18: Gentle on My Mind

18: Gentle on My Mind

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music

Gentle on My Mind

Story by Betty Harford

Song written by John Hartford

Recorded by John Hartford, Glen Campbell and others

In 1966, John and I were living in a little mobile home near Lebanon Pike on the east side of Nashville; our son Jamie was a year old. My mother babysat him one night so we could go see the movie Dr. Zhivago. John was very impressed with the movie, as was I. When we came home, he said, “I need to go write down a few things,” which was not unusual for him. Our second bedroom was always his music room and he spent much of his time there.

John had been in his room for about thirty minutes while I was putting Jamie to bed. He came out with his guitar and said, “Let me play you this song I just wrote. Tell me what you think about it.” He had it completely written. I think it was the romantic relationship between Dr. Zhivago — Omar Sharif — and Julie Christie’s character — Lara — that inspired him. It was a movie about wartime Russia and finding love. Maybe it just awakened the wanderer in him. When I heard the song, I liked it, but of course I said, “Wait a minute. You’re talking about ‘not being shackled by forgotten words and bonds and ink stains that have dried upon some line,’ and ‘leaving some woman crying to her mother cause she turned and you were gone.’ Is that me?”

He said, “No. You’re like the Julie Christie character for me.” Of course that was the right thing to say. When you listen to the song, it sounds like this guy wants to be out of there, and not entangled with a relationship. But John quickly assured me this was “artistic license” that he was taking. We did divorce, however, a few years later, so I’m not so sure....

He said the song was just a “word movie;” that’s what he called it. It doesn’t have a chorus, and it’s like free verse poetry. He never believed a song had to rhyme or have perfect form to be good.

I worked for the Glaser Brothers’ publishing company, John’s publisher, as their administrative assistant, and sometimes did vocals for their demos. John was a staff writer for Glaser and moonlighted as a disc jockey at WSIX from 4 p.m. to midnight (he went by John Hart). Every weekday, we would take Jamie to his babysitter and then both of us would go down to Music Row to work at the publishing company. We were quite poor, but those were really good times.

John made a quick demo of “Gentle on My Mind” the day after he wrote it. He always had a little cassette tape recorder with him and would put songs down immediately. He played this tape for Chuck Glaser the same morning. I expect they probably did a little better demo; then Chuck took it right over to Chet Atkins.

Chet was very positive and subsequently signed John with RCA Records based on that song. Chet was also the one who persuaded John to change his stage name from John Harford to John Hartford. John cut this first record with RCA, produced by Felton Jarvis, with “Gentle on My Mind” on the A side and “Washing Machine” on the B side. It had only been out a few weeks when Glen Campbell heard John’s version on the radio in California and went into Capitol and covered it. The rest, as they say, is history. It was a little unusual for a song to be covered that quickly, but I think everybody who heard it recognized immediately that the song was really special.

When we first married, in 1963, we lived in St. Louis, where John had a bluegrass band, the Ozark Mountain Trio. Since they didn’t work often or get paid very well, we both had to have other jobs. In 1965, we moved to Nashville, which was the best decision he had ever made for his career. That was when John stepped out and performed solo for the first time. He always told interviewers that “Gentle on My Mind” was the song that bought him his freedom. He didn’t have to be a disc jockey anymore; he became a full-time songwriter and musician. And I believe he became much more than he ever could have imagined.

Gentle on My Mind

It’s knowin’ that your door is always open

And your path is free to walk

That makes me tend to leave my sleepin’ bag

Rolled up and stashed behind your couch

And it’s knowin’ I’m not shackled

By forgotten words and bonds

And the ink stains that have dried upon some line

That keeps you in the back roads

By the rivers of my memory

That keeps you ever gentle on my mind

It’s not clingin’ to the rocks and ivy

Planted on their columns now that binds me

Or something that somebody said because

They thought we fit together walkin’

It’s just knowing that the world

Will not be cursing or forgiving

When I walk along some railroad track and find

That you’re wavin’ from the back roads

By the rivers of my memory

And for hours you’re just gentle on my mind

Though the wheat fields and the clothes lines

And the junkyards and the highways come between us

And some other woman’s cryin’ to her mother

’cause she turned and I was gone

I still might run in silence

Tears of joy might stain my face

And the summer sun might burn me till I’m blind

But not to where I cannot see

You walkin’ on the back roads

By the rivers flowin’ gentle on my mind

I dip my cup of soup back from a gurglin’ cracklin’ cauldron

In some train yard

My beard a roughening coal pile

And a dirty hat pulled low across my face

Through cupped hands ’round a tin can

I pretend to hold you to my breast and find

That you’re waving from the back roads

By the rivers of my memory

Ever smilin’, ever gentle on my mind

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