Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
The songs would just come from him, as if he was a vehicle from God that the songs flowed through… The man was driven to write songs. The music came out of a very deep place. And oftentimes, out of that deepness, John felt very alone. If you listen to his songs, there’s a lot of loneliness there. — Annie Denver
By the time of his death in a 1997 plane crash, John Denver’s image no longer fit the man. He had written more than 200 songs and had multiple gold albums; his concerts appealed to young and old alike; he used his fame to bring attention to environmental causes, championed the space program, and testified in Congress against the PMRC. But to the general public, he had become something to mock, a naive, uncool lightweight who said “far out” way too much and did his best work with Muppets. It’s telling that when USA for Africa was preparing to record “We Are the World,” they turned down Denver – who had founded the World Hunger Project back in 1977 – because they felt his presence would damage the song’s credibility. Denver, and his music, had not been getting the respect they deserved for far too long.
Mark Kozelek, of the Red House Painters, set out to change all that, spearheading a tribute album that was designed to alter the way people thought about Denver. “My idea for this record,” Kozelek said, “is to take artists that are less likely to be associated with John Denver, have them open up a new audience to his songs, and give exposure to his popular as well as less known but significant work.”
On that score, the album was a resounding success. The artists Kozelek chose to be on the album were members of the indie sadcore genre, and they approached these songs with gravity, respect, and not a hint of the mocking they’d received for years; rehabilitating Denver’s image was, to all of them, truly a worthy cause. (Another worthy cause: part of the album’s proceeds went to the animal adoption agency Pets In Need.) Anybody who imagined a John Denver tribute should include a hammed-up cover of “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” or a twice-as-fast “Take Me Home, Country Roads” was in for quite a surprise.
Bonnie “Prince” Billy – The Eagle and the Hawk (John Denver cover)
Will Oldham, in his Bonnie “Prince” Billy guise, starts the album with an a cappella rendition of “The Eagle and the Hawk.” None of the soaring exuberance of Denver’s original finds its way here; instead, there’s a spooky quiet, the sort that you find when you’re alone with your thoughts at ten thousand feet. It’s a perfect opener, setting the tone for the rest of the album.
James William Hindle – Whispering Jesse (John Denver cover)
“Whispering Jesse” addresses nature, flight, and the heartache of isolation, the three Denver themes that turn up repeatedly in this collection. James William Hindle sings with a cool sweetness about the mountain girl he left behind, and the greening of the Colorado springtime that may be distant now but cannot be forgotten.
Low – Back Home Again (John Denver cover)
Low’s slow-fi sound was an interesting match with “Back Home Again.” The organ gives the song a churchlike feel, but also brings out the sensual side of the lyrics – the line “fingers feather-soft upon me” somehow sounds pure in its eroticism. The murmured vocal from drummer Mimi Parker completes the song’s transformation from good-time singalong to a hymn meant to be heard – and felt – by firelight.
Tarnation (featuring Joe Gore) – Leaving on a Jet Plane (John Denver cover)
Peter, Paul and Mary made “Leaving on a Jet Plane” a big hit and gave Denver the foot in the door he needed to get his solo career off the ground. Tarnation (with Joe Gore helping on ambience) take the song in a different direction than it had been in before, with atmospheric guitar and slow “ba-ba” backing vocals. The song ends up with a dark, dreamlike feeling, but the dream involves being pulled deeper into quicksand.
Red House Painters – I’m Sorry (John Denver cover)
Kozelek appears on three of the album’s twelve songs; the Red House Painters perform a long instrumental “Fly Away” with loud grace, and he and Mojave 3’s Rachel Goswell do a lovely duet on “Around and Around.” He saved the best for last, closing the album with “I’m Sorry,” a song about a man trapped in a solitude of his own making. Remarkably, for a song with the line “More than anything else/I’m sorry for myself” in the chorus, there’s no sense of self-indulgent pity here; rather, Kozelek, like Denver before him, conveys the sound of one heart breaking, showing deep, true regret for making things the way they are.
Many critics were caught flatfooted on Take Me Home‘s early 2000 release; the songs were so good, they were forced to reconsider the source. Entertainment Weekly couldn’t resist further Denver-bashing, calling the album “a surprisingly heartfelt tribute to the late folkie wuss” whose performances “give Denver’s dippiness emotional heft.” But Salon.com’s review proved Kozelek had achieved his goal, calling Take Me Home “a triumphant record, a discovery — a friggin’ revelation as to how wrong an image can be.”
Take Me Home Track Listing:
“The Eagle and the Hawk” – Bonnie “Prince” Billy (Will Oldham)
“Follow Me” – The Innocence Mission
“Poems, Prayers and Promises” – Rachel Haden
“Fly Away” – Red House Painters
“Around and Around” – Mark Kozelek & Rachel Goswell
“Looking For Space” – Hannah Marcus
“Matthew” – Granfaloon Bus
“Annie’s Song” – Sunshine Club
“Whispering Jesse” – James William Hindle
“Leaving On a Jet Plane” – Tarnation
“Back Home Again” – Low
“I’m Sorry” – Red House Painters