbacks that merit a second spin.
Aereo-Plain, John Hartford
Release Date: September, 1971
Good For: Escaping from technology, river boating, when you need a little cheering up
Standout Tracks: “Steamboat Whistle Blues,” “Steam Powered Aereo Plane,” “First Girl I Loved,” “Turn Your Radio On [I] & [II]”
John Hartford’s groundbreaking 1971 album Aereo-Plain gave new life to bluegrass music and remains today one of the finest acoustic works ever recorded.
The instrumentation is, in a word, heavenly. Not bound by the typical bluegrass panic, the picking on Aereo-Plain is at times playful, usually unhurried and endlessly beautiful. Where many albums in the bluegrass canon are muddled to the casual listener by feverish tempo and standard down-South lyricism, Aereo-Plain dawdles in just the right way. As with the many “newgrass” albums which would follow Aereo-Plain, little feels rushed or contrived; the notes arrive as if floating past on Hartford’s beloved Mississippi river. That’s not to say, however, that the album is lacking in virtuosity, or that the band couldn’t play as fast as anyone if they were so inclined. Quite the opposite, in fact; the band behind Aereo-Plain could scarcely field a stronger cast: Norman Blake, Vassar Clements, Randy Scruggs and Tut Taylor could almost be considered a supergroup. They have nothing to prove, no reason to play harder than the lyrics, none of which are too caught up in pathos, require.
Thematically, the album takes you down the roads of John Hartford’s mind. Hartford’s world of lazy river days, hippy substances and a profound yearning for a simpler past projects itself out of the music through the gentle baritone of his voice. It’s hard to listen to Aereo-Plain and not feel the sort of placid optimism Hartford expresses in his lyrics. On “First Girl I Loved,” Hartford sings he “never regretted a love affair / Except one and that’s all over / I worried about it a little bit, but that’s all.” Hartford doesn’t succumb to sorrow, nor is he joyful to a fault; he exists, as we all really do, in an indeterminate state of mind that is neither here nor there. “The good old days are past and gone,” but that doesn’t mean good times aren’t still ahead.
Track five, “Boogie,” is an odd duck. It displays the light-heartedness of the recording process on this album, but breaks the album’s flow up and it seems like a mistake to have included it. It’s easily ignored, anyway.
The title track of the album, “Steam Powered Aereo Plane,” is an especial high point. The interplay of Tut Taylor’s Dobro and John Hartford’s banjo is endlessly entertaining and the composition of the song itself is gorgeous, as are the lyrics. “Steam Powered Aereo Plane” is a gentle, nostalgic dream, a quiet expression of longing for what was, or what never was but which Hartford wishes for — a time when the world was still simple enough to understand and when lazy, happy days rolled on in an endless procession.
Aereo-Plain is essential. Not only is it among the most influential bluegrass albums ever made; it’s an album whose humanity radiates. Not a humanity of sharp black-and-white edges, but one of pale earth tones that bleed and run together, an ambiguous humanity where few things are absolute, but where sorrow and longing are a simple fact and scarcely need be dwelt on. A humanity that cries out for simplicity, for nature; a humanity to which violence is unthinkable. All in a world where God is on the airwaves and only the turn of a radio knob away.