Tribute albums — any compilation for that matter, but especially tribute albums — are by their very nature mixed bags. Among unknown acts are artists of familiarity; songs you don’t know butt up against ones you know by heart; and there is all probability that you’re only going to favor a percentage of the collection rather than the whole. That’s just how it goes. Sometimes the best moments on a compilation is when your expectations are so upended that you have to take a track on its own merit, as new, and separate from its source.
The Music Is You – A Tribute To John Denver makes that effort increasingly, and frustratingly, difficult.The source material doesn’t make this easy. Denver had been ever the pleasant, bespectacled country/folkie/slightly-hippified outlier of a genre that preferred outlaws and hard-drinking, womanizing, dog-kicking S.O.B.s He was a perfect gateway to country via his primary broadcast outlet — A.M. radio. Wedged between the A.M. peers of Motown, disco, pop, and rock, Denver managed to shine with his zen-like meditations on back country, and nature, and kinship with the philosophies of Thoreau. He stuck out, but not in a pointed, ugly way, and it worked. That then becomes the biggest problem with the compilation — sixteen tracks of John Denver with little in the way of a shake of the snow globe every so often is unsustainable.
Everyone is talented on the compilation, and most fall into the folk music subsection, and most will not fail to let you know that. So what the listener winds up with is one tenderly plucked acoustic track, after another sensitive tune, after another, with no consideration made to dynamics. A couple of renegades break through: Evan Dando fuzzes up “Looking For Space,” J. Mascis and Sharon Van Etten take on “Prisoners,” Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes freak out “Wooden Indian,” and Blind Pilot puts some spark to “The Eagle and the Hawk.” If you are familiar with any of those acts, then you already can guess what their versions sound like.
The same go for the traditionalists like Mary Chapin Carpenter, Amos Lee, Emmylou Harris and Brandi Carlile. These renditions are lovely but kind of predictable, and the fact that most of the people involved here are on “the same page” offers a consistency that goes from cohesion to just being kind of dull. Even the promise of a track by Train holds the hopes that it will break through somehow. Not being at all a fan of Train I was half-hoping their take on “Sunshine On My Shoulders” would be such a colossal head-scratcher that it would snap the weighty devotion ladled out over the collection; just give me something I can use here. But Train never fails to fail and their rendition is infuriatingly respectful.
As a bonus track on any of these artists’ individual records, the majority of these songs would be a lovely curiosity. Curated in this manner The Music Is You suggests you, the listener, are boring and not amenable to any jarring stimuli. A similarly-minded collection from the 1990’s, a tribute to The Carpenters, remembered that evoking Karen Carpenter through twelve-plus covers would be a total wreck, and so roughly half the songs were as ruthless as the most faithful ones, thereby supporting the whole. If only someone had taken the risk here and there, beside the folks you expected that from, The Music Is You could have been more than what it is…a career overview, not a celebration.