In Defense takes a second look at a much maligned cover artist or album and asks, “Was it really as bad as all that?”
It is in no way difficult to see why you might find bluegrass covers of non-bluegrass songs completely musically offensive. Let’s put it out there: it’s no secret that if you sit there and knock out a pop classic on a banjo and fiddle, you are not asking to be taken seriously. For the most part, bluegrass covers exist simply for their novelty value.
Take for instance Hayseed Dixie, the inventors of “Rockgrass,” a group which began life as an AC/DC cover band (but for the timely intervention of Sony’s legal department, they would be known as AC/Dixie) and which has gone on to inject a new finger-picking lease of life into the works of Kiss and Queen, amongst others. They bring a “rocker” attitude that went out of style at about the time the Berlin Wall came down to a style of music that – let’s face it – has never been “cool” at all. You see them coming in their cut-off denim dungarees and their flannel shirts and you feel a rising wave of despair. It’s understandable.
But, that said, let’s not judge too harshly. We shouldn’t write off an entire musical style just because the idea of a group of guys going all dueling-banjos on some ’80s classics doesn’t tickle our funny bone. Some bluegrass covers can actually be quite good. Honest.
So, what makes a decent bluegrass cover?
Well, the main obstacle that must be overcome is the comedy barrier. Bluegrass is a genre with a distinct style and a proud heritage, so a good cover version will use that to its advantage instead of playing up to the banjo’s reputation as comedy instrument par excellence. In case you’re interested, here’s Bluegrass 101: usually, your standard bluegrass set up includes banjo, mandolin, guitar, fiddle and bass along with maybe an accordion or mouth organ for good measure. The songs often use close harmony singing, and their lyrics are very similar to other types of folk music – you know: love, sex, drinking, religion, heartbreak, all that jazz. The best cover versions slide these bluegrass tropes in without a hitch, and they’ll almost make you believe that the song has always been a country music standard.
Unconvinced? Check out Iron Horse. Much like Hayseed Dixie, they do play to the novelty appeal of bluegrass, having covered Modest Mouse, Metallica and Guns N’ Roses, but some of their work stands out as genuinely great takes on much-beloved indie numbers. Their album The Bluegrass Tribute to The Shins is a prime example. “Kissing the Lipless” works incredibly well as a bluegrass number; the shape of the melody, with additional close harmony singing, remains very faithful to the original, but it sounds as if they have been singing that one in the Appalachian hills for generations.
Another strikingly seamless cover is their version of The Goo Goo Dolls’ “Iris.” Hard as it is to imagine this song as anything but a morose anthem for all self-loathing teenagers since 1998, Iron Horse makes it more approachable by extracting the overabundance of angst and turning the song into a sincere and gentle folk ballad. What’s more, the mandolin and unusual guitar tuning in the original makes the transition to bluegrass seem completely natural.
Recently, we featured Trampled by Turtles and their version of “Rebellion” by Arcade Fire, which loses none of its drama for being performed by a small folk ensemble. Likewise, although not a full bluegrass group, The Wailing Wall‘s banjo-based interpretation of “Song to the Siren” (also featured on this site) stripped back the ethereal quality of Tim Buckley’s haunting original and revealed the bare bones of the song beneath. A simple but effective rendition.
So, there you go – decent bluegrass cover versions are not impossible to find. And when they are done well, they bring out the strengths of both bluegrass as a genre and the quality of the original track – because if a pop song can survive being transformed into bluegrass, you know that beneath all the electric guitars and the synthesizers lies good, solid, old-time songwriting.