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with Norman Warwick

In 1966, Nashville-based songwriter John Hartford (left) and his wife, Betty, ventured to their local theater for a showing of historical romance Doctor Zhivago. Set in 1917 to the backdrop of the Russian Revolution, the film’s lovers, Yuri Zhivago and Lara Antipova, made an impression on Hartford; their story mirrored that of his own rocky marriage, which would end in divorce a few years later. After returning home to his family’s Tennessee trailer, Hartford penned a brand new song, “Gentle On My Mind,” in a matter of 30 minutes. The lyrics “came real fast, a blaze, a blur,” he’d later recall.

Hartford wrote the tune while “thinking in pictures, like paintings using words and sound,” letting the tale of back roads, ink stains, highways and wheat fields flow through him, imagery breezing readily from his pen to the page. “It violates all the principles of pop songwriting,” Hartford told The Tennessean of the track in 1987, adding that the sheer number of words makes it “hard to sing.” Inarguably, however, the song’s strangest trait is its lack of a chorus. The verses endure with a lackadaisical continuity, picking up and dropping off above Hartford’s banjo.

“Gentle On My Mind” also rebuked his typical song-writing procedure. “I think the melody is the most important part of [writing],” he said in a 1993 interview with Banjo Newsletter. “A lot of times I take it into a jam session and test it before I even start writing words.” This time, Hartford was bleeding glowing imagery from the get-go, paralleling his own life by tapping into feelings of limitless love and longing, contrasted by an unremitting need to be free.

“Gentle On My Mind” found Hartford—or an anonymous narrator—passing leisurely through junkyards and lingering along desolate railroad tracks, the only constant in life being the bittersweet persistence of memory. “Some other woman cryin’ to her mother, ‘cause she turned and I was gone,” Hartford sang, but his attempt at nonchalant faded quickly as he described his lost lover as “movin’ on the backroads by the river of [his] memory.” He promised that no tears of joy, nor blinding burns from the summer sun, could prevent him from seeing her in his mind’s eye.

Rolling Stone once described Glen Campbell (right) as “inhabiting every song he recorded.” As such, when the Arkansas-born musician heard “Gentle On My Mind” in 1967, it was a fateful meeting. Campbell purchased the single and immediately got to work recording it with the Wrecking Crew—whom he was once a member of—at Capitol Studios in Hollywood, setting in motion a production process that would give the song a new lease on life—and further it to international success.

Drummer Hal Blaine (left) recalled his involvement in the group of young studio musicians: “We came along at a time when rock ‘n’ roll was just beginning to get popular, but there were a lot of musicians who refused to play this filthy, nasty music,” Blaine told uDiscover Music in 2018, noting in his 1990 memoir that the band received disparaging remarks insisting they would “wreck” the music industry, and that rock ‘n’ roll was a “week or two” – long fad.

Campbell joined as a session guitarist in the 1960’s, a move which would see him supply guitar for the Beach Boys‘ acclaimed Pet Sounds, and join the band as Brian Wilson’s replacement on tour from December 1964 to March 1965. “[Glen] didn’t read a note of music. He played by ear. He could do some of the wildest solos known to man. It was incredible,” Blaine said, “and Glen just absolutely fell right in with us with this new genre of music.” The demo tape of “Gentle On My Mind” was burnished by producer Al De Lory, and released in June 1967 alongside B-side “Just Another Man,” climbing to an impressive #62 on the Hot 100.

Campbell’s version called upon rolling acoustics and his buttery smooth vocal delivery to help hoist the track—and him—to a new level of popularity as a solo recording artist. The song’s palatable, folksy flavor, the same attribute that led RCA to cease promoting Hartford’s version, proved its highest-selling quality. With no chorus, almost no rhyming lines and a total departure from country’s pillars of song-writing, “Gentle On My Mind” flourished into a song everybody and their mother wanted not only to sing along to, but cover in a professional setting.

A version by Frank Sinatra (right), Aretha Franklin, Elvis Presley and Dean Martin followed, among thousands of others—Tammy Wynette’s rendition takes on the perspective of the woman, whose door “stays open” for her lost love should he feel called to return. Hartford and Campbell both won Grammys for their performances of the song in 1968, and the Band Perry followed suit in 2015 when their version, recorded for Glen Campbell: I’ll Be Me, took home another. In 1982, Hartford donated the original, handwritten “Gentle On My Mind” lyric sheet to the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, but the track’s historical significance has snowballed in the decades since.

In watching Hartford and Campbell perform the song live, it becomes clear that there are two distinct moods presented by the lyrics. Hartford is soft-spoken, his voice naked and irresolute but undoubtedly genuine. This can be attributed to his disinterest in certain facets of the music industry. “I’m not into the whole entertainment-business game,” Hartford (originally Harford, but renamed at the suggestion of Chet Atkins) said in 1969, going so far as to call steam-boating his life’s work, and music something that “got in the way.”

As a self-coined “drugstore pilot,” Hartford had his heart situated in steam-boating before he ever picked up an instrument, let alone released his own catalogue of work. Yet, much like the undercurrent of humility that defined his music, Hartford never thought of himself as particularly knowledgeable in the field. In conversation with Mike Leonard, he explained: “When a real expert comes into the pilot house, I’m always content to stand back and let him show me how it’s done.” His love for the water was “all-encompassing,” which is what made it unexplainable, leaving him to utilize music as a means of verbalizing his passions more articulately.

While Hartford would never live to see himself become a legacy act—his 20-year-long battle with Non-Hodgkin lymphoma would prove fatal in 2001—his body of work endures with excruciating sincerity, so much so that listening to the original “Gentle On My Mind” feels like reading a tear-stained postcard penned a little too late, from a little too far away, the words fading in and out of audible distance like half-confident confessions. Hartford is shy, Campbell is content—both dispositions somehow do right by the lyrics down to the very last word uttered.

Why Campbell (left) ended up giving the track its commercial wings is up for debate, but one could argue that while the soul of the song lies in the throes of romantic uncertainty, approaching the lyrics with confidence sold the story to a broader audience. He held heartache to a light so beautiful the words melted away, urging you to skim by the narrator’s weaknesses and lean into their strengths. Campbell was objectively better at this kind of showmanship, furthered by Hartford’s total lack of interest in being a showman to begin with.

The most satisfying accomplishment an artist can hope to achieve is hoisting their work to the untouchable shelf of immortality—that place where a melody morphs to a hymn, resonating at a level so deep that no number of years can separate it from being universally loved, artistically venerated and historically recognized. John Hartford climbed there with “Gentle On My Mind,” and, with the help of Glen Campbell, the track has become a relay race of poetic truth spanning over half a century.


The primary source for this piece was written by Emma Schoors who is a music journalist, photographer, and wannabe fifth Bangles member based in Los Angeles, California. Find her on Instagram @eschoors. and has already been published on line. Authors and Titles have been attributed in our text wherever possible

Images employed have been taken from on line sites only where  categorised as  images free to use.

For a more comprehensive detail of our attribution policy see our for reference only post on 7th April 2023  entitled Aspirations And Attributions.

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