Forty years ago, Graham Nash entered a California studio to begin work on his first solo album, Songs for Beginners. The Crosby, Stills and Nash member was going through a tsunami of personal turmoil at the time — his band had temporarily split and he had recently broken up with his then-girlfriend Joni Mitchell — but sessions for the album were "quiet," Nash has said. "I wanted it to be straight from my heart to whoever listened to it."
Songs for Beginners has set a high-water mark for just about every singer-songwriter since its release. On the album, Nash delivered indelible tracks like "Chicago" and "Better Days" — tunes that focused on not only the political and social turmoil of the time ("Chicago" addressed the 1968 Chicago Democratic National Convention, where thousands of protesters faced off with the National Guard) but also the deeply personal ("I Used to Be King" tackled Nash's relationship with Mitchell). When he finally released Songs in 1971, Nash's first batch of solo songs struck a chord with the country: "Chicago" was a Top 40 single while the album reached Number 15 on the charts.
Nash may best be known for his work with CSN, but a fresh generation of musicians are paying tribute to his incredible body of solo work. On the new tribute album Be Yourself: A Tribute to Graham Nash's 'Songs for Beginners' (out May 25th), the Raconteurs' Brendan Benson, Fleet Foxes' Robin Pecknold, and cult folkies like Bonnie 'Prince' Billy and Vetiver take turns covering tracks from Songs. "I don't hear enough about Nash," says Benson of Nash's resonance with artists today. "I think he continues to be underrated and overlooked, relatively speaking, of course. The quality of his voice is so unlike other singers — he's got that sort of Lennon sound. He can be pretty but he can also really drive it home. It's inexplicable, really."
The idea for Be Yourself was born last year, when Nash's daughter Nile teamed up with Britt Govea, an organizer of Northern California shows dubbed Folk Yeah!, and started approaching some of their favorite artists to contribute. After rounding up over a dozen musicians (which lean heavily on more "freak-folk"-oriented artists like Alela Diane and Jonathan Wilson), each artist was given a relatively generous five months to cut individual tracks. (Nile herself contributes the reprise of "We Can Change the World" and "Wounded Bird.") "Nile and Britt had a pool of artists they wanted to use and just sort of assigned the songs they saw appropriate," says Pecknold, who's currently cutting a new record with Fleet Foxes. "Nile worked really hard on getting this thing together and it's a fairly varied record stylistically."
The time frame for completing the record may have been lax, but most of the artists found covering an icon like Nash to be a daunting task. Benson struggled to replicate Nash's vocal performance on "Better Days," yet he ultimately picked up some new songwriting tricks from the experience. "I struggled with it for a good hour, trying to hit his high notes," he says. "I felt like a student, dissecting. The coolest thing about doing that song was realizing how sublime and subtle and complex the record is." And Pecknold, who contributes "Be Yourself," tried to add subtle changes to the song's graceful, pastoral sound. "I wanted it to have a slightly paranoid feeling," says Pecknold. "I recorded the backing vocals myself and then played them backwards and chopped them up a little bit so that choral stuff you hear is backwards-multitracked. That and one changed chord are my two pithy changes. Whether that came across or not is another story."
To celebrate the release of the album, many of the musicians featured on the record will be participating in a tribute concert June 4th at the New Parish in Oakland, California. But have any of the artists received any first-hand feedback from Nash? "I've never spoken to him but I heard he loved it," says Benson. "But, you know, you never can tell. If he does happen to love it, then, wow, that's great! But I was just happy to be part of it."