Some Comp. Lit graduate student at N.Y.U. is hard at work on a dissertation entitled, “Tribute Albums: The Un/masking of Minstrels(y) and Rhythms of Regurgitation”. This thesis takes note of the fact that in the months surrounding the release of Going Driftless: An Artist’s Tribute to Greg Brown, no fewer than twenty other similar compilations were issued, including two albums of homage to Pink Floyd, one to Johnny Cash, one to John Lee Hooker, another to ’80s music, and still one more to the Cajun stylings of zydeco. It will not be lost on this intrepid student of all things post-modern that this tribute phenomenon/and(on) is little more than a marketing ploy to sell new bands on time-tested material. After all, this dissertation is itself based on the research that led to the Kenyon Review essay entitled, “Diver Down: The Platinum-Selling Power of the Cover Song”.
Graduate students need arcane subjects as badly as good singers need great songs. Thus was created the classic recipe of the tribute album: take one old or dying artist who wrote some memorable tunes, mix in twelve to fifteen up-and-comers or past-their-primers, and — voila! — hefty sales. Hefty sales, that is, but not necessarily a great album. Take, for example, the soundtrack for i am sam: matching the likes of Vedder and Maclachlan with Lennon/McCartney sounded delicious, but the paltry and punch-less batch of uninspired songs smelled almost like forgery. To carry off a tribute album that can make old classics sound fresh, to record your own version of a classic and anticipate that someone might actually like your version, is the difficulty that makes creating an enduring and worthy tribute album rare indeed. That is why for every Grammy-winning Timeless: Hank Williams and every classic like Deadicated, the public will have to endure the release of a thousand and one A Salute to Poison: Show Me Your Hits (Release 9 January 2001 on Deadline Records).
Which, by way of introduction, brings us to the album at hand. Going Driftless looks — and sounds — at first as if it will suffer the same fate as i am sam; it promises a mixture of superlative songs and respectable artists. The ultimate fault of the Beatles’ tribute album was that the remarkable and intuitively well-known songs were unpunctuated by lifeless performances: The Black Crowes couldn’t match George Martin’s orchestral ear, and for all of Jakob Dylan’s pop genius, his Wallflowers could add nothing new to “I’m Looking Through You”. So it seems on first listen with this paean to the songwriting abilities of Brown: Lucinda Williams’ lamenting lilt might be too much of a downer for “Lately”, Iris Dement’s yodel of a croon might be too obvious for “The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home”. But, after repeated listening to this new drop of water in the infinite sea of albums promising tribute, one discovers the source of its success: each performance brings to the song the imprimatur of its creator, that is to say, every track is a gem because the tribute here is not only to Brown’s songs, but to his uncanny ability to combine sincerity with subtlety.
Going Driftless is an album worth having whether you own all sixteen of Greg Brown’s albums or whether you have no idea who he is. The performances are honest and sincere. The songs are of that tradition that puts Brown somewhere between Springsteen and Dan Bern as a once heralded “The Next Bob Dylan”. For the most part, the artists try not to rearrange or recast Brown’s songs, but rather attempt simply to give them new voice.
Lucinda Williams should be singing “Lately”, because she wrote the same song — albeit with different words and a different tune — and called it “Out of Touch”. Ani Difranco is the only artist other than Brown who can sing about “going out to take a leak underneath the stars” and have it sound believable. Shawn Colvin’s is the sweetness and sugar that turns the children’s ditty “Say a Little Prayer for You” into an assuring lullaby. Each being herself, neither trying to out-do Brown nor emulate him, the artists on this album add a new, interesting an valuable dimension to song that did not need it, but nonetheless benefit from such new scope. That is not to say that this album does not carry with it some cause for trepidation. For starters, if you want to enjoy Going Driftless, under no circumstances should you read its liner notes. The “tributes” therein to the performers on the album are so gratuitous and stilted that not even the artists’ parents could take them at face value. Furthermore, if you choose to disobey my warning and read the liner notes, try not to be deterred by the fact that track six, “Ella Mae”, is sung by Brown’s three daughters. Ultimately, their sweet and homey harmony is the only way to capture the haunting beauty of their father’s song to his grandmother. Lastly, try and see past the lesbian reading Difranco adds to “The Poet Game”; the song’s lack of moral or political sensibility was its original grace. The wince you’re bound to feel [if you’re familiar with the original] when Difranco sings “she left me at dawn / With a stick farewell kiss” might make you regret making fun of Shawn Colvin for her translation of “Every Little Thing He Does Is Magic”.
These minor lows are few in number, and they pale in comparison to the great heights of the album. Victoria Williams — herself beneficiary of a tribute album some ten years ago now –provides the album’s centerpiece with the down-home, back-porch scat rendition of “Early”. Gillian Welch’s “Summer Evening” and Iris Dement’s “The Train Carrying Jimmie Rodgers Home” are great bluegrass/country takes that will have strong appeal to the “O Brother” crowd. Karen Savoca gives “Two Little Feet” a taste of countrified funk a la Little Feat (no pun intended on her part, I think), while Mary Chapin Carpenter and Leandra Peak both offer more straightforward, acoustic, Brown-like versions of “Spring & All” and “Wash My Eyes”. Musically, Difranco adds an interesting but not interfering jazz feel to “The Poet Game”, while Larry Campbell adds his brilliant guitar to Lucy Kaplansky’s accusatory reading of “Small Dark Movie”. The funniest moment of the album comes when Ferron’s voice is first heard in “Where is Maria?”: if possible, her voice is even lower, grittier and darker than Brown’s.
It is incidental to report that all the interpreters of Brown’s songs on Going Driftless are women; it is incidental to the music — although pleasing to the heart — to note that all proceeds from the project go not to the artists’ pockets but to the Breast Cancer Fund. Ultimately — and despite the fact that his is a genius often overlooked — it is also incidental to Going Driftless that all of the songs were written and originally records by Greg Brown. The voices, sincerity and commitment of the artist grant the album a coherence and beauty that allow it to rise above the murky mire of the ever-expanding field of tribute albums. You might listen to Going Driftless because you’re a long-time fan of Greg Brown, because you’ve always wondered about Greg Brown, or because you don’t want to wait five years until Lucinda Williams releases her next album. You should listen to Going Driftless because, ultimately, its success is a tribute not only to the artistry of Greg Brown, but also to the vision of the performers who lend their voices to such a beautiful piece of art.