My son Will is old enough now to understand that there are many versions of the same songs. His almost-8-year-old ears are starting to differentiate between great, good, bad and horrific versions of the same tunes. I've spent some of this past year playing various artists' versions of the same songs for him with the intention of encouraging him to choose favorites.
I want my son to have the knowledge to determine what's good and what's a waste of time. I also want him to have the confidence to freely express intelligent thoughts and reasons as to why he loves some types of music and dismisses others.
That being said, this month I want to present a trio of CDs that have been interesting to both my ears and my son's. Maybe your kids will like them too.
DYLAN COUNTRY, Various artists, Shout! Factory, 2004, $13.98.
I've had this sitting in my stack of stuff to listen to for a couple of years. This past summer it finally made it into the CD player. My son loved some of the songs immediately. Dylan's always been a mixed bag for me, both musically and politically. At times I've thought his lyrics whiny and his sound unbearable. However, there's no denying his immense talent and importance to American music. His "Nashville Skyline" album is genius and his songs have been gleaned by county artists for decades.
This album is a wonderful compilation of some of his best- and least-known work. Every cut is a gem in its own way. From the relatively well-known covers by Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash to the surprising contributions from Jennifer Warnes and Nancy Griffith, this material is all worth repeated listening. I've explained to my son that this guy Bob from Minnesota wrote all these stories, and that others have such respect for him that they still sing his songs all these years later.
EARL SCRUGGS AND FRIENDS, Earl Scruggs with various artists, MCA Nashville, 2001, $18.98.
My son Will and I recently watched Steve Martin's "Pink Panther" remake. The movie was panned by critics, but we loved it. I explained to him who Steve Martin is and how he started his career working at Disneyland, playing banjo around the park.
The first album I could find featuring Martin's playing was this one, and my son was hooked. I'm thinking Santa might be asked to bring a beginner banjo this December.
Of course, there's much heavier stuff on here than Martin's contribution to "Foggy Mountain Breakdown." Earl Scruggs is quite possibly the most recorded banjo picker in history, and a living legend.
Many artists rushed to help with this tribute project: Elton John, Billy Bob Thornton, Travis Tritt, Melissa Etheridge, John Fogerty, Sting and Dwight Yoakam all participated. Marty Stuart, who started his career with Scruggs when he was only 13 years old, also shares a special moment. And Johnny Cash and Don Henley team up with interesting results. Thankfully, the theme to the "Beverly Hillbillies" didn't make the cut.
I have to admit I've had some trouble with banjo music (and canoe trips) since seeing the movie "Deliverance." If you can get beyond the kid on the bridge (and Ned Beatty's greatest role), you'll enjoy this CD.
TIMELESS: HANK WILLIAMS TRIBUTE, Various artists, Lost Highway Records, 2001, $18.98.
The first song on this compilation is Bob Dylan croaking his way through a Hank classic. I use "croaking" as a term of endearment. It's hard to wreck a Hank Williams song, and Dylan does an admirable job.
Unlike the "Dylan Country" project that collected versions from a variety of sources over a number of years, all of these Hank covers were recorded specifically for this album.
Williams was brilliant at creating little stories with simple accompaniment that stand the test of time. Keith Richards, Lucinda Williams, Tom Petty, Keb' Mo', Mark Knopfler and Sheryl Crow, among others, all pay tribute. The Johnny Cash recitation of "I Dreamed About Mama Last Night" alone is worth the price of the CD. My son thinks my singing, dancing Hank Williams Jr. doll is hilarious, but thanks to this CD, he's starting to understand why Junior's daddy is so important.
John Howell lives in Chicago. He's the father of 7-year-old Will and can be heard weekday mornings on WUSN 99.5 FM Chicago and nationally every weekend on the Westwood Radio Network.