Sept. 7 would have been Buddy Holly's 75th birthday. Though he was only 22 when his airplane crashed in Iowa in 1959, he left behind a body of work that has inspired everything from Paul McCartney's songwriting to Elvis Costello's look. This fall has seen no fewer than three Holly tribute albums.
Rave On Buddy Holly is dominated by alt-rock role models (Lou Reed, Patti Smith and John Doe) and current stars (My Morning Jacket, Modest Mouse and Julian Casablancas), but the best tracks are delivered by two Nashvillians and a Beatle. The Black Keys' Dan Auerbach sings a severely stripped-down "Dearest" that sparkles in its skeletal form, and ex-Tennessean Justin Townes Earle imparts an easygoing swing to "Maybe Baby" (and who can forget his daddy's version of "Crying, Waiting, Hoping" with Marty Stuart on the terrific 1995 tribute album Not Fade Away?). Paul McCartney gives "It's So Easy" such a primitive, hollering, garage-rock rendering that he sounds like the Legendary Stardust Cowboy.
Listen to Me: Buddy Holly is tied into the Holly tribute concert that PBS will broadcast in December. Peter Asher, of the Holly-like duo Peter & Gordon, produced both the studio sessions and live show, which features such '70s acts as Stevie Nicks, Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, Jeff Lynne and Lyle Lovett. It too has a Beatle on hand (Ringo turning "Think It Over" into a British music hall number) as well as a Beach Boy (Brian Wilson turning "Listen to Me" into a children's song).
Like most tribute projects, these two discs are unsatisfying experiences if you listen to them straight through like a real album; they're inconsistent in quality, and even the best tracks are inconsistent in sound. It makes more sense to download the best tracks individually — and those tracks are most likely to come from artists with a longtime gut connection to Holly: McCartney, Wilson, Nick Lowe and Chris Isaak. If you want a Holly tribute album that's consistent in quality and sound, you'd have to find one created from start to finish by an artist who has swallowed Holly's spirit whole.
That would be Nashville's Paul Burch, whose Words of Love: Songs of Buddy Holly has just been released on vinyl and as a download, but not as a CD (what strange times we live in). The album puts different spins on Holly's songs: "Rave On" becomes a Cajun two-step; "Not Fade Away" becomes spooky, atmospheric rock-noir; "Love's Made a Fool of You" becomes a Latin-percussion dance number; "It Doesn't Matter Anymore" becomes Owen Bradley-like countrypolitan; the title song becomes a beatnik bongo party. Some songs even echo Holly's original pop-abilly sound.
These different arrangements don't spoil the album's unity, because every track is marked by Burch's chirping tenor vocals and chiming lead guitar — two elements that capture the ebullient optimism of Holly himself. Holly's music has endured not just because he wrote great vocal hooks and great guitar riffs, but more so because he embodied the resilient hopefulness that every 22-year-old should possess. Burch has always had that same quality. That was obvious Oct. 15, when he performed in the back parking lot at Grimey's Americanarama celebration with a bouncy rhythm section and Fats Kaplin on fiddle. Burch's own compositions, such as "Little Bells," "Honey Blue" and "Waiting for My Ship" from his 2009 album Still Your Man sounded like B-sides to the Buddy Holly singles he sang in the same set.
Burch's Oct. 29 show at Peter Nappi's Studio is free, but seating is limited.