It’s shaping up to be another stellar year for album-length coverage, with pickings so strong we’re hard pressed to take them all on in a single feature without burying the lead. Indeed, in the few short months since the year turned, we’ve already featured close exploration of Anais Mitchell and Jefferson Hamer’s Child Ballads EP, touted Levi Weaver’s free-to-fans covers EP as a “darling indie set” well worth your time, and helped Slowcoustic’s double-length tribute to J. Tillman’s Long May You Run take flight.
But the hits just keep on coming, and we’re getting backlogged here at Cover Lay Down. And so, throughout the next week, we kick off Spring with a short series of coverage of new and impending tributes to The Everly Brothers, Tim Hardin, Nick Drake and more – starting with a close look at the newest tribute to John Denver, due to drop this Tuesday on ATO Records.
John Denver’s heyday was in the seventies, and I was born in 1973; as such, until quite recently, my primary experience with him had been through starring roles in Oh God and on my wife’s favorite Muppets holiday special, and that hazy collection of other television and film appearances which float through pop culture like echoes of past fame. But coverage will out, and The Music Is You: A Tribute To John Denver, which is due to drop on April 2, is a triumphant tribute to the oft-spoken singer-songwriter, one which has awakened in me an adult’s appreciation for the work that brought him to fame in the first place.
To be fair, as songwriter and composer, Denver is easy to underestimate. Many of his early, most familiar lyrics are neither complex nor emotionally disruptive; rather, they are loving and sentimental, and celebratory of the earth and its wonders both intimate and broad. His pure, warm voice and simple, flowing melodies are an especially effective mechanism for their lighthearted delivery, and it’s no wonder these are the songs that most associate with his career, and his legacy.
But a deeper look at the catalog reveals more breadth. There is heartache in Denver’s ongoing catalog of distance from his beloved mountains and family. There is anger, too, in works which address his beloved ecology, and in such political songs as Wooden Indian, in which Denver rails against the historical treatment of Native Americans. When he speaks plainly of distance, disconnection, loss and longing, Denver’s directness can pierce the heart.
Previous homage has found the appropriate balance of depth and simple poetic beauty in Denver’s delights and disappointments – see, for example, thorough coverage of the excellent tribute Take Me Home, a beautiful turn-of-the-century Mark Kozelek project featuring Red House Painters, Low, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy and others on the indiefolk outsider spectrum which brought a new generation of fans to reconsider the genius of his work, over at fellow coverblog Cover Me last April. And singleton covers abound, from the ubiquitous and prototypical Leaving On A Jet Plane and Take Me Home Country Roads to the raucous cajun folk of The Decemberist’s Please Daddy (Don’t Get Drunk This Christmas), Youth Lagoon’s dreampop Goodbye Again, new-age devotional artist Simone Vitale’s lilting Jamaican-rhythm Sunshine On My Shoulders, and Damien Jurado and Richard Swift’s lo-fi Follow Me, which transforms the song into a muddy jukebox ballad filtered through Phil Spector’s wall of sound and Roy Orbison’s heartache.
The Music Is You is a powerful addition to the canon of coverage, with performances that stir the heart even as they reinterpret and, in some cases, deconstruct the songbook. And although it is a cohesive collection, with My Morning Jacket, Dinosar Jr., Lucinda Williams, Evan Dando, Train, Emmylou Harris, and many more of the usual suspects for this generations indie tributes turning in exceptional performances, it is the newer, younger voices who stun more than anything: Brett Dennen’s cover of Annie’s Song, for example, brightens the soaring gentleness of the original to something sunnier and bouncier, and more contemporary; Amos Lee croons Some Days Are Diamonds, which Denver did not write but brought to the country charts, as a fine, soft, heartbreaking gospel blues; Josh Ritter joins old friends Mark Erelli and Jake Armerding for a sweet and gentle bluegrass take on popular Denver cover Darcy Farrow that rings of John Hartford’s, while Kathleen Edwards brings a contemporary weariness to All Of My Memories.
Add in Old Crow Medicine Show and Brandi Carlile, and you’ve got an album destined to become one of the great tributes of its age. Listen to a short set of label-approved streamers below, plus a bonus collection of other John Denver tunes covered in folk… and then stream the whole thing at NPR until the album goes live on Tuesday.
Brett Dennen and Milow: Annie’s Song
My Morning Jacket: Leaving On A Jet Plane
Today’s Bonus Tracks:
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