A few years ago, country music producer Frank Liddell — who has helmed commercial and critical hits for Miranda Lambert and Lee Ann Womack, among others — was forced to prove his Elton John fandom to none other than Bernie Taupin, the man who has written the lyrics to the vast majority of Elton John’s songs.
“I asked him if there were hit songs that he thought should have been singles but weren’t,” Liddell remembers. “He said, give me an example. I rattled off a song or two. Maybe he thought I was BS-ing –- he called me out like, ‘you don’t know those songs.’ I said, yeah I do. He said, ‘sing it.’ So we’re sitting there and I’m singing his songs.”
Liddell must have passed the test with style, because he produced multiple tracks on Restoration: Reimagining the Songs of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, out today, which corrals some of the biggest names in country music and sets them to interpreting famous songs from the John/Taupin catalog.
Restoration is inherently more ambitious than its partner album, Revamp, which brings in a catholic selection of pop stars to cover John’s songs. That’s because Elton John is usually seen as a pop star, and pop stars are allowed — and, by critics, encouraged — to go where they please. But country singers are expected to operate within a set of narrow sonic parameters, and generally only lauded by critics if they do. Tributes to George Jones, Waylon Jennings, or Patsy Cline are seen as being within a country singer’s wheelhouse: A top 40 maven like Elton John, not so much.
But John — who is famous for owning a massive and wide-ranging CD collection — and Taupin have frequently espoused interest in country over the years. John recorded an ode to cowboy-hitmaker Roy Rogers on 1973’s Yellow Brick Road; decades later, he cracked the country charts by dueting with Catherine Britt on “Where We Both Say Goodbye.” Taupin co-wrote the Grammy-winning “Mendocino County Line” for Willie Nelson and Womack in 2002 and is a fan of Chris Knight, a Steve Earle-indebted country singer whose early work was produced by Liddell. Then there’s John and Taupin’s 1970 LP Tumbleweed Connection album, which was explicitly marketed as a meditation on country and western themes, full of outlaws and gun-slingers.
Liddell draws additional dots between John, Taupin and country. “What I got to know later just from reading was how much Bernie loved folk, blues, bluegrass and American country western growing up,” he says. “And when I read a book a while ago, I read the first song Elton ever played in a club was ‘He’ll Have to Go’ by Jim Reeves.”
John’s relationship with country music was also influenced by the timing of his rise. In the early 1970s, when his music first penetrated the American market, country was in the air. The same session musicians in southern studios might play with a soul singer one day and a country singer the next. Dylan had recently gone to Nashville; Elvis Presley recorded at both the soul palace, Stax, in Memphis, and RCA Studios in Nashville; Al Green turned country songs into R&B hits. Many of John’s early 1970s cuts exist in the same space as a group like the Band –- amiably funky records built on outsiders’ romantic ideas about the American south. (Like the Band, John recorded a song from the perspective of the South in the Civil War.) “I didn’t grow up in Nashville and didn’t define country by the radio growing up,” Liddell says. “Hearing [John and Taupin’s] music, I’d be like –- not all the time, but some of the time –- that’s some bad-ass country music right there.”
Many of the songs on Restoration are taken from the first half of the 1970s, when John was at his country-est. This is perhaps a missed opportunity: A more surprising selection of songs that pulled from records that do not code, at least on the surface, as country could make a bolder statement about John and Taupin’s allegiance to, and influence on, the genre. That’s not to say that these faithful renditions of John’s country material are a let down. Womack, who also happens to be Liddell’s wife, delivers a deliciously insouciant “Honky Cat.” And Miley Cyrus takes a creative approach to “The Bitch Is Back,” filling it with crass drums and stabbing fiddles that nod to late ’90s Shania Twain.
But the songs on Restoration that lie outside of John’s rootsy period are more exciting –- these covers are riskier, but also more rewarding. John’s “Sacrifice” from 1989’s Sleeping with the Past was slathered in –- and bogged down by –- the production common on the adult contemporary hits of that era. Veterans Vince Gill and Don Henley know that era well and know how to avoid its pitfalls, and their version of “Sacrifice” is a triumph, jolted to life by Gill’s tender sighs and Henley’s straining, craggy vocal lines. The ingenuity of those two is matched only by Rhonda Vincent and Dolly Parton on “Please.” The original, from 1995’s Made In England, was full of jangly Brit-pop guitars. Vincent and Parton transform it into a darting romp grounded in bluegrass –- the compilation’s true sonic outlier.
Liddell’s original argument with Taupin was about some of the songs in John’s catalog that aren’t as well known as he believes they should be. This installment tackled several of the classics, but Liddell is not ruling out a follow-up. “When we were done with this album, I was glad,” the producer says. “But I was also thinking, let’s start Volume II.“