John Hartford's eclectic tastes are nowhere more evident than on his new album, "Gum Tree Canoe." He kicks off with "I'm Still Here," a jolly anti-apocalypse vamp reminiscent of Elton John's "I'm Still Standing," before settling into a contemporary string-band ditty called "Way Down the River Road." Like "Jug Harris," "River Road" is simply an excuse for highly charged instrumental solos from the coterie of classy pickers Hartford always surrounds himself with.
This "Canoe" is propelled by Hartford himself on banjo and fiddle, Mark O'Connor on guitar and mandolin, Sam Bush on mandolin, and Jerry Douglas on dobro, sharing those honors with legendary producer Jack Clement, who also plucks the ukulele. There are three Hartford originals, including the title tune, a genial waltz-time evocation of such innocent pleasures as girls and riverboats named Julia.
Hartford turns on the eclecticity on side two, opening with "Little Piece of My Heart." Yes, the same one that used to tear Janis Joplin apart, recast here (and oddly appropriate) as a jolly demand spurred by banjo and mandolin rolls. That's followed by two Hartford rearrangements -- Fiddlin' John Carson's old-timey "Take Me Back to My Mississipi River Home," and "Lorena," a dreamily sentimental Civil War ballad. The album closes with "No Expectations," from those folkie tunesmiths Jagger and Richards: Hartford alters it subtly but completely, swinging the song's downbeat themes with an upbeat energy. Like the rest of the album, it is a song well serviced by an astute and inventive original.
JOHN HARTFORD -- "Gum Tree Canoe" (Flying Fish FF 289); appearing Friday at the Birchmere.