There's a 500-pound gorilla in the room when listening to this record, and its name is Don Imus. Conservative radio host Imus found himself in the midst of a firestorm of controversy in 2007 when during a discussion of the Rutgers University women's basketball team, he referred to the players as "nappy-headed hos." While Imus apologized for the remark, it was hardly an isolated incident. For the purposes of this compilation, however, Imus and his wife, Deirde Imus, operate the Imus Ranch, a cattle ranch in New Mexico where children with life-threatening illnesses (and sometimes their siblings) spend a week as working cowpunchers, caring for and cleaning up after the animals to help the kids build self-esteem. Imus has used his high media profile and corporate connections to raise money for the ranch (the children attend for free), and his latest fund-raising project is The Imus Ranch Record, in which 13 country and roots music artists each cover a song Imus has picked out for them.
As music, this is hit and miss, like most benefit compilations, and while a number of the good tracks are very good indeed, when this set goes wrong it's cringe-inducing. While Willie Nelson could probably do a song like "What a Difference a Day Makes" in his sleep, he delivers it with the easy, satisfying grace that's his trademark, and Vince Gill's take on "A Satisfied Mind" is splendid, while Dwight Yoakam's rollicking tear through Doug Sahm's "Give Back the Key to My Heart" is a pleasant surprise that Sahm would doubtless have enjoyed. And if Lucinda Williams overplays her vocals just a bit on "Mammas Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," she brings a bluesy resonance to the tune that been missing in most versions. But Big & Rich's bombastic and irony-free rendition of the Beastie Boys' "You've Got to Fight for Your Right to Party" is simply embarrassing, Little Richard gets lost in the mix on "I Ain't Never" in what feels like a lost opportunity, and though John Hiatt sounds fine on the Bottle Rockets' "Welfare Music," the song's open attack on Rush Limbaugh feels rather curious on an album curated by another reactionary radio personality. As music, the good tunes on The Imus Ranch Record outnumber the bad, but there are just enough misfires to keep this from being a truly satisfying listen. And as for the cause, it's certainly worthy, but it's worth noting there are plenty of other ways you can donate money for ill and needy children without involving the controversial Imus.