About a year ago, a tribute album to John Denver was released which was in a word, awful. I reviewed it for KDHX radio, which was kind of fun, actually, given that you rarely get the chance to review something that offers itself up so completely to unequivocal derision. I know that it’s not cool to quote yourself, but here’s a bit of what I had to say about The Music In You: A Tribute to John Denver, illustrating a point that I’d like to revisit here:
“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 that she was tasked to sing, and was surprised at how much she liked it when in the studio recording it. ‘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!’”
That, in a nutshell, was the problem with the album: the contributors didn’t participate out of love, or apparently even a knowledge, of the music of John Denver. Many are too young to have heard Denver when he was constantly on the radio, and they also likely don’t realize how much a part of the culture some of the songs have become. And, in any case, the result was abysmal.
OK, now we move from the ridiculous to the sublime: Country Boy: The Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver by Special Consensus released this month is the other side of the coin entirely. Special Consensus has consistently covered songs by Denver during its 40-year run. (Cahill has remained constant throughout, as has the vision and the quality of the performances and the recordings.) They’ve done so because, as Cahill says in the liner notes, “These are great songs.” The musicians’ appreciation of the songs shows in every note, even when they are bringing something new to them, as with “Country Roads” or “Sunshine on my Shoulders”—songs that can easily risk feeling a bit tired or threadbare, if only because we know them so well. If I were to tell you that I’m about to play a version of “Sunshine on Your Shoulders” and it’s going to give you chills, would you believe me? Well wait until you hear the version on this album, sung as a duet between Rhonda Vincent and Dustin Benson. It will give you chills. I challenge you to tell me that it doesn’t.
“SONG Back Home Again”
Now, I need to qualify that idea of bringing something new to these songs. The differences in the arrangements and the feel aren’t earth shatteringly great, but therein lies the point that Cahill is trying to make. The band takes the songs and plays them as songs—this is music, not karaoke. The result is that the songs begin to speak for themselves, and we’re given an opportunity to hear the sentiments within them fresh, almost as if for the first time. Some of the songs, such as “Wild Montana Skies,” “This Old Guitar,” “Poems, Prayers and Promises,” and “Matthew,” don’t immediately even register as Denver songs, if only because they are less known. You could play them on bluegrass radio and they wouldn’t be “John Denver songs,” they’d just be good songs, and that’s exactly what the participants in this project intended.
The band approached the project along the same lines as the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band has approached their Circle projects, that is, serving as the house band for a range of guest artists. It works fantastically well. (The only moment that doesn’t work as well is the last track: “Rocky Mountain High” with Peter Rowan on lead vocal. He’s flat in places. I think he intends it, but it’s kind of grating. It’s like he’s trying to sing it through a filter of Tibetan Bhuddism, though the better decision would have been to just let the song speak for itself.) In any case, this album is an absolute delight. It allows us to enjoy some chestnuts from a fresh perspective, and it also gathers a fantastic roster of musicians in order to shine a light on some fantastic songs. As such, it’s a tribute in the truest sense of the word.