A Perfectly Cast Tribute Record
It’s hard to believe that John Denver has been gone for 15 years and that his best-known songs began taking their place in the world more than 40 years ago. It’s also hard to believe that the once ubiquitous performer hasn’t been given the true tribute treatment sooner. (There was a 2000 tribute from Badman label but its reach was this wide.) But there really could not have been a better time than now, as this 16-song set proves.
It could not have been cast more perfectly.
Denver’s songs might seem sappy to some, perhaps more worthy of parody than reverence but this collection demonstrates that his tunes are honest, pure, and timeless and they offer points of study for contemporary and future generations of songwriters.
The record is divided between two camps: the obligatory Denver classics and the deep cuts. The Music Is You opens with My Morning Jacket performing “Leaving On a Jet Plane”, rendering it impossibly fresh-sounding, mostly because the group treats the song with equal parts imagination and reverence. Brandi Carlile and Emmylou Harris ace “Take Me Home, Country Roads” because, well, they’re Brandi Carlile and Emmylou Harris. The under-appreciated Brett Dennen teams with Milow for a gorgeous “Annie’s Song” and Allen Stone convinces you––well before the first chorus––that “Rocky Mountain High” was written mere seconds ago. “Sunshine On My Shoulder”, a song that seems to single-handedly define guilty pleasure, is carried out––swimmingly––by––of all bands––Train. The always capable Josh Ritter teams with Barnstar! for “Darcy Farrow”.
Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros do their formidable best with “Wooden Indian”; Kathleen Edwards, a critical favorite from up Canada way, shines via “All of My Memories” and Old Crow Medicine Show charms the socks off us all with “Back Home Again”.
Evan Dando’s “Looking for Space” is powerful, the real beauty of his voice and his intelligence as a performer and arranger coming to the fore. If J Mascis and Sharon Van Etten at first appear an odd choice for this collection, their Jayhawks-cum-Dinosaur Jr. take on “Prisoners” silences any suspicions. Amos Lee’s “Some Days Are Diamonds” is indispensable as is “This Old Guitar”––from Lucinda Williams––and even if you’re not much for Dave Mathews, he knocks “Take Me to Tomorrow” on the head.
If the point of some tribute records is to reignite interest in an artist, then this collection certainly succeeds. Examining his discography, you can find the kind of diverse stages that you’re likely to encounter with any major artist and, what’s more, you can witness his appreciation for the genius of other artists such as Lennon and McCartney and even John Prine. Listening to The Music Is You and the recent Dawn McCarthy and Bonnie “Prince” Billy version of “Poems, Prayers and Promises” from their tribute to the Everly Brothers, What The Brothers Sang, you realize––and this has been said elsewhere here but it bears repeating––what a good writer Denver really was and how deeply his talents are missed.
It’s hard to remember the last time a tribute record was this well cast, or the last time a tribute record cast light on its subject with such tenderness and such care.