The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver
Reviewed by Jane Roser
Like many children born in the 70s, I grew up listening to my dad’s John Denver’s records (remember those?) and we watched his special with the Muppets at Christmastime, so the nostalgia of those times poured over me while I listened to this tribute album, arriving on what would have been John’s 70th birthday year.
John Denver died 15 years ago in a tragic plane crash, but his music has endured due to, as Steve Weisberg, John’s lead guitarist in his heyday of the 1970’s says, he “reached common values that endure in all of us. John had a way to bring people in touch with the part of themselves that they liked the best.”
This tribute album focuses mainly on the songs Denver wrote or co-wrote, the notable exception being “Darcy Farrow”, which he recorded three times and made famous.
Emmylou Harris, who recorded “Wild Montana Skies” with Denver (one of my favorites, sadly missing from this album) does a beautiful, twangy rendition of “Take Me Home, Country Roads” with Brandi Carlile.
I also really enjoyed My Morning Jacket’s simple, lovely version of “Leaving On A Jet Plane”, the song which brought recognition to Denver’s work after it was recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary in the late 60’s and became their biggest hit.
Most tracks on this album are straight up honest, guitar driven songs with a folk-y sound that John Denver fans will appreciate. The one notable exception being J Mascis (of Dinosaur Jr.) and Sharon Van Etten’s terrible rendition of “Prisoners”, which happens to be my all time favorite John Denver song. The reason this song is so poignant is that it was written about prisoners of war at a time when families had lost hope that they would ever see their loved ones again. This version bastardizes the entire reason for this song’s existence by taking out all of the lyrics, except for the chorus. Bad idea.
“Wooden Indian” is by far my favorite track. I had never heard the original version before and this is a (modern) improvement. Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros deliver a polished, frolicking song that makes you tap your feet and sing along.
It’s interesting to hear these very studio produced versions of Denver’s songs considering that in the 70’s, when most of these were originally recorded, his band heard the songs only minutes before they recorded them and would later refine them while on tour; but the recorded versions were mostly “let’s try this and see if it works”. And it did!
When writing this review, I asked Steve Weisberg if he had any fun stories to share about a song on this tribute album. He spoke to me about “Annie’s Song”, recorded by Brett Dennon and Milow for this album:
“Simile: A figure of speech in which two fundamentally unlike things are explicitly compared, usually in a phrase introduced by “like” or “as”. “Like a night in the forest” is a simile. “Like the mountains in springtime” is another simile. We have two similes. “Like a walk in the rain, like a storm in the desert, like the sleepy blue ocean.” We have five similes.
John had written “Annie’s Song” in ten minutes on a ski lift on Aspen mountain. He called to come over and play it for me, I don’t think Annie had heard it yet, since I lived on his way home from the mountain. I thought “Annie’s Song” was a grammar teacher’s nightmare. Five consecutive similes running amok. I knew nothing of the human heart back then. But I knew about similes. Every time John looked down at his guitar, I turned my head to the side and tried to suppress my laughter. I put my face in my hands, hiding the tears. It was so not recommended to laugh at one of John’s songs. But ALL I could hear was five consecutive similes. Despite my opinion, “Annie’s Song” had some success. It was #1 longer than I was in college. In some states, you weren’t allowed to be married unless it was played. John did not use me as his barometer of a song’s quality or hit potential. Go figure!”
In keeping with John’s charitable spirit, a portion of the proceeds from sales of this album will be donated to The Wilderness Society in his name.
The Music Is You also includes covers by Dave Matthews, Kathleen Edwards, Train, Josh Ritter, Old Crow Medicine Show, Lucinda Williams, Amos Lee, Allen Stone, Evan Dando, Blind Pilot and Mary Chapin Carpenter. Full track list here.
I wish I could agree with this review, but it my heart of hearts, it isn’t going to happen. I don’t expect the renditions of John’s music to be note-for-note copies, but I do expect that the songs won’t be rearranged to be almost totally unrecognizable (Dave Matthews on “Take Me To Tomorrow”), words to be substituted for the original lyrics (Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros on “Wooden Indian”) or any song on the album that John covered in his career, meaning “I Guess He’d Rather Be In Colorado” by Mary Chapin Carpenter (written by Bill Danoff), “Some Days Are Diamonds” by Amos Lee (written by Dick Feller) and “Darcy Farrow” by Josh Ritter (written by Steve Gillette and Tom Campbell). What about “Rhymes And Reasons”, “Eagles And Horses”, “For You”, “For Bobbie”, “Whispering Jesse”…the list goes on. This is not my idea of a tribute, for the most part. You do NOT honor John’s memory by taking this kind of liberty with his music. The only moment that was absolutely stunning to me was Kathleen Edward’s moving rendition of “All Of Myt Memories”, which brought me to tears. The rest of the album varies between fair and absolutely insulting, especially Matthews’ effort. I am severely disappointed by what I have heard, and unless a group of other musicians sees fit to try to do a project like this again and do the songs as they were written, I would recommend they leave it alone altogether.