John Hartford credited his musical career to the Grand Ole Opry, his earliest musical influence heard on the family radio growing up in St. Louis. The program had made its national debut on NBC when he was just two years old. The other influence in his music was outside but not far away — the Mississippi River, where he would watch the steamboats as a boy and work on board one when he was a teenager.
Steamboats and the great rivers of America became a lifelong passion for Hartford, who enjoyed breakthrough success when Glen Campbell’s recording of his song “Gentle on my Mind” became one of the biggest hits of all time in 1967. Hartford recorded and performed prolifically until he passed away on the Fourth of July in 2001, but he also made time to pilot riverboats and share their stories and history.
He once said that “music got in the way” of his career as a riverboat pilot, but still got his license in the 1970s and was often a guest pilot on the legendary Julia Belle Swain riverboat.
And so it is no surprise that the only Christmas tune to be found in his catalog of thirty or so albums would be set not in the North Pole or beside the tree or hearth, but on the lower Mississippi.