You never know what to expect with a tribute album. They have a tendency to be very hit and miss. Often, the biggest downfalls are that the songs don’t sound all that different from the original and they just aren’t quite as good. While there are some songs on this album that don’t add too much to the originals (My Morning Jacket’s take on “Lullabys, Legends and Lies”, for instance), they still stand up well.
There’s some really great stuff here. Andrew Bird adds some beautiful strings to Silverstein’s poem, “Twistable, Turnable Man” from “A Light in the Attic” (I still think it may work better as a poem, but the song is very pretty.). Kris Kristofferson’s take on the “The Winner” may best Bare’s version, as his well-worn voice is just a great match for the lyrics (It’s the best humorous song on the album.), and John Prine really owns “This Guitar is for Sale.” Bobby Bare Jr. gets a chance to be on the other side of “Daddy What If,” with his daughter, Isabella, doing the child’s part (the part he performed with his father on the original). Dr. Dog shows off their Beach Boys like vocal harmonies for a fantastic version of “The Unicorn,” and Bobby Bare, Sr. does “Living Legend” for the first time on record with nice results. Black Francis does a solid take of “The Cover of the Rolling Stone,” which distinguishes itself from Dr. Hook’s version without messing up a good thing either. But the biggest surprise is the version of “Queen of the Silver Dollar” from eighteen-year-old Sarah Jarosz with Black Prairie. It may just be the best version of the song, and it certainly shows why she’s been nominated for the Americana Music Association’s “New/Emerging Artist of the Year.” It’s fantastic and the best thing here.
However it happened, Todd Snider got the daunting task of recording “A Boy Named Sue,” but if anyone’s up for the task, it’s Snider. He’s certainly backed by good people, including Sam Bush (New Grass Revival) on Mandolin and Colonel J.D. Wilkes (The Legendary Shack Shakers) on harmonica. It’s a nice arrangment and Snider does a good job altering the rhythm of the lyrics to give the song a little different feel (Although his final line for the song doesn’t quite work.); overall, it’s a solid take on a classic. Of course, it’ll never replace Cash’s version, but what are you gonna do?
The last two tracks here are Nanci Griffith turning in a nice version of “The Giving Tree,” which is followed by the short and silly “26 Second Song” – a juxtaposition that provides a nice little reminder of just how complex a writer Shel Silverstein was.
I’m sure some people will want to talk about all of the other great Silverstein songs they wished had made it onto the album, and I must admit I was hoping that “Put Another Long on the Fire (Male Chauvinist National Anthem)” would be here. That’s beside the point, though. What we have here is a tribute album that manages to be a very enjoyable listen all the way through, without any major missteps and with some truly great moments as well. Hopefully, it will serve as a reminder to some as to just how special Silverstein was and a great introduction for those who just never knew.
For further listening, find yourself a copy of Bobby Bare’s “Lullabys, Legends and Lies,” Dr Hook’s “I Got Stoned and I Missed It” and maybe Tompall Glaser’s “Tompall (Sings the Songs of Shel Silverstein)” because I’m serious about “Put Another Log on the Fire.”