Define “cool”. According to that highly reliable source of all information Wikipedia, it is “an admired aesthetic of attitude, behavior, comportment, appearance and style, influenced by and a product of the Zeitgeist”. Whilst we all know that even attempting to attach a label to it is so uncool it risks condemning us to yet another lunch in the school refectory alone, “admired” may be the key component of that particular definition. Because although not many are lucky enough to achieve coolness, there is no doubt most of us certainly aspire to it such is its heavenly allure. And in music especially, cool is the key currency. So as of 2013, for example, HAIM is so “in” and Cliff Richard is (still) so “out”. Which is a pity, because it means I have to hide my signed copy of Wired For Sound every time the fashion police come knocking.
But hang on in there, Cliff, all is not lost! Because “cool” – just like music – is subjective by nature, which means one man’s Phil Spector is another man’s Phil Collins. And that’s lucky, because I never thought I’d see the day that John Denver even remotely entered the Kingdom of Cool’s highly mutable orbit. In fact, for so long Denver was a byword for naffness – a wholesome, geeky, sweet as apple pie singer/songwriter from Roswell, New Mexico, so saccharine he could rot your teeth at a hundred yards. I must admit I have never been the biggest fan, but that may be in part down to my own haunted memories of late night party sing-songs to the drunken refrains of “Leaving On A Jet Plane”. Being the only guitar player in the building I was usually entrusted with the necessary rendition, but by the time my fellow revelers would call for a 15th chorus you can rest assured my bags were packed and I was ready to go.
I realise now that “Leaving On A Jet Plane” is naturally a bit of a classic, part of the undeniable fabric of any easy-listening upbringing and one of John Denver’s best songs. But my own experience – and a vague awareness of soft country behemoths “Annie’s Song” and “Country Roads” – did put me off further investigation of the man and his work. And yet this month sees the release of “The Music Is You”, a rather unexpected John Denver tribute album featuring a whole host of distinctly Zeitgeisty artists, forcing me to reconsider my position. So, on the aforementioned Jet Plane we get indie darlings My Morning Jacket (who also popped up on a recent Buddy Holly tribute with a stunning version of “True Love Ways”), new Californian hipsters Edward Sharpe and The Magnetic Zeros take on “Wooden Indian”, whilst Lucinda Williams husks her way quite beautifully through “This Old Guitar”. Years of ridicule and dismissal from many quarters, and then all of a sudden Denver is cool.
I suppose the lesson in all this is that the song is all that matters in the end. Because there is no doubt John Denver was definitely a man who suffered for his image, and there is something refreshing hearing these songs in the hands and voices of others. What comes across is a songwriter at times both earnest and occasionally overwrought, yes, but also genuine, heartfelt and with one hell of an ear for a melody. So on the Roddy Hart Show this Thursday night we celebrate Denver as our Undercover Writer and hear some choice cuts from what is indeed a fine tribute album. If you’re a fan you’ll love it, and if not then maybe – just maybe – we’ll challenge your own preconceptions and change your mind. After all, trading musical passions is about as cool as it gets. Now, where’s that Cliff Richards record?