Album Review: Special Consensus & Friends — Country Boy: A Bluegrass Tribute to John Denver

Juli Thanki | March 27th, 2014

speccjohndenverFor such a seemingly mellow man, John Denver was a rather polarizing artist. For every person — and there were millions — who was drawn to his lite-folk records and (occasionally hokey) lyrics celebrating the beauty of nature, there was a Charlie Rich.

Denver’s music is experiencing a bit of a revival, thanks in part to last year’s tribute compilation recorded by several noteworthy country and Americana artists including Emmylou Harris and Special Consensus. Grammy-nominated (and Grammy-robbed) bluegrass foursome Special Consensus gets in the act as well for their follow up to 2012’s Scratch Gravel Road, rounding up a roster of grassy all-stars including Dale Ann Bradley, Jason Carter, and Rob Ickes to help salute the singer-songwriter.

Country Boy, which includes a handful of hits in addition to several lesser-known cuts, highlights Denver’s songwriting chops: there is only one song on this album that he didn’t write or co-write, “Thank God I’m a Country Boy.” Special Consensus, joined by fiddlers Buddy Spicher and Michael Cleveland and Alison Brown (who also produced the album) on banjo alongside Greg Cahill’s fantastic five-string, turns the classic song into a toe-tapping bluegrass instrumental.

John Cowan’s gentle tenor is a perfect match for Denver’s signature song, “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” and Peter Rowan proves his high lonesome can still reach mountaintops on album closer “Rocky Mountain High,” but the best guest appearance comes courtesy of Claire Lynch on “Wild Montana Skies” as she effortlessly captures the ethereal nature of Emmylou Harris’ vocals on Denver’s original recording.

The plodding “Sunshine on My Shoulders,” featuring Rhonda Vincent, is a rare misstep that aims for affecting, but lands on lackluster. However, the rest of the album more than makes up for it, as Cahill’s banjo rings through a souped-up version of “Matthew” as bandmates Dustin Benson and Rick Faris trade lead vocals and Jim Lauderdale delivers an evocative cover of “Poems, Prayers, and Promises.”

Cahill trades his trusty banjo for a guitar on “This Old Guitar,” a stunning ballad on which all four Special Consensus members display their instrumental skills with guitar solos while Benson and bassist Dan Eubanks contribute sweet harmonies alongside Faris’ lead vocal.

As a loving tribute to Denver and a fine record in its own right, Country Boy confirms that Special Consensus, who will celebrate their 40th anniversary in 2015, is one of the best bands on the scene.  It’s not hard to imagine John Denver is listening, somewhere, and smiling.

4 Stars

Preview or purchase Country Boy

  1. Daniel Mullins
    March 27, 2014 at 5:45 pm

    I agree. Terrific album! “Wild Montana Skies” was my favorite as well. “Back Home Again” w/ Dale Ann Bradley was also a highlight for me. Her down home charm fis the song perfectly.

  2. bob
    March 27, 2014 at 6:27 pm

    “Matthew” is the 3rd most frequently played song in my i-Tunes library. The version on this album isn’t bad but for me doesn’t compare to the original by Denver.

    My wife and I saw JD in concert at Madison Square Garden on November 11, 1976 – I still have the ticket stub. I consider it to be the best concert I’ve ever attended.

  3. Leeann Ward
    March 28, 2014 at 10:21 am

    A bluegrass tribute to John Denver? Sign me up! I will have to check this out!

    Bob, based on An Evening with John Denver, I imagine his would’ve been one of my favorite shows if I had had a chance to see him too.

  4. Leeann Ward
    March 28, 2014 at 10:22 am

    And Matthew is one of my favorite Denver songs too.

  5. Naomi
    March 30, 2014 at 7:51 pm

    I can’t wait to get the CD. I love John Denver songs.

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