Singer, songwriter, activist, optimist, owner of an impressive dome of golden hair and round, wire-rimmed glasses — John Denver was a lot of things. Cool was not among them.
He seemed painfully aware of his wholesome reputation, which he earned by singing some of the most heartfelt, glistening hits of the 1970s: “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Rocky Mountain High,” “Annie’s Song,” “Sunshine on My Shoulders.”
His verses alone were as pure as the mountain air of his beloved Colorado, which he often saluted in song.
“Sunshine on my shoulders/ Makes me happy.”
“You fill up my senses/ Like a night in a forest/ Like the mountains in springtime/ Like a walk in the rain.”
In an interview with the Minneapolis Tribune in May of 1975, Denver weighed in on his critics: “They just editorialize about how innocuous the music is,” he said in the story, which still lives online.
Perhaps he would be surprised, then, to see his catalog is getting a fresh look some 15 years after he died in a plane crash. Coinciding with what would have been Denver’s 70th birthday in December, “The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver” casts him in a different light. Out on Tuesday on ATO Records, it gathers artists from across genres and generations to reinterpret Denver’s legacy.
“John Denver’s music is something that’s passed down through generations,” says co-producer Brian Schwartz, who through his job at Red Light Management oversees Denver’s estate on behalf of Denver’s three children. “Ultimately it came down to: Who do we feel is going to take any given John Denver song and make it sound contemporary but with a lot of respect for the original? The whole goal throughout was satiating John’s existing fanbase and turning on new fans.”
The idea came about through a dialogue with Denver’s family, and Schwartz then partnered with Jon Salter, who’s the general manager of ATO, the label cofounded by Dave Matthews (who also appears on the album with his take on “Take Me to Tomorrow”).
As joint producers, they came up with a list of potential artists and songs they wanted to have covered. Although Denver often performed the work of others, “The Music Is You” focuses mostly on his own compositions, with a few exceptions (Josh Ritter and Barnstar! tackle the folk standard “Darcy Farrow,” which Denver helped to popularize).
It’s not the first time Denver’s work has been reimagined in a hipper context. In 2000, moody singer-songwriter Mark Kozelek enlisted other like-minded bands (Bonnie “Prince” Billy, Low, Tarnation, Kozelek’s Red House Painters) to cover Denver’s tunes for “Take Me Home: A Tribute to John Denver.”
“The Music Is You” is broader in scope, ranging from high-profile indie artists (My Morning Jacket, Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros) to established Americana royalty (Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Mary Chapin Carpenter) to more mainstream pop-rock acts (Matthews, Train, Evan Dando).
The album is heavy on Denver’s hits: Harris joins Brandi Carlile for a rootsy makeover of “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” Train offers a sickly sweet carbon copy of “Sunshine on My Shoulders.” My Morning Jacket gives “Leaving on a Jet Plane” a spectral glow. And Williams finds the stark joy in “This Old Guitar,” an ode to the instrument that gave Denver (and Williams) a career.
And then there’s J. Mascis, the irascible singer and guitarist for jagged indie-rockers Dinosaur Jr., duetting with Sharon Van Etten on “Prisoners.” Mascis, it turns out, is a longtime Denver fan. He once recorded a surreal, fuzzed-out rendition of “Leaving on a Jet Plane” as a 7-inch single for Sub Pop Records.
Van Etten had a fairly typical introduction to Denver’s music. Like most folks under 40 (she’s 32), the singer-songwriter discovered him through her mother, who was a fan and owned a book of guitar chords for Denver’s songs. She played them as a kid, but her adult reaction to his work reflects how most young people regard Denver: “Some of his stuff is borderline cheesy, but he wrote good songs.”
Williams, who’s known for her wounded songwriting sensibility, admits she had a hard time finding a Denver song that spoke to her experience. That is, until she learned Denver had a darker side beyond all that talk of sunshine and nature.
“He had this wholesome image, but apparently John Denver was quite the pothead,” she says. “I didn’t know that. That changes everything! That might explain that big smile he always had. That was kind of what maybe turned people off — you’re too sunny, the clean air, this clean-cut-looking guy with his bangs. Then you realize, wow, there’s all this darkness. None of John Denver’s songs have an obvious edge. You sort of have to read between the lines.”
“He was the guy that everybody kind of made fun of a little bit. Let’s be honest,” Williams adds with a good-natured laugh. “Whenever I tell people I just did a John Denver tribute album, they kind of go, ‘Oh, really?’ There’s this stigma about his stuff.”
Maybe so, but that didn’t prevent Salter and Schwartz from thinking it was a perfect time for a tribute album to a guy whose music dabbled in country, Americana, folk, and pop.
“My mom played Denver a lot, and the songs stay in your bones. There’s a familiarity and coziness to his writing,” says Salter, adding that he had been heartened by the recent success of tribute albums to Buddy Holly and Fleetwood Mac. “To be honest, I didn’t have any thoughts about this album being uncool. Besides, uncool is cool these days.”
Schwartz says it was not, however, intended to present Denver as an unsung hero of American music. It doesn’t need to do that.
“John Denver is a household name. I feel like he’s not underrated,” Schwartz says. “I can’t speak for his kids, but I never have gotten the sense from them that he’s underrated or that he has not gotten his due in any way, shape, or form.”
Bill Danoff, the Springfield native who co-wrote two of Denver’s biggest hits (“Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “I Guess He’d Rather Be in Colorado”), says the tribute does at least dust off Denver’s legacy and gives it a contemporary feel.
“When I listened to this album, I thought it was really cool,” Danoff says. “John’s ’70s records don’t come through to [younger people]. They’re very dated — physically, sonically. But this new tribute record is gorgeous. To me, they’re literally brand-new songs, and I think that happens all over that album. And that’s the tribute.”
It’s telling that in that same 1975 article about his naysayers, Denver was also prescient about how history would judge his music: “All right, I’m not Bob Dylan. I don’t write songs like that,” he said. “But I think 25 years from now people will be singing my songs even if they don’t remember who wrote them.”James Reed can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeJamesReed.