Mark Kozelek, the leader of the impressionistic slo-core group Red House Painters, is
venturing deeper into a musical project that will pay tribute, oddly enough, to a singer
whose music and persona in many ways stand in stark contrast to his own.
Yet, as the characteristically morose Kozelek continues to collect tracks for the album in
honor of the late American folk-pop singer John Denver, known for his uplifting ballads
and ditties such as "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," the 31-year-old artist said he has
noticed a pattern emerging.
And it's not surprising, considering the source.
"It's all pretty melancholy sounding stuff," Kozelek said.
Artists such as Bonnie "Prince" Billy (formerly known as Will Oldham), Innocence Mission
and Richard Buckner are trying their hands at various tunes made popular by Denver,
who died in 1997 at age 53 in the crash of a small, homemade, experimental aircraft off
the coast of Monterey, Calif.
Kozelek, himself a singer/songwriter, said that the new versions of Denver's songs are
marked by "sparse production, mostly acoustic guitars, a little bit of percussion [and]
pretty soft vocals. It all flows together pretty well."
Although Kozelek has yet to sign with a label for the project -- which is expected to come
out sometime next year -- the completed tracks include "Eagle in the Fog," covered by
Billy; "Follow Me," by the folk-rock band Innocence Mission; a rockabilly version of
"Sunshine on My Shoulders," by experimental-pop ensemble His Name is Alive; and "I'd
Rather Be A Cowboy," from the self-described hillbilly-roots outfit Clodhopper.
One of the most popular recording artists of the 1970s, Denver's gentle, environmentally
conscious music established him as one of the most beloved entertainers of his era;
wholesome and clean-cut, his appeal extended to fans of all ages and backgrounds and
led to parallel careers as both an actor and a humanitarian.
Prompted to begin work on the tribute after Denver's death, Kozelek proclaimed himself
a lifelong fan of the late singer's work.
"I grew up listening to his music," said Kozelek, whose Red House Painters will be
performing a cover of one of Denver's most popular tracks, "I'm Sorry." "I have most all
his records, until he started making records in the '80s and '90s, which aren't as good.
But his music has always been there in my life."
Modern country-folk singer Buckner has yet to deliver his promised track for the album,
but Kozelek said that a "really, really amazing, really, really beautiful" version of "Looking
for Space," by singer/songwriter Hannah Marcus, was just completed.
Danny Pearson, former guitarist for the introspective folk-rockers American Music Club,
played banjo on Clodhopper's version of "I'd Rather Be A Cowboy." He said it was one of
the first songs he ever learned on guitar.
Clodhopper's rendition adheres fairly close to the original, said Pearson, who is in the
band with fellow AMC-alum drummer Tim Mooney, guitarist Tim Bierman, bassist Joe
Goldring and organist JC Hopkins.
"I always liked the song," said Pearson, 39. "I thought we could ... do it justice on the
record. There's banjo, electric guitar, minimal drums, bass, organ. [The original was]
pretty overblown, but that was John Denver's style anyway.
"We put some trippy drum-loops in there ... and there's a breakdown, where it breaks into
acoustic guitar. It's a nice little 'I-lost-my-love' song."
The album also will include tracks from Tarnation ("Leaving on a Jet Plane") and
Sunshine Club ("Annie's Song"). In addition to Buckner, Kozelek also is awaiting
contributions from the Mojave Three and Ivy.