SONGS OF TRIBUTE
For my Waitin’ Around to Die column in Rhythms I recently took a look at some of the outstanding releases in the field of tribute albums. Specifically those that fall under the umbrella of Americana and alt-country, whether it’s in recognition of an artist’s body of work or a fundraiser to assist them in times of need.
Back in 2004, Alejandro Escovedo was struggling under the weight of medical bills, for treatment of Hepatitis C, when fans and musicians came together to organise benefit gigs and the 2CD compilation Por Vida: A Tribute to the Songs of Alejandro Escovedo which featured Lucinda Williams, John Cale, Son Volt, Calexico, Lenny Kaye, Cowboy Junkies, The Jayhawks and others covering Escovedo’s songs. Alejandro found it to be a humbling experience, saying recently, “I think it’s a really beautiful record, some of the versions of those songs are very eye-opening for me, to hear that music done in ways I’d never imagined.” A similar album was put together to assist musician and found member of Giant Sand, Rainer Ptacek. The Inner Flame: Rainer Ptacek Tribute (1997, reissued in 2012) featuring Howe Gelb, Robert Plant, Jimmy Page, Emmylou Harris, Evan Dando, Victoria Williams, Mark Olson, PJ Harvey, Lucinda Williams among others.
Of course the main reason tribute albums are put together is to honour the creative work and careers of highly respected songwriters. Some of the key architects of what has become Americana and alt-country have been honoured in this way. Hank Williams was given the treatment by some of music’s biggest names in 2001 with the album Timeless. Bob Dylan rasped his way through a jazzy take on ‘I Can’t Get You Off My Mind’, Keith Richards got low and bluesy on ‘You Win Again’ and Johnny Cash made ‘I Dreamed About Mama Last Night’ his own.
Steve Earle has always openly discussed his love and worship of both Guy Clark and Townes Van Zandt, two of the towering figures of poetic folk and country music. In 2009 Earle released Townes, fifteen tracks highlighting many of Van Zandt’s finest songs. Now, a decade later he’s about to release GUY, a similarly devotional tribute to his other greatest influence Guy Clark.
Speaking of Van Zandt, I highly recommend checking out the album Poet (A Tribute To Townes Van Zandt), released in 2001. Again, as a sign of the level of respect his writing garners, the likes of Willie Nelson, Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Robert Earl Keen, Lucinda Williams, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, and Steve Earle all contribute. Williams’ ‘Nothin’’ is a particularly affecting highlight of heartbreaking poetry and delivery.
Likewise, friends, students and contemporaries of Guy Clark came together over 30 tracks on This One’s For Him: A Tribute To Guy Clark, four years before he passed away. Ron Sexsmith gives ‘Broken Hearted People’ a lush, melody-heavy treatment, Kris Kristofferson blends spoken word with an intimate and weary rendition of ‘Hemmingway’s Whiskey’, while fellow troubadour Jerry Jeff Walker brings the ache and pull of nostalgia to ‘My Favourite Picture Of You’.
Gram Parsons’ myth and status as one of the early influencers of what has become Americana still continues to grow. Fittingly he was honoured by the genre’s current stars on the excellent 1999 compilation Return Of The Grievous Angel, an album that was notable for some of the resulting collaborations – Pretenders & Emmylou Harris on ‘She’, Evan Dando & Juliana Hatfield on ‘$1,000 Wedding’ and Lucinda Williams & David Crosby on the title track. Elsewhere Wilco, Whiskeytown and Gillian Welch all paid tribute to one of their scene’s figureheads.
Most of these songwriters have left this mortal coil but one currently enjoying a late career renaissance is John Prine. He was first covered on the ten song album Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine which had a different feel to some of the other records we’ve mentioned in that it is solely made up of contemporary and younger artists such as Justin Townes Earle, Lambchop, Deer Tick, Josh Ritter and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Its strength lies in how great songs can transcend style and genre.
For something a little left of centre, Caroline Records put together The Bridge: A Tribute To Neil Young in 1989 and drew from outside the world of folk and country music, instead drawing on the interpretive skills of artists such as Pixies, Nick Cave, Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr and The Flaming Lips. Pixies’ take on ‘Winterlong’ becoming something of a fan favourite and a song that many of their fans took as being one of their own songs.