He was known best for the classic country ballad "Gentle on My Mind," but John Hartford loved bluegrass and old-time music, so it was fitting that his friends honored him at his funeral with traditional songs performed on acoustic instruments.
In a 90-minute service Friday afternoon (June 8) at Hartford’s home overlooking the Cumberland River in Madison, Tenn., a large crowd of hundreds of mourners paid their last respects to Hartford. Music by Earl Scruggs , Emmylou Harris , the Osborne Brothers, Sam Bush, Vassar Clements, David Grisman, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Gillian Welch, Jerry Douglas , Tim O’Brien and others celebrated the memory of the musician and songwriter. Hartford died Monday (June 4) at age 63 after a 21-year battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.
The service took place under a white tent next to the Hartford house. A black bowler, a Hartford trademark, sat on top of the closed casket surrounded by dozens of flower arrangements.
Grand Ole Opry announcer Eddie Stubbs presided over the ceremony, offering dozens of family members, friends and fans an opportunity to reflect on the man being laid to rest. Among those who offered informal eulogies were musicians Tompall Glaser, Tut Taylor and Peter Rowan and country radio/TV personality Ralph Emery . Hartford was remembered as a teacher, a storyteller and a gifted musician and songwriter with an eccentric, gentle spirit. His passion for steamboats and rivers and traditional music and dancing were emphasized throughout.
Scruggs, who first inspired Hartford to pick up the banjo, performed the instrumentals "Home Sweet Home" and "Flint Hill Special." Stubbs explained that Scruggs was one of the several hundred musicians who visited Hartford at his home in his final days. At Hartford’s request, Scruggs played "Home Sweet Home" during his visit.
O’Brien did the honors of singing Hartford’s signature song and told the congregation that "Gentle on My Mind" is as timeless as Hartford’s beloved old-time music.
The service concluded with "I’ll Fly Away," performed first by a choir, then by an instrumental ensemble led by Scruggs and finally by all those gathered to pay their respects.