Songs You May Have Missed #290

denver John Denver: “Matthew” (Live) (1974)

Though John Denver’s 1974 live double album An Evening with John Denver spent two weeks at number 2, went triple-platinum and spawned two hit singles, it’s a largely forgotten piece of his catalogue today, with the exception of #1 single “Thank God I’m a Country Boy”. (“Greatest Hits” collections, of which Denver has too many, often make relics of live albums). But like “Country Boy”, much of this record’s performances actually outdid their original studio versions. Denver put his all into a live album that was a celebration of his rise to the top of the pop music world, backed by a stellar orchestra conducted by Lee Holdridge and such luminaries as Steve Weisberg and Hal Blaine.

The gentle bluegrass ballad “Matthew”, the story of Denver’s real-life uncle, is superior here to its Back Home Again LP version from less than a year earlier. Denver’s voice, one of pop’s sweetest and purest, was perfectly suited to his homespun, optimistic folk-pop, similarly to the way Karen Carpenter’s was a great match to her lovelorn ballad material.

But more than a pleasant voice, Denver was hitting his stride as a singer. His phrasing in this song shows great instincts. He knows to draw out the syllables on lines like “born just south of Colby, Kansas“, while the chorus lines “joy was just the thing that he was raised on, love was just a way to live and die” see him skipping across the short words like a stone across a stream. By alternating similarly throughout the song he both tells his story more credibly and keeps the ear from tiring of one pace of delivery. It’s the subtle genius of a superior singer.

I’ll step onto the soapbox only long enough to say the American Idolization of pop is killing both subtlety and variety in today’s music. With Adele-style belting and Christina Aguilera-style pyrotechnics as primary templates, the singing competitions are the bland tributaries feeding too much of one kind of singing into the mainstream. A young singer today wouldn’t aspire to sing like Karen Carpenter–there’s no one like her on TV to emulate. Neil Young would be laughed off a singing competition show. John Denver came from a folk music background; young singers today don’t know what folk is. It’s a cliché to say there are no John Denvers anymore. But it’s accurate, I think, to say that pop’s rich diversity isn’t served well by TV singing competition culture.

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