Shel Silverstein possessed several divergent artistic talents. He was a prize-winning cartoonist whose funnies regularly appeared in Playboy magazine during the sixties and seventies. Silverstein, of course, wrote award-winning children’s books, including such well-known titles as Where the Sidewalk Ends and The Giving Tree. He penned more than 100 one-act plays and several other works for theater. Silverstein also won a Grammy and was nominated for an Oscar and a Golden Globe for his musical compositions.
About these musical compositions: There is something as strange and contrary about their qualities as the fact that Silverstein was regularly publishing risqué cartoons in Hugh Hefner’s rag during the same time he created some of the most sensitive and concerned children’s literature of the time. On one hand, Silverstein is responsible for such dreck as “The Unicorn”. For those who have never heard the Irish Rovers’ pop hit of that name, consider yourself blessed. Dr. Dog does it here with beautiful Beach Boys’ style harmonies. Dr. Dog sounds impressive, but the song still sucks.
On the other hand, Silverstein is also the genius who wrote the barroom ballad, “Queen of the Silver Dollar”, best known as an Emmylou Harris recording and winsomely done here by Sarah Jarosz with Black Prairie. He’s written other fine country songs, several of which are performed well here. The list includes Kris Kristofferson’s hearty take on “The Winner”, John Prine’s slick-talkin’, self-deluded cover of “This Guitar’s For Sale”, Lucinda Williams’ throaty, desolate arrangement of “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan”, the legendary Bobby Bare, Sr. boasting about “The Living Legend”, and the celebrated Ray Price on “Me and Jimmie Rodgers”. The humor and pathos of these country songs are reason enough to praise Silverstein, and these renditions are well-worth the price of Twistable, Turntable Man.
Then there are the rockers. Perhaps the best way to know if you like them depends on what you think of “A Boy Named Sue”. While technically more of a country song than a rock hit, it crossed over and was a huge success for The Man in Black, reaching #2 on the pop charts. The question is, when you hear Cash belt out, “My name is Sue / How do you do? / Now you’re gonna die”, do you reach for the radio dial or start singing along? If you join in, chances are you’ll like the hits Silverstein wrote for Dr. Hook back in the day, such as “Sylvia’s Mother” and “Cover of the Rolling Stone”. There are credible versions of this material here. Todd Snider takes a straightforward approach to the Cash song and does it the same way as his predecessor. The Boxmasters offer a rollicking take on “Sylvia’s Mother”, while Black Francis and Joey Santiago get downright crunchy with “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”. Still, these are the least interesting cuts on the tribute record.
And then there are the children’s songs. Andrew Bird performs “The Twistable, Turntable Man” in a way that befits his vulnerable indie persona, as he suitably twists the nonsense syllables into a mantra. Nanci Griffth earnestly offers “The Giving Tree” in the spirit of the original tale. There has always been something striking about Silverstein writing a sad ending to a kids’ story, and Griffith honestly delivers the message.
My Morning Jacket frames the album with the appropriately named, “Lullabys, Legends, and Lies”, which properly describes Silverstein’s oeuvre. MMY also closes the disc with the wittily titled “26 Second Song”, which is what it says. These two songs suggest the worldly and otherworldliness of Silverstein’s talents. He can tell you a big story or settle for a bad pun with the same build-up and élan. Maybe that’s why his country songs work best, because if you think about, isn’t that description a working definition of most classic country songs?
Silverstein has been dead for more than a decade. This tribute shows his importance to generations of different talents from the 19-year-old Jarosz to the 84-year-old Price. His music lives on.