various artists,
Easy to Be Free:
The Songs of Rick Nelson

(Planting Seeds, 2006)

Recently I've been listening to a lot of cover tunes. A colleague put together a compilation of covers including William Shatner's version of the PULP song "Common People," Johnny Cash's take on Nine Inch Nails' "Rusty Cage" and a lounge-style reinvention of the Oasis classic "Wonderwall" by Mike Flowers Pops. What unites all of these songs, and many of what I consider to be the best cover versions I've heard, is that the artists haven't simply re-recorded an old favorite, they've invested it with a startling new personality.

Of course, not every great cover version has to be a radical reinterpretation. The English Beat's brilliant version of Smokey Robinson's "Tears of a Clown" is faster than the original and sets it to a ska beat but it's still quite true to the original. And the Pianosaurus version of "The Letter" (The Boxtops) is still a punchy pop outing despite the band's exclusive use of toy instruments.

And so we come to Easy to Be Free: The Songs of Rick Nelson, a collection of covers of 20 Nelson tracks. I think the best word I can use to describe this disc is "safe." Most of the artists included seem too much in awe of the songs they're covering to dare to invest them with much in the way of new life. The results, for the most part, are distinctly bland and uninteresting. Even a seasoned professional like Marshall Crenshaw ("Don't Leave Me This Way") can't turn this album around.

There are a few notable exceptions to this album's lack of flare. John McEuen of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band fame turns in a high-energy, rock-a-billy "Believe What You Say" with the help of Jim Ratts and Runaway Express. Liz Durrett delivers a barebones, sleepy version of "Try (Try to Fall in Love)," her voice double tracked, with plenty of reverb and accompanied by the most simple snare, bass drum and acoustic guitar arrangement. The result is haunting. In fact, Durrett's track marks a real turning point in the disc. From this point on Easy to Be Free is distinctly more interesting as Allen Clapp, the Autumn Leaves and Aaron Booth each turn in strong performances on "Lonesome Town," "Easy to Be Free" and "Hello Mary Lou," respectively. "Hello Mary Lou," which closes the album, is slowed way down, lending the lyric a helplessness that the Ricky Nelson version of this Gene Pitney composition didn't have.

And this brings me to the strangeness of this album's concept. Rick Nelson wrote very little of his best known material; fewer than half the songs on this tribute album were actually penned by Nelson. Of the songs I knew, only "Garden Party" is a Nelson original. Easy to Be Free might more accurately be termed an album of covers of covers. One bizarre exception is the track "One Night Stand," recorded on this album by Denny Sarokin, the song's author. Unfortunately Sarokin's rather thin voice fails to make the track a stand-out.

"Life will go on without me" wrote Nelson in the lyric to "Life" (recorded here by Astropop 3) and indeed it has. In the 20-plus years since Nelson was killed in a plane crash en route to a New Year's eve gig, he's drifted into relative obscurity. Easy To Be Free: The Songs of Rick Nelson will not do anything to change that situation.

A quick footnote to mention that a portion of the monies raised from the sale of Easy to Be Free go to support CancerCare.

by Gregg Thurlbeck
21 October 2006

Buy it from