Today’s review looks at a few older tribute albums that I have. I’m interested not only in whether they are good, but what makes a tribute album worthwhile in itself.
Various Artists – Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows
For example, Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows is a well-deserved tribute to John Prine. Its songs feature trendy-but-not-mainstream artists from the folk and country scenes, basically aiming this at the modern version of Prine’s audience. The covers are very faithful to the originals, but that actually speaks to the range and influence of those songs. Josh Ritter’s version of “Mexican Home” sounds exactly like a Josh Ritter song, and the slick country packaging of “Spanish Pipedream” is perfect for The Avett Brothers. (Justin Townes Earle’s “Far From Me” actually sounds like what Earle should be writing.) The only misfire is “Wedding Day In Funeralville”, in which Conor Oberst sounds like an eager kid begging to sit at the adults’ table.
These are excellent performances of powerful songs, but the album still can’t help but feel a bit slight. They basically are Prine’s songs, just polished up a bit for today’s audiences. But Prine’s originals hold up well, and are still well-regarded enough in the modern folk community that the people buying this have little reason not to just buy his albums. Broken Hearts is a good collection, but more in the sense of a greatest hits disc or a remastered update, not in the sense of something new.
There are tribute albums that recast the subject in a new light or bring an artist to a new audience’s attention. This doesn’t do either. Though it’s too well done to be thought of as a cash-in, it is obvious that these (very good) tracks will be forgotten before they are as old as the originals are now.
Various Artists – Twistable, Turnable Man
Twistable, Turnable Man fills a very different role. Few people are aware that Shel Silverstein wrote songs, and many who do discover them are put off by his rough voice and joking delivery. He was a master songwriter, though, and a tribute like this is long overdue.
The performances here generally position Silverstein in the same folksy songwriter territory as Prine (he even appears here, in fact), though it has more variety than Broken Hearts did: Black Francis is a perfect choice for the exaggerated rock sleaze of “The Cover of the Rolling Stone”, and Dr. Dog’s pastoral approach to “The Unicorn” captures the hippie vibe. The artists represent multiple generations, from Ray Price and Bobby Bare, Sr. to My Morning Jacket and Andrew bird. Plenty of Silverstein’s recognizable humor is here, though he came from a less ironic era, and had a surprising amount of sentimental songs as well. “The Giving Tree” and “Daddy What If” both appear here to represent that. I don’t find them worth the re-listens of Silverstein’s other work, though. (My favorite song in that vein is “Comin’ After Jinny”, but it’s not included.)
With those exceptions, there isn’t a bad song here. Even better, you have probably heard of almost none of them, even though they sound like folk classics here. The only other track that casual listeners are likely to recognize is “A Boy Named Sue”. Todd Snider does a good job with it, but Johnny Cash already sang the definitive cover. However, “The Winner” sung by Kris Kristofferson deserves its place in the pantheon right next to that song. (Seriously, you need “The Winner”. It is another humorous song about a tough brawler, and just as good as the song Cash made famous.)
Twistable, Turnable Man doesn’t just introduce Silverstein’s songs to a generation that had no idea they existed. It also makes an editorial decision to present him as a sober songwriter with the occasional joke. In reality, Silverstein had many facets, and was predominantly a counterculture prankster. Though the artist selections here are impeccable, I find myself wishing for some of today’s libertines and stoners to cover songs like “Polly In A Porny” and “I Got Stoned And I Missed It”. They wouldn’t fit in on this album, though. The style presented here is an intentional artistic decision.
The songs on Twistable, Turnable Man are great on their own terms, just like those on Broken Hearts. But this album also serves a larger purpose, both drawing attention to a little-known artist and providing its own bold take on the works. That turns the whole work into something essential.
Various Artists – Hard-Headed Woman
Song by song, Hard-Headed Woman generally doesn’t live up to the standard of quality set by the above albums. However, Wanda Jackson arguably needs a modern update more than John Prine does. Her recording career began a generation earlier, and so the songs feel a little more dated today. Also, despite being adored by her fans as the “First Lady of Rockabilly”, she’s not generally well-known. (This is less true today, since Jack White engineered Jackson’s comeback album, but she definitely deserved more recognition when this compilation was made in 2004.)
This Bloodshot Records tribute loses Jackson’s personality and doesn’t try to copy her vocal tricks, but it offers honest appreciation and modern production. Also, it avoids presenting only one of Jackson’s faces. I’m sure it would have been tempting for this label, still early in its “country-punk” days, to focus on the proto-riot-grrl of “Hot Dog, That Made Him Mad” and “If You Don’t Somebody Else Will”. But they gave equal time to her wholesome country side with, among other songs, the prayer of “One Day At A Time”.
The main problem with Hard-Headed Woman is that the best tribute albums sound like they’re coming from peers acknowledging their influences. Here, the performers are obviously still living under Jackson’s shadow. Several have since become moderately big names, including Robbie Fulks, The Asylum Street Spankers, and Wayne Hancock, but the only real star is Neko Case. (If you’re a fan of Case’s pure country days, though, her version of “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” is a must-have. Never mind that Jackson isn’t one of the first five people you’d associate the song with.) The bulk of the album, though, is filled out with the people best known for rounding out Bloodshot compilations: The Bottle Rockets, Rosie Flores, and others. Aside from Neko Case’s standout, though, I actually think most of the best performances here come from the lesser-known artists.
It should also be said that the Bloodshot crew seemed more willing to adapt the songs than the stars of John Prine’s tribute did: Trailer Bride’s drone gives “Fujiyama Mama” a foreign, threatening feel, and The Cornell Hurd Band provide a funkier, country trash version of “This Gun Don’t Care Who It Shoots”. It’s easy to dismiss this as a bunch of covers thrown off from a small label, but they made a lot of their own artistic choices without any real missteps.
This album is far from essential, but it’s surprisingly fun and heartfelt. Plenty of music fans today know little about Wanda Jackson, and this tribute makes an introduction to her. The original songs would work as well, but these ones document her influence in a way that isn’t obvious from the old recordings themselves. In that way, this provides a unique justification for its existence.