It wasn't till the late '70s, after he had spent five years in John Denver's Aspen-based band, that Steve Weisberg began to see that his former boss was sort of cool. Weisberg was backstage at a John Denver gig at Los Angeles' Universal Amphitheatre when Christine McVie, from Fleetwood Mac, asked Weisberg who he was. When Weisberg said he had been in Denver's group, McVie - who was on top of the pop world at the time, just after the release of Fleetwood Mac's "Rumours" album - was impressed."She said, 'Oh, I love John.' And I said, 'You? You're too cool for that,'" Weisberg recalled. "I didn't understand how cool John was. He told corny jokes that would make me cringe."Weisberg wasn't alone. Denver, who lived most of his adult life in Aspen till his death in 1997, wasn't a model of hip, not with his simple, from-the-heart songs and granny glasses. But Denver's cool quotient is due to get a significant upgrade early next year. "The Music Is You: A Tribute to John Denver" is due for release in February on ATO Records, a label co-owned by Dave Matthews that has been home to Phish's Trey Anastasio, Primus and the Mexican guitar duo Rodrigo y Gabriela. The album will spotlight Denver's folky, sentimental songs done by popular and generally fashionable artists: My Morning Jacket doing "Leaving on a Jet Plane," Brandi Carlile singing "Take Me Home, Country Roads," Train covering "Sunshine on My Shoulders" and Edward Sharpe & the Magnetic Zeros, who were featured on a recent cover of the jam-band magazine Relix, handling "Wooden Indian." Matthews will contribute a cover of "Take Me to Tomorrow," and other musicians scheduled to appear on the album include Lucinda Williams, Brett Dennen, Josh Ritter, Amos Lee, Old Crow Medicine Show, Blind Pilot and J. Mascis.A portion of the proceeds from album sales will be given to environmental initiatives in Denver's name.Weisberg, who lived in Aspen through the '70s and has been a regular participant in the annual Tribute to John Denver concerts at the Wheeler Opera House, isn't surprised that Denver's music is being kept alive. "At John's memorial, Milt Okun (Denver's producer) said it was his mission to make John's music recognized as the classic Americana that it is," Weisberg said from New Jersey, where he was playing a handful of appearances focused on Denver's songs. "Milt was made rich by John, but before he got rich on the publishing, he was John's biggest fan. He understood what John was doing and bet on him and nurtured him."Back in the '70s, Weisberg would watch as models and actors scrambled to get front-row tickets to Denver's concerts. He couldn't quite grasp the attraction."I used to be surprised when a musician who was really hip would show up backstage. One thing John wasn't is hip," Weisberg said. "Paul Simon was hip. James Taylor was hip. John Denver was sweet and sincere."It hasn't taken having the likes of My Morning Jacket and Dave Matthews covering Denver's songs for Weisberg to re-evaluate his perception of Denver. As Weisberg has matured, he has come to see Denver's gifts - generosity, concern for people and the environment - in a different way."Was it corny? S---, yeah. Was it human? Oh, ever so much," Weisberg said. "I failed to grasp what was going on as a kid. Now I don't have a leg to stand on to deny it. It's not about 'Is the music cool?' John's music makes people feel things. John understood the human condition. John was a populist. His message was of the people, of the masses."Weisberg notes that Denver's songs reflect a persona that on the surface was simple but reflects universal human experiences. He brings up "Back Home Again" (which will be covered on "The Music Is You" by the gritty, old-timey group Old Crow Medicine Show) and says it's a song that any traveling musician can relate to, the desire to ditch the craziness of the road and settle in back home."They're doing it because they're listening to the music and going, 'Yeah, this is a great song,'" Weisberg said of the artists appearing on the tribute firstname.lastname@example.org
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