Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene "Yes" Man

By Michael McCall

NOVEMBER 17, 1997:  The Jamie Hartford Band manages the difficult trick of being consistent without being predictable. The group shows off this talent each Wednesday night at Wolfy's, where Hartford and his fellow musicians have performed regularly for more than a year. This fertile creative sensibility also shines through on What About Yes, the band's upcoming debut album on Paladin Records, due for release in early December.

For now, though, the best place to catch Hartford and his band of accomplished veterans is at the group's weekly show, which over the last year has become the show to see on Lower Broadway. Packing in crowds weighted with songwriters, musicians, and music-industry types, the Wednesday-night gigs have become the city's most exciting, unadvertised treasure--much like BR5-49's reign at Robert's Western Wear a few years back.

Unlike the colorful musical shenanigans of those country revivalists, however, the Hartford band entertains with fiercely wrought, groove-oriented tunes that are as modern as the arena down the street. Hartford's songs blend swing, boogie, blues, and country into a tightly rocking style; the stripped-down arrangements leave plenty of room for improvisation while keeping intact the melodic structure of Hartford's carefully wrought compositions. Although the band is willing to cut loose and jam, they're closer in feel to Dire Straits than to Phish or the Allman Brothers; each of the players stays on his toes, shifting the character of the songs with each performance while never giving in to endless noodling or lengthy instrumental flights. The music remains as lean as Hartford's thin frame and as economical as his terse between-song patter.

The son of famed folk musician John Hartford, the Nashville resident grew up with his mother, who divorced his father at age 4. For a good portion of Jamie's youth, the elder Hartford lived on the West Coast and spent much of his time on the road, so he didn't assert a particularly strong influence on his son's career. Nevertheless, like his father, Jamie Hartford has matured into a musician's musician. For several years now, other instrumentalists have been touting his talents as a guitarist, songwriter, and bandleader. Many have long predicted wider recognition for the young musician, even though Hartford's no-nonsense approach to performing flies against the conventions of Music Row.

A few years ago, Hartford suffered a setback after a frustrating experience with Asylum Records, which signed him to a record deal but never put out the album he completed with California producer Pete Anderson. These days, he has found a more supportive home at Paladin Records, the Nashville-based rock label that recently released records by Steve Forbert and Greg Garing. This time around, Hartford cut the record with his band and with producer R.S. Field (Billy Joe Shaver, Webb Wilder), creating the album he wanted without any corporate pressure or interference. Both he and Paladin seem completely satisfied with the results.

Dressed for success Jamie Hartford's approach to the business is no-frills; too bad more country artists don't follow his example. Photo by Senor McHure

Paladin has also proven to be accepting when it comes to developing an artist's image. For this, Hartford is clearly grateful. "Why can't it be the music that entertains people instead of how you look or how you move?" he asks, obviously mystified at how music marketing has transformed what happens in the studio or on the stage. He knows about this from firsthand experience: At Asylum, executives tried to convince him to take lessons on how to dance onstage and how to present a choreographed show.

"They didn't think I moved around enough," Hartford says with a perplexed shake of his head. "It seemed kind of crazy to me. I mean, I'm already busy singing, playing guitar, and directing the band. I'd rather keep the audience involved by keeping the music fresh; I think it's apparent when musicians are having fun or when they're just going through the motions of playing the same ol' thing night after night. You can try and cover that up by training people to dance and look like they're having fun, or you can just let them have fun by making interesting music and let it be natural."

Hartford's music-first theory has helped him attract one of the most accomplished and experienced bands in Nashville. Instead of recruiting a group based on whether they're photogenic--"looks are pretty far down our list of priorities," he says with a chuckle--Hartford sought out the best players he could find. The result is a staggeringly talented group consisting of Ray Flacke on guitar, Paco Shipp on harmonica, Charlie Chadwick on bass, and Rick Lonow on drums. Flacke, an Englishman with a worldwide reputation for his fleet and innovative picking style, says of the band, "This is the most fun I've had playing in 20 years."

For his part, Hartford has set up the group as an equal partnership, meaning that each of the members gets as much of the royalties and concert fees as he does. "I'm blessed to have them with me," he says. He points out that every one of them joined the band before there was any guarantee of a record contract or of making much more than beer money at Wolfy's "They all started because they enjoyed the music and they wanted to play it," he says. "There were never any connotations that we would ever make a lot of money."

At the present, Hartford is glad the record is set for release, for it means he can stop worrying about business meetings and get back to concentrating on what he loves. "My whole goal in life is to make everything as simple as possible so that all I have to do is play music in a way that I can enjoy," he says. "The whole reason for doing business, at least to me, is so that we can continue to play and not have to hammer nails during the day. I don't care about making millions of dollars or being a household name. I have what I need already. I don't demand a lot material-wise to live. I just want to be a happy person, you know?"

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