I once bought a tribute CD to Jimmie Rodgers that opened with a track from U2, "Dreaming with Tears in My Eyes." It was hard to imagine that U2 had ever heard of Jimmie 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 Spring 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 Dennen to Dave Matthews to Lucinda Williams, to a number of people I've never heard before. The artists 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 have a hard time believing 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 a listener might get whiplash moving from track to track. Many of the musicians 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 may have looked to some 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 on "The Music Is You" try, desperately, to make Denver 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 Van Etten's "Prisoners." They and others use these songs to present their own signature sounds, though it comes off as if they haven't actually internalized what the songs are about, what the words mean. 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 seem trite, such as Dennen and Milow's "Annie's Song."
There are some stronger tracks on the collection, the ones that actually 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 and spirit of Denver's writing. Old Crow Medicine Show also do a delightful version of "Back Home Again."
At the end of the day, the one thing that this tribute makes clear is that John Denver really was a good writer, and there's a reason that we can still sing along to so many of his songs. They may have been pop hits, but they had an honesty to them as well. But that's as far as this project goes. "The Music Is You" may put a small spike in what are no doubt waning sales of Denver's music, but as an album unto itself it's largely forgettable.