A Tribute To John Denver
By: Eric G.
I never thought that I would find myself extolling the virtues of John Denver songs, but here it goes… Yes, John Denver was a goofy hippie. The bowlcut…the glasses…he was a cheeseball for sure- the type of guy who would use the word “golly” and not think twice about it. But he did, evidently, write some damn fine country-folk tunes. Try to block out the memories of the Oh, God movies, the Muppet Show appearances, and the footage you’ve seen of his embarrassing variety show, and just listen to the songs. I never even realized I had a soft spot for John Denver because, like you, I had written him off as an inevitable byproduct of the seventies, which was, undeniably, the darkest period in American cultural history.
Badman Records timed the release of this tribute well, coinciding somewhat with VH-1’s recent made for TV movie, which recounted the perpetually frustrated activist’s life and career. Chad Lowe starred as John Denver, and for some reason he looked like he was trying to act mildly retarded. The movie was so bad it was deliriously funny, but it somehow managed to portray Denver as a victim- a strange angle, considering his massive success, but it worked. Denver came across as a good ole boy just trying to make his daddy proud. Granted, he neglected his family to pursue his do-gooder save the world eco-maniacal missions in Africa, but, of course, in the end he repented to his family and all was forgiven. He was just a country boy, after all.
Mark Kozelek compiled these covers, and, as you might expect from the leader of the Red House Painters, the tribute is fairly solemn, focusing on Denver’s darker, more obscure musings. A few of his big hits are represented, though. Rachel Haden offers a multi-textured vocal on “Poems, Prayers, And Promises”, and she does a good job capturing Denver’s doe-eyed innocence. The Sunshine Club dares to reinvent one of Denver’s finest openhearted love songs, “Annie’s Song”, and manages to pay tribute while also drawing out Denver’s inherent sadness. Another huge hit is “Leaving On A Jet Plane”, which Peter Paul And Mary made famous. Tarnation may add some electronic sound effects here and there, but it’s hard to lose the song’s naturally downbeat aura. Mercifully, there are no ska interpretations of “Thank God I’m A Country Boy” nor any ska at all. Why tributes have been reduced to bad ska albums lately is still a mystery. I guess the ‘funny’ just knows no bounds when bands like Goldfinger and Save Ferris get a hold of your songs.
After Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy’s stark and beautiful a capella version of “The Eagle And The Hawk” it comes as no surprise that Denver’s songs lend themselves well to melancholic interpretations. The Innocence Mission brings its ethereal folk fragility to “Follow Me” with a faint horn section and pristine guitar pluckings. Singer Karen Peris sounds inexplicably Irish, though. The Red House Painters’ turn “Fly Away” into a seven-minute shoegazing instrumental anthem. Kozelek joins Mojave 3’s Rachel Goswell for a faithful stab at “Around And Around.” Even the male/female harmonies can’t quite reach Denver’s clarity and purity, though. Low trumps everyone with its goose-bumps-inducing version of “Back Home Again” in typical dirge-like fashion.
Denver’s mass appeal is easy enough to understand, especially after hearing how he has influenced a younger generation of songwriters. His songs are simple and ring true effortlessly. Denver couldn’t have been ironic or sarcastic if he had tried. This tribute follows suite. There’s not a trace irony or condescension in these homages. No winks or nudges that say ‘hey, Denver sure was a geek but this song ain’t bad.’ It’s respectful and sad. You get the feeling these musicians were deeply saddened by Denver’s death and wanted somehow to show him what he meant to them.