Special Consensus & Friends
Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
John Denver—like Olivia Newton John—is a divisive figure when discussing 1970s country music. Unlike his Australian counterpart, Denver was a slightly more natural fit for the genre, although that didn’t stop folks from ridiculing his blend of folk, country, and MOR pop. Within his timeless The Phoenix Concerts set, John Stewart even sets up a song by glibly quipping, “Sunshine on my shoulders… makes me sweaty.”
Despite three country number one singles, some twenty-plus appearances within the country single and album charts, and Entertainer, Male Singer, and Album of the Year awards from various industry organizations, Denver was always a county music outlier, ironically too pop for even Charlie Rich.
Those granny glasses and Muppet appearances likely didn’t help.
Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver is a very comfortable album, and there should be no negative connotations associated with that designation as one is not intended. Many of the selected tracks are instantly familiar, and their arrangements and presentations are uniformly appealing.
There is considerable diversity within the set, with Rhonda Vincent’s restrained lead vocals on “Sunshine On My Shoulders” complementing the sedate, emotive instrumental textures laid out by the Special Consensus. “Wild Montana Skies” features Claire Lynch and Rob Ickes, and sounds quite wonderful, with a bluegrass push kicking it up a notch. Lynch’s contributions are significant—she sounds great alongside Rick Faris—and the guitar playing of Dustin Benson is just this side of incredible.
In compiling this album, bandleader Greg Cahill and producer Alison Brown make several key decisions.
Presenting the ubiquitous “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” as an instrumental is just one of them, but a significant one. Of the Denver songs chosen, it is the one best suited to stand independent of lyrics, generating a different feel here than it would have with its (arguably) overly familiar refrains.
Supplementing the recording with several guests drawn from the Compass family of artists is another important choice. It is hard to imagine a more appropriate vocalist to sing lead on “Rocky Mountain High” than Peter Rowan, and the bluegrass sage absolutely nails his performance; the album’s closing track also features a chorus of singers including Lynch, Vincent, and Dale Ann Bradley.
Speaking of Bradley, the Kentucky songbird duets with Faris on the endearing “Back Home Again.” Singing lead on the final verses, Bradley amplifies the emotional density of the song, transforming egocentrism into self-awareness. “Take Me Home, Country Roads” is faithfully performed by John Cowan, but with the benefit of his unconventional bluesy approach to all things ‘grass.
Another excellent decision was going deeper into the Denver oeuvre than greatest hits albums would suggest. “Poems, Prayers, and Promises” (featuring Jim Lauderdale), “Matthew,” and “Eagles and Horses” are each given memorable treatments, and considering these are most likely not songs the majority of listeners will recognize speaks to the strength of Special Consensus’ performances.
The instrumentation of “This Old Guitar,” I believe, is unique. On this track, all four members of Special Consensus play guitar—and only guitar—creating a tribute not only to a great song, but to an essential bluegrass component.
Limiting the album to only ten songs may not have been the best choice. While not stingy at 42 minutes, there was definitely room for more music. Most significantly, it ‘feels’ as if there should be more here—Denver had a deep catalogue, and this seems a sparse representation of his diversity. Leaving us wanting more is always a good idea, but…
Three tracks feature only the members of Special C. The performances of these songs are uniformly excellent, suggesting that the group might have comfortably stretched themselves had they decided to tackle another couple. I am certain the band could have nailed “Grandma’s Feather Bed,” for instance.
The Special Consensus and Alison Brown—who produced the album and is credited with the arrangements—have created a bluegrass album from songs that, in their original form, were far from bluegrass. As Dave Royko points out in his expansive and informative liner notes, “many of the themes are as bluegrass as Bill Monroe himself: home, God, country, prayer, even horses.” What I don’t believe Royko mentions is that Denver’s interpretation of these themes was not close to bluegrass, in singing style, mindset, or method of execution.
There is no mistaking Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver as anything but a bluegrass recording. The mandolin and banjo are prominent, the guitar lines clean and varied, the bass drives the pulse of the music. While the Special C doesn’t employ a fiddler, they have friends—Michael Cleveland, Jason Carter, and Buddy Spicher—to further enliven select songs.
The Special Consensus is approaching their fortieth year with Greg Cahill at the helm, and after nearly twenty albums, they somehow continue to become stronger and more appealing. Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver isn’t a typical Special C album, but it certainly sounds like one.
Thank God they remain bluegrass boys!