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Published: 2003/07/28
by Chip Schramm

It’ll Come To You: The Songs of John Hiatt – various artistsThe Songs of Fred Eaglesmith: A Tribute – various artistsJohnny’s Blues: A Tribute To Johnny Cash – various artists

Vanguard Records 79735-2
TwangOff Records 001
Northern Blues Music 0017
Ideally, a tribute album should take a little of the
inspiration that the honored artist/band had on a
group of like-minded musicians and reincarnate some
old songs through the hands of those peers who share
the common bond. These three tribute albums all have
a little of that within them, but the stories that go
along with some of the musicians and selected songs
are what make them most interesting. It’s hard to
imagine that three musicians on Johnny Cash’s tribute
wouldn’t know more than a few of his songs, but the
colorful interpretations turned out are a telling
testament to the strength of the original material.
In the case of John Hiatt, his legacy is more because
of the artists who have covered his songs than his own
albums and performances. His album is loaded with top
shelf talent. Fred Eaglesmith’s works paint such a
melancholy portrait of rural life that the musicians
contributing to his tribute are relatively obscure by
Johnny’s Blues is exactly as the title implies: a
blues tribute. This suits Cash’s songs and style
rather well, with the folk and country influences of
his life’s work already lending themselves towards
blues interpretation. Even within this
framework, the musicians on the album were given wide
latitude on what constituted a blues song. Paul
Reddick’s version of "Train Of Love" is a clever,
straightforward blues tune to start the album.
Similarly Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown and Alvin
Youngblood Hart give Mississippi delta blues
renditions of "Get Rhythm" and "Sunday Mornin’
Comin’ Down" respectively.
But the album departs a little on several tracks, most
notably Corey Harris’s cover of "Redemption,"
which is just as much a reggae song as it is blues or
folk. Harris plays djun-djun, a double-headed African
drum along with guitar. The singing is also more like
wailing, similar to the Rastafarian chants in native
Jamaican music. The album closes strongly with gospel
legend Mavis Staples singing a soulful interpretation
of the spiritual "Will The Circle Be Unbroken".
Also worthy of note are the strong backing vocals on
Harry Manx’s slow and thoughtful treatment of "Long
Black Veil."
It’ll Come To You is an equally strong offering full
of superstar talent and impressive performances.
Buddy and Julie Miller’s opening track, "Paper
Thin," comes off sounding a little like AC/DC
playing a bar song, which actually works well with
Hiatt’s catchy lyrics. Robert Bradley’s Blackwater
Surprise provide raspy vocals and a soulful tone to
the title track. Linda Ronstadt outshines her ’80s
glitz with a very bright vocal performance on "When
We Ran," and B.B. King teams up with Eric Clapton
on their already well known top-40 cover "Riding
With The King." Continuing along the Beale St.
path, Buddy Guy turns out one of the strongest tracks
on the album, with a soulful, well produced rendition
of "Feels Like Rain." The female background
vocalists really compliment his guitar and lead lines
well here.
The second half of the album leans more towards
country interpretations of Hiatt’s folk ballads, from
Bonnie Raitt’s strong delivery of "Thing Called
Love" and Emmylou Harris’s breath-like vocals on
"Icy Blue Heart" to Rosanne Cash’s "The Way We
Make a Broken Heart" and Willie Nelson work on
"The Most Unoriginal Sin". Overall these tunes
would stand out well as cover songs on any one of
those artists’ own albums, but here they combine like a
Justice League of Americana songwriting gems. The
very last track is probably the most unique because
Hiatt actually performs on it himself, backing Freddie
Fender along with Ry Cooder, Jim Dickinson, and Flaco
Jiminez. The latter three of those musicians originally
collaborated with Hiatt to write "Across the
Fred Eaglesmith’s tribute is much less accessible than
the other two. His songwriting style is bathed in
rustic realism and populist pessimism, full of
allegories about the farm that the bank foreclosed on,
the married couple that drinks too much, and the
sister who cried the whole way home (presumably
returning from a funeral). It goes without saying
that Eaglesmith’s songwriting didn’t have as broad an
appeal as Cash or Hiatt; I had never even heard of a single artist
performing on the album. But that’s not to imply that
the album isn’t any good. Slaid Cleaves opens the
album with a tribute to an old school "filling
station" with "White Rose." Gurf Morlix provides
a loud and gruff but appropriate interpretation of
"49 Tons," a song full of frustration and
rebellion in response to a supposed relationship gone
wrong. The final track on the album "Indiana
Road" also has plays on themes of the small town
citizen fighting against a greater society that wants
to hold him down. Andy Levenberg of Old No. 8
offers up vocals reminiscent of the B-52s’ Fred
Schneider to hook the listener’s ear.
Overall Johnny’s Blues and It’ll Come To You are
superb albums that will appeal to all fans of folk,
blues, and country-inspired rock, regardless of their
familiarity with the song lyrics contained therein.
The Songs of Fred Eaglesmith will appeal more to
existing fans of the singer-songwriter, or those who
are attracted to depressing folk songs and repetitive
"man versus nature" themes.

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