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John Fogerty Is Still Square, But He's Kinda Cool, Too

John Fogerty has teamed with a group of contemporary artists to deliver a celebration of his songs and of American music with Wrote a Song for Everyone. It couldn't be a more welcome celebration.

John Fogerty

Wrote a Song For Everyone

Label: Vanguard
US Release date: 2013-05-28

No matter that he wrote some of the most recognizable music of the late '60s, you’d probably never call John Fogerty hip -- but he is cool. He demonstrates the latter on his latest offering, Wrote a Song for Everyone, one of nine studio albums he’s issued under his own name since 1973. Wrote a Song for Everyone sees him revisiting a number of songs he penned during his heyday with Creedence Clearwater Revival as well as a few choice solo cuts. On the record he’s joined by a revolving door cast of artists ranging from relative new kids Dawes and My Morning Jacket to seasoned veterans such as Bob Seger and Allen Toussaint.

The album doesn’t necessarily hit all the corners. His somewhat predictable collaboration with Foo Fighters, on the ever-relevant “Fortunate Son”, makes it clear that both camps admire each other but that they don’t really gel. Still, the record does come perilously close to perfection and it also reminds us of how much Fogerty’s music has always been informed by rural traditions. Virtually anyone hearing Fogerty’s soulful, backwoods voice for the first time might find it hard to believe that a man singing about being born on the bayou with such authority was actually born in Berkley, California. That, of course, is old news, as are his humble beginnings.

The singer’s economic roots are apparent when you buy the album, because there’s a plug for his clothing line. For just under $70 you can own one of his Fortunate Son flannel shirts. (If that bugs you, you're in company with Paul Lukas of the New Republic. Would You Buy a $70 Flannel Shirt from John Fogerty?) I say Fogerty is free to make money however he sees fit. What matters most is the music. No matter how much he charges for those shirts and no matter how at odds he appears to be with his former bandmates, the man and his songs remain indestructible nearly 50 years after he and the boys first recorded under the name, The Golliwogs.

Why can he get away with that kind of commercialism and inadvertently redeem Kid Rock, as he does on Wrote a Song for Everyone’s magic take on “Born on the Bayou”? Because he understands the world and the people he’s writing about in a way that many others fail to, by inhabiting the skin of the very people he speaks for and about in these songs. He also understands, if only on an intuitive level, that mean-spiritedness and irony are tools that may serve a song well in the short term, but will do little to help it endure. “Fortunate Son”, an indictment of those able to dodge military service and maybe even justice because of economic privilege, isn’t about condemning those souls, it’s about asking for a deeper understanding––not that we forgive, but that we remain hopeful that someday things may change. (Even if the speaker in “Someday Never Comes” might believe otherwise.)

If that seems a little out of step with the anti-establishment norms of the time it’s because Fogerty and his bandmates, including his brother Tom, probably were just a little bit square.

Aside form the psychedelic sleeves that housed Creedence albums, such as the band’s 1968 self-titled debut, or the first two of three 1969 recordings, Bayou Country and Green River, there’s not much Flower Power to be found among those grooves. The debut is steeped in Southern swamp tradition and covers. Three of its best-known tracks come from Screamin’ Jay Hawkins (“I Put a Spell on You”), Dale Hawkins (“Susie Q”), plus “Ninety-Nine and a Half (Won’t Do)” (penned by Steve Cropper, Eddy Floyd, Wilson Pickett). Fogerty’s own titles, “Porterville” and “Walk on Water” hardly seem fodder for the sophisticated city slicker who’s been going to free speech rallies and considering a career as either a lawyer or professor once the whole counterculture thing blows over.

For the sophomore release the originals came to the fore but there too they are steeped in a world more in tune with dirt floors and dirt roads than beaded curtains and acid tests––“Born on ohe Bayou”, “Proud Mary”, “Graveyard Train” and “Bootleg” demonstrate a mind more interested in the mysterious past than the troubled present.

“Lodi”, found on Green River, is the lament of a musician who’s broken down in a small farming community less than 100 miles from Berkley. It has more in common with the poetry of Merle Haggard and Hank Williams than the protest songs of Phil Ochs or mind-altering ambitions of Jefferson Airplane. “Wrote a Song for Everyone” is as good as gospel (witness Mavis Staples’ version on 2010’s You Are Not Alone) and “Bad Moon Rising” might as well have been some sort of strange spiritual from a century before its recording date.

By the time Willie and the Poor Boys emerged at the tail end of 1969, the quartet had played Woodstock and music that reflected the old, weird America and the urban hillbilly more than the vanishing dreams of the psychedelic scene came increasingly to the fore via acts such as The Band; even the Grateful Dead would become prone to the charms of rural life with two 1970 albums, Workingman’s Dead and American Beauty. CCR issued Cosmo’s Factory with “Run Through the Jungle” and “Lookin’ Out My Back Door”, in which the author name checks Buck Owens, a sign of the changing times in the sense that it both reported on and predicted the important ties that country and rock would have in the coming decade. There were fewer hits from that point, although the fine songs continued, including “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”, from 1970’s Pendulum, and “Someday Never Comes” from 1972’s death rattle, Mardis Gras.

Surveying those titles, you realize that Creedence had more than a few hits. What’s remarkable about each of those songs is how fresh they sound to this day; they’re typically not burdened with production that marks them of that era, and lyrically, they aren’t filled with drippy mysticism that makes the listener either want to reach back through time to an era when hope was live and consequently drown in nostalgia or reach for the dial to change the station, declaring CCR music for the near dead.

So perhaps it’s surprising that Fogerty would choose to update those and some other compositions on Wrote a Song for Everyone. Records such as this, those that pair veteran artists with the new kids and on which said veterans revisit their hits at great length, are often desperate attempts to connect with a younger market (often at the insistence of a record label) or a chance for the artist to shatter the last of their dignity. Thankfully, Fogerty has done neither.

For one, there’s no showboating from the guests. Kid Rock isn’t there to rap and Jennifer Hudson, who guests on “Proud Mary”, must know she’ll never outdo Tina Turner as an interpreter of that song and so doesn’t try. Miranda Lambert kills on the title tune, and Alan Jackson seems to have been born to sing “Have You Ever Seen the Rain?”, offering just the right balance between placing his stamp on it and paying it its due respect. But more than all of that, Fogerty sounds strong and relaxed on those songs and the new tracks and the new material that springs up and shows that, yes, he’s still got the old magic.

At 68, it’s unlikely that the veteran artist is attempting an overhaul, some kind of last-minute reinvention that will break him with a new audience, but is instead celebrating his past and giving us a little hope that there are still writers and performers as good as him writing, recording, and performing today. The cast he assembles, including Keith Urban (“Almost Saturday Night”), Zac Brown Band (“Bad Moon Rising”) and Brad Paisley (“Hot Rod Heart”) is further proof of that.

Some have suggested that this record is at times underwhelming, but maybe in an era when so many overstate, when subtlety is as rare as a Confederate dollar, there are worse things one could do. It’s great to celebrate John Fogerty as he is today, and to celebrate all the gifts he’s given us -- those songs he’s written for us all.

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