Tribute albums are tricky beasts. Any artist who warrants such acclaim will no doubt have a strong following with deeply held opinions about the merit of someone else singing those songs. Play a song too straight to the original, and there are charges of knock-offs. Deviate too far, though, and all hell could break loose. It's a fine line between homage and mimicry.
Witness last year's undertaking, Badlands: A Tribute to Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska. Ani DiFranco's interpretation of "Used Cars" was just as bleak and wrenching as the original, yet thoroughly her own. Conversely, Hank III should have been sentenced to hard time listening to lounge acts at Trump Casino for his butchering of "Atlantic City."
Yep, tributes are a thankless business.
A Nod to Bob tackles the artist of them all, "the single most important singer/songwriter in 20th century music." In this release by Minnesota-based Red House Records, the liner notes offer up too many of these laudatory words. When it comes to Dylan's lyrics, "Everything is major. Everything is profound. Everything is great." (Hardly. Check out 1985's Empire Burlesque.) Fortunately, the performers themselves avoid such overstatement.
It's a mixed bag, as tribute albums inevitably are. Some straightforward interpretations work better than others. Lucy Kaplansky sings "It Ain't Me, Babe" accompanied by an acoustic guitar. Her singing is emotional without being overwrought. A slowed-down "I Want You" is musically beautiful, with layers of organ, Dobro, chimes, and a piercing harmonica, but singer Cliff Eberhardt tries too hard to capture the naked longing of the song.
Selected by the artists themselves, the songs run the gamut from the familiar (and oft-recorded) to the obscure. In the hands of Vancouver's Tom Landa and the Paperboys, "All Along the Watchtower" becomes, of all things, an Irish reel, complete with flutes and fiddles. It's an impressive version, but what would Jimi think? The seldom-heard "Clothes Line Saga" suits the unique vocalizations of Maggie and Suzzy Roche. Hart-Rouge, a Quebec ensemble, performs a French version of "With God On Our Side," turning it into "Dieu à Nos Côtés."
THE TWO BEST performances on this album are sung by men who know how to sing Dylan, doing songs written nearly 20 years apart. Blues singer Guy Davis, with the High Flying Rockets (which features The Band's Levon Helm), slips into "Sweetheart Like You" as if it's a well-worn suit. From the 1983 album Infidels, it's a song that should be played just before last call at the neighborhood dive, when the dregs of the place, who can't or won't go home, know the lights are about to shine in their bleary eyes but who'll sit there listening to you for a little while longer. This song contains one of those couplets that illustrate Dylan's brilliance: "They say patriotism is the last refuge to which a scoundrel clings/Steal a little and they put you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king."
Greg Brown's rendition of "Pledging My Time" is another bluesy number. It's also saucy and sexy and wry. Like Dylan's original, on Blonde on Blonde, you think "pledge" might be an awfully binding word for the singer to profess, but you want to believe him. At least until those lights come up, anyway.
After featuring artist after artist who acknowledges Dylan as an influence, the album closes with a performer who influenced Dylan himself—Ramblin' Jack Elliott. Performing a live version of "Don't Think Twice, It's Alright," Elliott tells a story about the first time he sang it at a hootenanny in New York, with Dylan in the audience. Elliott does a spot-on Dylan imitation, thus rendering Dylan's hollered remark to Elliott during that show unintelligible.
Some of Bob Dylan's best songs ever were on his latest album, 1997's Time Out of Mind. The man has a lot of music left in him. But until the next Dylan album is released, or until he comes to your town on the Never Ending Tour, A Nod to Bob serves as a good reminder of Dylan's well-earned place in America's musical history.
Kimberly Burge is senior writer/editor at Bread for the World in Washington, D.C., and a Sojourners contributing writer.