Monday, August 23, 2010

Twistable Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein

Twistable Turnable Man: A Musical Tribute to the Songs of Shel Silverstein
Sugar Hill Records

The late Shel Silverstein, who died in 1999 at the age of 69, had a multi-faceted career. He first made his mark as a cartoonist and was best-known in that department for his work with Playboy Magazine. He was a noted author of children’s books and a folk, country, and rock singer-songwriter who made some interesting albums of his own – several, including his 1962 classic Inside Folk Songs were reissued just a couple of years ago – and wrote such hits as “A Boy Named Sue” for Johnny Cash, and “The Unicorn” for the Irish Rovers.

Versions of those two songs, and 13 more, are included on this loving tribute to the great songwriter from artists representing several generations of peers and admirers. While Todd Snider plays it pretty close to Johnny Cash’s chest on his version of “A Boy Named Sue,” Dr. Dog’s rendition of “The Unicorn” bears little resemblance to the Irish Rovers version as it cleverly moves between barbershop quartet singing to indie rock to folk rock and back again.

My favourite Shel Silverstein song is “The Ballad of Lucy Jordan,” a brilliant description of a suburban woman’s descent into madness. I remember thinking when I first heard Marianne Faithfull’s synth-laden arrangement in 1979 that it would have been a great country song and then saying “oh yeah” when I checked the credits and saw it was a Shel Silverstein song. This country-rock version by Lucinda Williams must now be regarded as definitive.

Another of my favourite Silverstein songs is “The Living Legend,” a song that must be forever associated with the late Bob Gibson, who recorded it back in 1974. The song essentially tells the story of Gibson’s life as a legendary artist who self-destructed and was back to doing any small-time gig he could get. Bobby Bare, Sr. does a fine job with it.

Another Silverstein song that I associate with Gibson is “Me and Jimmy Rodgers,” which classic country singer Ray Price sings as a classic country song.

Other great tracks include Kris Kristofferson’s version of “The Winner” and John Prine’s take on “This Guitar is For Sale.” Both Kris and John are at the top of their games. Also not to be missed is the fine version of “Queen of the Silver Dollar” by young Sarah Jarosz.

Then, near the end of the album, Nanci Griffith offers a beautifully poignant version of “The Giving Tree,” a song Silverstein based on one of his most popular children’s books.

What an amazing, multi-faceted talent Shel Silverstein was.

--Mike Regenstreif

1 comment:

  1. Forever is a long time... Thanks for remembering my dad, Bob Gibson, in your post. Shel's song became an apt title for all the years of my dad's post-folk boom career, thus the "Living Legend Years" compilation CD and four CD set. Of course, Making A Mess (of Commercial Success, Bob Gibson Sings Shel Silverstein) my dad's last recording, was perhaps the first tribute to Shel album... I'm glad the tributes continue!