John Denver was a staple on AM radio in the 1970s with a string of hits. The new tribute recording “The Music is You” reprises many of his classics tunes along with songs that probably should’ve garnered more attention. What comes shining through on “The Music is You” is Denver’s talent as a songwriter. It gets the Ear Bliss look-see this week along with a release from little known Memphis artist Mark Edgar Stuart that is highly worthy of attention.
“The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver”
“Rocky Mountain High,” “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” “Annie’s Song,” and “Sunshine On My Shoulder” are all songs ingrained in the psyche of people who grew up on the AM radio band in the 1970s. John Denver, the sunny-voiced singer from the Rockies, was the voice behind those endearing classics. The late Denver gets the tribute treatment, and in reputable style, on the new release The Music is You. Each of those songs and then some can be found on this salute. At 16 songs in length, “The Music Is You” is plenty meaty and has its share of star power what with the likes of Dave Matthews, My Morning Jacket, Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Train, and Old Crow Medicine Show among those onboard to pay tribute to the “Rocky Mountain High” guy. For the better part of the 1960s, Denver was immersed in the folk scene playing in various groups. He set out on a solo path in 1969 and his big break came soon after when Peter, Paul and Mary took his “Leaving on a Jet Plane” to the top of the Billboard charts. His own big break as a recording artist came just a couple of years later with the smash “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” It kicked off a string of hits through the middle of the decade. Appropriately, the album begins with “Leaving on a Jet Plane” as done in highly respectable fashion by My Morning Jacket that deviates little from the original. The album has its share of high points including Kathleen Edwards’ heartfelt rendering of “All of My Memories,” Brett Dennen’s moving version of “Annie’s Song,” Old Crow Medicine Show getting down-home and (blue)grassy on “Back Home Again,” and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros’ spirited version of “Wooden Indian”. Sometimes the best thing about a tribute album is it introduces a listener to material from an artist they’ve either never heard or did not realize the artist may have be responsible for. There’s a little of each of those qualities with The Music Is You. Frankly, how many people out there recall or even knew Denver was the songwriter behind “Leaving on a Jet Plane?” Whereas Denver was sometimes castigated for his music being too soft, “The Music Is You” is a stern reminder of the staying power of many of his songs and music and this collection does right by his legacy. Visit www.atorecords.com .
Mark Edgar Stuart
“Blues for Lou”
Here are a few sure-fire facts: It is unlikely you have ever heard of Mark Edgar Stuart and unless someone spends a whole lot of money, it is also unlikely he will ever play in these parts as a solo artist. Those two facts should not deter anyone from seeking out his sometimes funny, sometimes touching and completely heartfelt and terrific solo debut called “Blues for Lou.” A bit of back-story first. Only if you spent time in Memphis soaking up the music scene sometime during the last 15 years or perhaps were a subscriber to the now defunct bi-monthly periodical of all things alt country, No Depression magazine, and read it cover to cover might you have any chance of recognizing the name Mark Edgar Stuart. Stuart was a member of the Memphis-based band the Pawtuckets who released three albums between the mid-1990s and 2001 and gained a bit of notoriety in alt country circles. After the band disbanded he worked as a bass-playing sideman in the Memphis-based bands of Jack Oblivian and John Paul Keith & the 145s, as well as touring with Alvin Youngblood Heart. The genesis of Stuart’s solo foray can be traced to a cancer diagnosis he received in 2010 after feeling a lump in his chest and getting it checked out. The diagnosis was lymphoma and with treatments for it came much downtime. It was during that period that Stuart began working on his guitar technique before eventually dabbling in songwriting. As his health improved, he lost his dad. All of it led to the collection of songs that comprise “Blues for Lou.” Label it a personal record which Stuart dedicates to his late father who insisted he play music vice sports as a child thinking it would be the best path to college and a better life, but at the same time drawing inspiration from many sources. The centerpiece of the album is a beautifully composed and bittersweet tale of that cancer diagnosis and dealing with it that he calls “It Ain’t Fine.” It is buoyed by both clever wordsmithing and honesty and with a quirky melody featuring Stuart on the guitar. It’s an attention grabber as are all of the 12 tracks comprising “Blues for Lou.” Recommended. Visit www.madjackrecords.com .
Dan Ferguson is a freelance music writer and host of The Boudin Barndance, broadcast Thursday nights from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on WRIU-FM 90.3.