Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Old Timers, New Songs

There’s been a minor cottage industry over the past 20 years or so of so-called over-the-hill artists making CDs of modern cover songs. I’m not a music historian but I think it all began with the Rick Ruben-produced American Recordings by Johnny Cash.

Cash was 62 when he made the first of a series of CDs ("American Recordings" 1994), containing mostly cover songs by a wide range of artists from Nine Inch Nails to Gordon Lightfoot and U2. The CDs work in part because Cash did them in a spare, mostly acoustic style, one that Ruben recognized was his strength. They are credited with not only reviving Cash's career but for starting a trend of imitators.

Other old-timers have followed, some more succesful than others. But even the relative failures are noble -- if it’s the only way the kids get an introduction to, say, the Man in Black or Solomon Burke, it’s all good.

I think there's a bigger benefit though. The best of these CDs give artists a chance to reinvent themselves in a way they couldn’t or wouldn’t do when they were at the height of their popularity. Ruben produced a CD last year by by Neil Diamond entitled "12 Songs" that was critically praised for it’s expressive songwriting. I'm not the worlds' biggest Diamond fan, but I have no guilt that ‘’Hot August Nights’’ is in my music collection. Still, he made his rep as a pop showman and listening to the new work, even if it's not your flavor, is proof the guy has big-time talent.

It's these explorations into craft and style that make these kind of CDs so interesting and while I'll always give them a listen, no matter who's behind the mike. It's a real case of you never know.

And it's great when you're not only surprised, but pleasantly so. Like last year's “Meet Glen Campbell”. That’s right, the Glen Campbell. The guy who gave us "Wichita Lineman" and "Gentle on My Mind," and was a pretty big country star 40 years ago. Now in his 70s, he's not the first guy you might expect to make a record of modern rock songs. But he not only did, he did it well.

Not that he's not got the right pedigree. He toured with The Beach Boys, filling in for an ailing Brian Wilson for tours in 1964 and 1965. And he's the guitar player on their classic "Pet Sounds" record. Throughout the 60s he was in demand as a session player and sat in on discs by Frank Sinatra, The Monkees and The Righteous Brothers (playing on their hit "You've Lost That Lovin' Feeling").

He later struck gold with "Rhinestone Cowboy" and "Southern Nights" and had his own CBS TV show, "The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour"

I am, to the surprise of my parents, a serious country music fan. Not the country music radio shit, but the outlaw singer/songwriter tradition that began with guys like Hank Williams and Bob Wills and rolls through Waylon and Willie, Billy Joe Shaver with side trips to Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Lucinda Williams. This is great American roots music with influences from blues, jazz, country, folk and rock and roll. While I wouldn't put Campbell in this group as a solo performer, from his other work, it was clear he was a serious musician, "Rhinestone Cowboy" aside.

Still, this record floored me.

First thing, it ain’t a country music record. Campbell and his producers came up with an interesting and quite eclectic mix of modern rock and pop songs that aren’t always readily recognizable. This is a good thing. Campbell does a fabulous job re-imagining stuff by the artists as different as Travis, John Lennon, Jackson Browne and even Green Day, his own without diminishing them. Even if you don’t like his style, you can’t argue that the guy doesn’t know what he’s doing. Instead of just covering the songs, he’s made them his own.

It’s a lesson a lot of younger artists would benefit from learning – the idea that you can pay homage to a good song by finding a way to put your own voice on it, literally and figuratively.

For this reason, I find myself going back to this CD a lot. There’s just a lot to appreciate about it. I especially recommend his cover of John Lennon’s “Grow Old With Me,” which is affecting but not overly sentimental, even when the arrangement almost takes us there. Campbell always had a nice voice but the miles he’s put on it have made it more interesting and expressive. He has an obvious appreciation for phrasing in that all of the songs sounds like he’s paying attention to the words. Clearly, this is a pro at work who is old enough to know what he's doing but not too old to get the new generation.

I’ve uploaded “Grow Old With Me” to my Vox stash, as well as his uplifting version of Travis’ “Sing” so you can meet Campbell again, too.

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