There are lots of tribute albums around, though they are a curious bird. The assumption we make as consumers is that the people who contribute do so because they were inspired by the person whose work they are paying tribute to. I once bought a tribute CD to Jimmy Rogers that opened with a track from U2, “Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes.” It was hard to imagine that U2 had ever heard of Jimmy Rodgers, and even harder to imagine that they had been influenced by him.
Since then I’ve always been puzzled by how these collections come about. I don’t really trust them. This month saw the release of one of the most puzzling I’ve ever seen, “The Music is You: A tribute to John Denver.” The players here are a grab bag, from Brett Dennon, to Dave Matthews, to Lucinda Williams, to a number of people I’ve never heard of. They share, between them, pretty much nothing. It’s hard to imagine that some of them even know who many of the others are. And I frankly don’t believe that they all actually like the music of John Denver. Lucinda Williams comes close to blowing her cover in one of the promo videos for this release, noting that she didn’t know the song she was tasked to sing, and was surprised at how much she liked it when in the studio. “The more I got into it, I was really moved,” she says with a sense of disbelief. “I was actually moved to tears a little bit!” Well, golly. I guess if you are really inspired by someone, that might actually happen a little bit.
As an album, the sounds are so varied that you can get whiplash moving from track to track. Most of the players are too young to remember Denver’s television appearances and all those episodes of the Muppet Show. He was a great writer, at least I think so, yet no one said that in the 80s. At that time he was a caricature, round glasses and funny hair, to the point that he actually looked like a Muppet.
But I’m one of those people who secretly loved Denver, and for decades he’s been my guilty pleasure. “Calypso” is a song I identify with, and Cousteau was a childhood hero. I loved, and still love, Denver’s unvarnished enthusiasm for so many things that just weren’t cool. And his inability to see, or care, that he, too, wasn’t cool.
In contrast, so many of the recordings presented here try, desperately, to make him cool. Lots of brooding electric guitar and swallowed notes, as on Dave Matthew’s boring take on “Take me to Tomorrow” and J Mascis and Sharon Von Etten’s “The Eagle and the Hawk.” They and others use these songs to present their own signature sounds, though it comes off as if they haven’t actually internalised what the songs are about, what the words mean. In those instances, the package doesn’t match the contents. Worse is when that happens with songs that are so iconic, so ingrained in our cultural memory, that the versions here seem more like insults than tributes, such as Dennon and Milow’s take on “Annie’s Song.”
There are some nicer tracks on here, those being the ones that actually seem to pay a kind of homage to Denver’s writing and the kind of musician he was. Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado” and Allen Stone’s “Rocky Mountain High” work because they stay so close to the form. Old Crow Medicine Show do a delightful version of “Back Home Again.”
But at the end of the day, the one thing that this album reminds us about is John Denver himself. He really was a good writer, and there’s a reason that we can still sing along to so many of his songs. They were pop hits, but they had an honesty to them as well. But that’s as far as this project goes. It reeks of the John Denver people trying to cash in on the legacy, and to put a spike in what no doubt is waning sales. As an album unto itself, “The Music is You: A tribute to John Denver” is entirely forgettable.