The Art of the Tribute: Strand of Oaks “JM”

Strand of Oaks "JM" Review

Tributes to fallen artists seem to come and go almost instantly. Most of the time, there is a benefit concert, a tribute album with bands covering that artist, or just a social media mention about what an impact that person had that works as an acknowledgment of that person’s impact. While all of these things are admirable, they seem to come and go without any lasting artifact about that artist. Then there’s the tribute song, something that can stand the test of time, but when written about another artist/celebrity, rarely does.  Rock history is littered with amazing tributes to friends and family, whether it’s Neil Young remembering is fallen friend and roadie Bruce Berry from the damages of heroine in “The Needle and the Damage Done” or My Morning Jacket’s haunting tribute to a friend that took his own life in “Dondante”, and those can truly move hearts and minds, but good tributes to artists are hard to find.

Of course, that’s why we hear Puff Daddy/Faith Evans “I’ll Be Missing You” (written for Notorious B.I.G.) and Elton John’s “Candle In the Wind” (written originally for Marilyn Monroe, then rededicated to different people time and time again) so often. There are a few better ones like U2’s “Angel in Harlem” written about Billie Holiday and R.E.M.’s “Man on the Moon” written about Andy Kaufman, but they are few and far between, especially since they rarely have a personal relationship with the artist. When the personal relationship is missing, the song seems to be lacking something true and moving.

Strand of Oaks aka Timothy Showalter, an indie rocker hailing from Goshen, Indiana, has written an absolutely pitch-perfect tribute song for this sort of situation. “JM” is written for late fellow Midwesterner Jason Molina, best known for his work as Magnolia Electric Co. and Songs: Ohia. The Midwest indie legend died from organ failure related to alcohol abuse late last year at the tragic young age of 39. Like many tribute songs written, Showalter was not friends with Molina having only met him once, but the impact his music had on his life was indispensable. “JM” is the centerpiece of his stunning new album HEAL and serves not only as the absolute perfect tribute to Molina but also an ageless listen for any fan dealing with the loss of one of their favorite artists.

“JM” really succeeds on two fronts. First it shows the influence of Molina’s music, as it’s an epic, confessional guitar jam like Molina’s best work, one part the soaring garage rock of Neil Young’s Crazy Horse and one part the fragile honesty of Elliott Smith. It’s one thing to cover an artist, and another thing to show their essential influence with a song that is your own, but also showcases how that artist impacted you musically.

But what makes this song truly perfect and will help it stand the test of time for really a tribute to any artist is its lyrics. Like any artist/fan relationship, the artist may not have been a personal friend, but the music itself has been a friend and companion to us in times of need. Sometime a certain song is exactly what you need when you are hurting and can be balm for the soul. Showalter talks about how when he was lonely, bored, aimless, or even suicidal, he always had Molina’s music to play. So Showalter goes through all sorts of specific times in his life where he was feeling down and then follows with the refrain “I had your sweet tunes to play.”  Here is the second verse for example which runs through all sorts of personal moments with enough personal detail to make it real but not too much where you couldn’t read your own story into it.

“I was sitting in the bath, cleaning off the ash

I had your sweet tunes to play

And I hated all my friends, and wouldn’t let them in

I had your sweet tunes to play

On a long desert train, with a knife in my bag

I had your sweet tunes to play

Under the Market Street Bridge, burning one in my hand

I had your sweet tunes to play, Your sweet tunes to play”

The song speaks to the power music has to be a real pick me up in times of need, and for that, I’m so grateful “JM” was written. Beyond the tribute concerts and albums that come and go (and there was a pretty good one for Jason Molina), “JM” is an enduring testament to the power of Jason Molina’s music and more importantly the perfect words for a fan trying to properly mourn and commemorate the loss of an artist who has made a personal impact on their life.

 

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