With his bookwormy specs, moppish 'do and Rocky Mountain high-lonesome vocal, John Denver was made for those mellow '70s. He was quiet, introspective, touchy-feely. He wouldn't have the volume or the ego to sniff the air at the top of today's brash pop charts. In 2013, Denver would be wedgie bait.
And yet, on the new The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver, for which modern acts cover the man born Henry John Deutschendorf Jr., there's newfound relevance in his soft, naturalistic odes. After all, we toil in blaring, electric times, and Denver's earth-first approach is unique, refreshing. Dave Matthews, Train, My Morning Jacket and Brandi Carlile sure think so.
An album of Denver covers makes comforting sense; he crafted songs everyone could sing, a humble master of the melody, a grinnin' king of the campfire. Out of respect for sterling craftsmanship — and perhaps an underappreciation for the artist who died in 1997 in a plane crash at age 53 — a lot of the artists here never stray too far from the source. They dig a sing-along too.
My Morning Jacket, led by unpredictable singer Jim James, takes a solemn, churchly approach to Leaving on a Jet Plane, written by Denver but made famous by Peter, Paul and Mary. If anything, MMJ's goodbye note, which has a soft, echoing effect and just a blur of haunting keyboard, is even more ornate, more heartbreaking than what you remember.
Carlile and Emmylou Harris keep Take Me Home, Country Roads as the same rousing sing-off, including the repetitive chorus at the acoustic anthem's end; the poetry may be "almost heaven" ripe, but wow, that's a great tune.
Train's Pat Monahan sounds like he's in a sobby fetal position during Sunshine on My Shoulders; it's really pretty, and really pretty sappy, so roll the car windows tight when you wail along. Lucinda Williams (This Old Guitar) and Kathleen Edwards (All of My Memories) take their spare, pained cuts personally as well.
There are a few offbeat touches here and there. Matthews adds loopy soul, and sturdy vocal muscle, to forgotten gem Take Me to Tomorrow. Old Crow Medicine Show puts its old-timey honky-tonk musk on Back Home Again. The Lemonheads' Evan Dando turns Looking for Space — infamous, to giant dorks like me, as a pivotal Magnum P.I. plot point — into an early '90s indie rocker. Dinosaur Jr.'s Jay Mascis, adding a jarring guitar solo, does pretty much the same thing to Prisoners. With 17 cuts total, the robust interpretations are needed to offset the usual tingly preciousness.
There's not much to harrumph about here — although it would have been cool to hear someone cover the life-affirming Thank God I'm a Country Boy (which he didn't write) and Fly Away (which he did). I'm thinking Eric Church for the first; Darius Rucker, with Kelly Clarkson taking the Olivia Newton-John part, for the latter. Maybe next time. Lord knows John Denver has enough hits for another covers go-round.
Until then, go find a patch of green grass, take a seat and a deep breath and get your Denver on: Country roads, take me home, to the place I belong...
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.