Compiling a tribute record cannot be an easy exercise, especially one that’s actually worth listening to. Getting a bunch of musicians pointed in the right direction with their complicated schedules and competing egos has to be like herding cats. Poor Dan Auerbach of Easy Eye Sound is the guy to has to say, “No, we can’t have seven different versions of ‘Seminole Wind’ on this thing.” He then has to call in favors to get folks into the studio. “Hey Eric Church, ‘member when you and Morgan Wallen got caught with that dead body and I brought you a shovel and a bag of lime? Well get over here and cut me a version of ‘Mississippi Moon,’ mkay?”
Then of course there is the question if whatever you end up with is actually worth listening to, especially when the subject is someone like John Anderson. When he sang a song, it had done been sung. His distinct voice that sounds like it’s run through a wah-wah guitar pedal squeezes the emotion out of every moment, and puts a distinctive and definitive mark on every track he ever cut. How is any artists supposed to compete with that?
But it’s up to both the contributors and the audience to shift into a different gear when approaching a compilation such as this. There will be some hits and misses, and nothing will be as good as the original. But that’s not the point. The point is to pay tribute, and the performers who either volunteered or that Dan Auerbach was able to strong arm into participating is really a big part of the story. It’s a cross section of some of the greatest, and most important country artists of our current time, stratified across the independent/mainstream divide.
Some will ask why John Anderson’s contemporaries from the neotraditionalist movement of the 80s didn’t make it into the track list. But I’m not sure that’s the point of an exercise like this. When it works at its best, the country music ecosystem requires younger artists to pay their dues and study the old greats as they’re coming up. This not only ensures the circle remains unbroken, it also exposes younger audiences to the older greats. Wrangling Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, Sierra Ferrell, as well as Luke Combs, Eric Church, and Ashley McBryde for this thing was a feat unto itself, and makes it worth paying attention to if nothing else.
The fact that this tribute starts off with an unheard recording of John Prine who’s been gone now for two years now speaks to just how long it takes to put something like this together. It’s also one of the multiple reasons this is not just ‘another’ tribute record. A lot of love went into this one, including full production videos for some of the songs, including the 2nd and 3rd tracks from Sierra Ferrell and Brent Cobb, which might be the album’s best.
Sierra Ferrell threw a slight curveball by not picking a classic. She instead goes with Anderson’s recent comeback song “Years,” and really hits it out of the park as a stripped down country tune. It sounds cliché, but the best cover songs are the ones the artist “makes it their own,” and that what Brent Cobb does with “Wild and Blue,” picking up on the Louisiana inflections in the original version, and expanding on them with accordion and Cajun triangle.
Eric Church turns in an extra funky version of “Mississippi Mud,” and Luke Combs—who won the arm wrestling contest to record “Seminole Wind”—takes a more contemporary approach to his track. Of the mainstream contributors, Ashley McBryde’s “Straight Tequila Night” might be the best, even though some of the production feels a bit like adult contemporary. John Anderson was a true country artist, but this compilation doesn’t feel especially “country.” It’s more of an amalgam of styles that rotate around country, like the folky version of David Rawlings and Gillian Welch doing “I Just Came Home to Count The Memories,” embellished with strings.
Tyler Childers is as big of an artist as any at this point, and more elusive than most. But Auerbach and co-producer David Ferguson coaxed him into the studio for a version of “Shoot Low Sheriff!” If you know Childers, you know sometimes he delivers things with a little tongue-in-cheek attitude, despite a deadpan countenance. Remember, he’s got a song out there about masturbation that he dresses up as a heartfelt love song.
The Saturday after Something Borrowed, Something New was released, the Grand Ole Opry paid tribute to John Anderson as well. When Anderson was an aspiring artist, he helped put the roof on the Grand Ole Opry House as a construction worker, peering down through the beams where the stage would be, wondering if he’d ever have an opportunity to play there.
“I want to say what an honor it is to be up here standing with this young man. In my opinion, he’s one of the greatest singers and songwriters to come along in a long time. Y’all are gonna be hearing a lot from this young man,” Anderson said about Tyler Childers on the Opry. I think we already have heard a lot from Childers, with a lot of folks wondering when we will hear more. Natalie Stovall also very briefly interviewed Childers afterwards. Thankfully Bobby Bones was off having his taint waxed or something and wasn’t there Saturday night throwing a wet rag over everything.
But maybe the biggest takeaway from this tribute album is the Sturgill Simpson track. His song, “When It Comes To You,” takes a bit of a bluesy approach. Again, this tribute doesn’t feel especially “country,” with a lot of organ/keyboard in the mix as opposed to pedal steel. But it’s Sturgill’s voice that feels like it’s worth remarking on. Remember, he suffered a vocal chord injury, and since then he hasn’t really performed or released any new material. It’s not that his voice is bad or better, but if you’ve been listening to him for years, it definitely sounds different. I’m unsure if this song was recorded before or after his surgery, or perhaps during the time when he was having issues.
Like all tributes, you take away the songs that appeal to you, and probably never think about the others again. It’s a grab bag. But the point here was to put John Anderson back in the spotlight after years of neglect by the mainstream country industry, and Dan Auerbach deserves a pat on the back for this if nothing else. This album was probably meant to come out closer to Anderson’s Years album released in 2020, or to coincide with it. But with COVID and everything, better late than never for this tribute album that’s more good than bad.
1 1/2 Guns Up (7.5/10)
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