(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)
Tribute album projects are usually at one of two extremes: Either they’re sappy and overly obsequious, or else they’re totally off the mark because they were hijacked by some massive musical egos. The truly good ones, then, should be treasured.
Because, for one thing, there really aren’t many artists around today who are truly worthy of a full tribute. Is he or she a great songwriter, in addition to being a worthy live performer? And can they make great recordings? If they don’t measure up to all those standards, what’s the point of doing a tribute to them? I mean, would you stand in line to listen to The Golden Globes Salute Madonna?
And there’s a reason why you aren’t seeing tributes being recorded for new artists who notch a one No. 1 radio hit and are suddenly being lauded as superstars. They don’t deserve a tribute.
Some of the best current tributes are as good as it gets. Projects honoring Waylon Jennings, Buddy Holly and Guy Clark deserve space on your record shelf or in your online domain. These are artists whose work remains vibrant and relevant. The body of musical work by Holly (all these many years after his untimely death at age 22 in 1959) and Jennings (after his too-soon death at age 65 in 2002) remains as alive and as vital as they were on the day they were created. And Clark, who is still alive and well and writing in Nashville, has crafted a finely chiseled body of memorable songs.
Jennings, whose total impact on modern country music remains to be fully assessed, was always in a hurry, and it was only after his death that his work slowed down enough to begin to be fully appreciated. I have probably half a dozen to 10 older recorded Jennings tributes, and they keep on coming.
The latest, which is authorized by his wife and sometime musical partner Jessi Colter, is the second in a series of three projected albums. The first — The Music Inside: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings — Volume 1, a title guaranteed to turn away any possibly interested browsers — included artists from Jamey Johnson to Alabama to Sunny Sweeney and John Hiatt.
But the new one, The Music Inside: A Collaboration Dedicated to Waylon Jennings, Volume II — what a catchy title, eh? — is due for release on Feb. 7 and includes such artists as Dierks Bentley, Hank Williams Jr., Pat Green and Jewel.
One of the more off-the-wall packages is the Waylon tribute album Big Bull Band: A Tribute to Waylon Jennings. The band is from Norway, and its leader, Hans Olaf Castoden, has a sincere love for Waylon’s enduring legacy. Pretty nifty. And then there’s the Waylon Grass: A Bluegrass Tribute to Waylon Jennings by the Shady Creek Outlaws.
Waylon started his touring life as Buddy Holly’s bass player, and he just missed being on Holly’s airplane in the fatal plane crash that inspired Don McLean’s “American Pie.” Somewhere, I have a picture of me riding Buddy’s Ariel motorcycle, which Waylon bought after Buddy’s death and treasured for the rest of his life. Holly’s very sturdy body of songs continues to attract admiring artists.
The first Holly tribute from many years ago was by a member of Paul McCartney’s Wings group, after McCartney bought the Holly song catalog. Denny Laine of Wings and the Moody Blues recorded a short album of Holly songs, Holly Days, accompanied by McCartney on some cuts. Unfortunately, he was also accompanied on some cuts in those 1977 days by a drum machine. For collectors only.
The most recent and current Holly tributes include a various artists projects by a famed British producer and by a Nashville interpreter. Briton Peter Asher is well known to Anglophiles.
As a producer and as half of the duo Peter & Gordon, Asher well earned his musical stripes. As head of A&R for the Beatles’ Apple Records, he signed a then-unknown James Taylor to the label. Asher’s Holly tribute, Listen to Me: Buddy Holly, brings in expressive singers ranging from Stevie Nicks to Jackson Browne to Chris Isaak to Linda Ronstadt to Zooey Deschanel, to good effect.
Nashville’s Paul Burch came to prominence with his WPA Ballclub projects and continues to record worthwhile and quirky projects. His Words of Love: Songs of Buddy Holly is a heartfelt and expressive love letter that is well worth your listen.
There has probably never been a more thoughtful and appreciative tribute project than the current salute to the singer and songwriter Guy Clark. He has few equals in the world of exquisite song crafting. Clark is not a household name, except in the households of good singers and songwriters and astute music fans.
The list of singers who gladly signed on to interpret Clark’s songs on This One’s for Him: A Tribute to Guy Clark reads like a guide of tastemakers: Lyle Lovett, Shawn Camp, Rodney Crowell, Willie Nelson, Steve Earle, Hayes Carll, Radney Foster, Patty Griffin, Darrell Scott, Kris Kristofferson and many more. If you’ve never had the privilege of listening to such songs as “That Old Time Feeling,” “Let Him Roll,” “Dublin Blues,” “L.A. Freeway,” “Desperadoes Waiting for a Train,” “Old Friends,” “Randall Knife” and “Homegrown Tomatoes,” then I envy you the opportunity to savor them for the first time.