Story behind the Music; 'Gentle on My Mind'
In 1965, John Hartford, along with his new bride Betty and their one-year-old son Jamie, moved to Nashville from John's home state of Missouri. John got a job as a DJ at night while writing songs during the day for a music publishing company run by the Glaser Brothers. The Hartfords moved into a mobile home off Lebanon Road on the east side of Nashville.
Some time later, Betty's mother babysat the couple's son so they could have a much overdue date night. They went to see the popular film, Dr. Zhivago. When they came home, John went immediately to his writing room in the back of the mobile home and started writing the lines, “Well, it's knowing that your door is always open and your path is free to walk....”
Betty Harford (John later changed the spelling of his name to Hartford) remembers that night well.
“I think something in the movie just just brought out the hobo in him,” she says. “John had been in his room for about 30 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."
Betty says she was a little suspicious of some of the lines in the song, which made it sound like he was bound for leavin'.
“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 some woman 'crying to her mother cause she turned and you were gone.’ Is that me?”
Betty says John laughed and replied, “No. You’re like the Julie Christie character for me,” she recalls. “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....” she adds laughing.
John Hartford passed away in 2001 and Betty now lives in Alaska.
“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."
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, then Chuck took it right over to Chet Atkins.”
John was the first to record the song and later Glen Campbell heard John's version on the radio and decided he had to cut it, too, and it soon became a country classic.
“He always told interviewers that 'Gentle on My Mind' was the song that bought him his freedom,” Betty says. “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.”
To read the stories behind 100 other country classics, get a copy of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Country Music edition by Randy Rudder, at Amzon.com and barnesandnoble.com. Autographed copies can be purchased at www.randyrudder.com with free shipping.