Painter, poet and musician Joni Mitchell turns 75 years old today. Her artistry has encompassed pop, rock, folk and jazz, earning varying degrees of praise and criticism, especially for her more experimental, jazz-centric works, but she remains, unquestionably, one of the most influential songwriters of the past 50 years.
Born Roberta Joan Anderson in Fort MacLeod, Alberta, Canada, and raised in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, she began performing in public, accompanying herself on ukulele, in 1963. In August of that year, she appeared on CKBI-TV in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan, as a one-time replacement for a moose-hunting show called For Men Only. Early on, Mitchell sang and played traditional English folk songs, which, of course, were among the most influential with regard to country music’s beginnings. Although they were often notable for their morbid themes — murder and the like — Mitchell said in a 1967 interview that she started writing her own songs, which she described as more “happy.”
In early 1967, Grand Ole Opry star George Hamilton IV, best known for the Fifties pop hit “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” and the 1963 Number One country song “Abilene,” scored the first major country-music cover of one of Mitchell’s compositions with “Urge for Going.” Hamilton’s version of the chilling and mournful folk tune reached Number 7 on the country chart, predating the single release of the first Mitchell cover to reach the pop Top 10 — Judy Collins’ “Both Sides, Now” — by a year.
“Both Sides, Now” was quickly covered by several country artists, including both Skeeter Davis and Canadian Anne Murray in 1968, Ed Bruce a year later (as “From Both Sides Now”), and both Glen Campbell and Willie Nelson in 1970. More recently, Allison Moorer cut a version on her 2008 LP Mockingbird. In 2010, while recording songs for what would be the final album released before her death in 2013, Mindy McCready also sang “Both Sides Now,” but her heartbreaking take would remain unreleased until 2015.
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A rather unlikely cover of one of the many highlights from Mitchell’s classic 1971 LP Blue was a 1976 rendition of “A Case of You,” by David Frizzell, younger brother of honky-tonk icon Lefty Frizzell. The record spent a single week on the country chart, peaking at Number 100. That album also includes “River,” which has been covered on a number of Christmas albums but has also notably been cut by a pair of country artists for non-holiday projects: a 1995 version by Rosanne Cash is featured on the compilation benefit album Spirit of ’73: Rock for Choice, and earlier this year, Hilary Williams recorded it for her outstanding LP My Lucky Scars.
A Mitchell song returned to the country chart in 1982 when singer-songwriter and record producer Gail Davies took “You Turn Me On (I’m a Radio)” into the Top 20, crafting a version that accentuated the song’s gentle tribute to country music. It’s as close as Mitchell has ever been to celebrating the genre in any of her work, with a lyric that even calls to mind the Carter Family staple “Wildwood Flower.” Although in 1969, during an episode of ABC’s The Johnny Cash Show, she performed “The Long Black Veil” with Cash himself.
Just a few years later, beginning in 1976, Dolly Parton hosted her own music series from Nashville, during which she would team with guest stars — including one of the earliest collaborations with her Trio partners Emmylou Harris and Linda Ronstadt — and sing several of her hits along with songs from all genres, both classic and contemporary. In one episode, Parton performs a song that she had never officially recorded (not as the lead artist, anyway): “The Circle Game,” which was already five years old when Mitchell finally recorded her version for her Ladies of the Canyon LP.
Living in Canada at the time, she penned the song as a message of hope for her friend Neil Young, who had turned 21 and was already experiencing pangs of what he perceived as the loss of his youth, a subject he turned into the song “Sugar Mountain.” Parton, whose deep affection and compassion for children has guided several of her own personal projects both inside and outside of music, imbues her version of “The Circle Game” with sweetness and optimism, adding her own sense of childhood wonder to the song’s wistful, magical melody.
In 2005, Parton recorded another of Mitchell’s song, this time teaming up with bluegrass queen Rhonda Vincent and Judy Collins on “Both Sides Now,” the song Collins first recorded in 1967. In recent years, a 2010 tribute to Mitchell featured Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin and James Taylor collaborating on “Big Yellow Taxi,” a song that Nashville stars Lennon & Maisy cut in 2014. Wynonna, who also appeared on that 2010 tribute doing “Raised on Robbery” with Bryan Adams, from the classic Court & Spark LP, included another song from that 1974 LP, “Help Me,” on her 1999 record New Day Dawning.
On Tuesday, the first of two tribute shows at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in Los Angeles took place, with “Joni 75” featuring appearances by Emmylou Harris, Kris Kristofferson, Brandi Carlile, James Taylor, Rufus Wainwright, Graham Nash and more. Following tonight’s concert, a birthday dinner honoring Mitchell will be held to benefit the programs and events of L.A.’s Music Center. Cameron Crowe, who conducted an epic 1979 Rolling Stone interview with Mitchell, will be on hand to present the Music Center’s Excellence in the Performing Arts Award.