Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Nebraska is the Bruce Springsteen album that it’s cool to like. Springsteen’s previous album, The River, had his biggest hit in “Hungry Heart,” and he was ready to break huge. Instead, he released an album that was literally a demo on a cassette, with all the intimacy and intensity that that entails. “I was interested in writing kind of smaller than I had been,” Springsteen said, and that’s what he did with Nebraska, focusing on individuals in trouble with an intensity that was more cathartic than a mostly-acoustic album would be expected to carry.
The respect that Nebraska has gained over the past three and a half decades has been equally split among fans, critics, and artists. The latter have saluted the album multiple ways, including a 2000 release from Sub Pop called Badlands, a full-album tribute that featured artists from Johnny Cash to Chrissie Hynde to Los Lobos. It had its moments, but a much smaller release called Long Distance Salvation did a much better job at conveying the original’s impact, even as it expanded on Springsteen’s work.
Released on the 30th anniversary of the original album (next month marks the 35th), Long Distance Salvation was put together by Scott Pingeton to benefit Project Bread, an organization dedicated to ending hunger. “I reached out to artists I felt best captured the tradition of folk storytelling in their own music,” Pingeton said about the artist selection process. “To be honest, at the beginning it felt odd to ask these artists that I look up to and revere to devote their time to my pet project. But, it became clear very quickly that the artists were just as enthusiastic about it as I was.”
That enthusiasm definitely comes across in the album’s performances. Whether they follow the original closely or turn it upside down, they all give Springsteen’s songs their own spin, never losing sight of Nebraska‘s haunted aura. Like the original, this album makes for a great soundtrack the next time you have to be driving at two in the morning.
The Wooden Sky – Nebraska (Bruce Springsteen cover)
The Wooden Sky kick things off with the title track, inspired by the movie Badlands and the Charlie Starkweather killings. It hews close to Springsteen’s original, carrying off the same acoustic guitar/harmonica arrangement and the same remote, eerily calm vocal style with sangfroid. Appropriate, as that’s French for “cold blood.”
Juniper Tar – Atlantic City (Bruce Springsteen cover)
“Well they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night…” “Atlantic City” has one of the best opening lines of any Springsteen song, all the more so for it being based on a true story. It’s the most-covered song on Nebraska, and as such it demands a treatment that isn’t respectful so much as understanding of its narrator’s position in the world. Juniper Tar has that understanding, even with only piano and harmonica as accompaniment, and the narrator’s desperation comes through just as loud and just as clear in their interpretation as in the original.
Jonah Tolchin – State Trooper (Bruce Springsteen cover)
“I don’t know if it’s even really a song or not,” Springsteen confessed in a note to his manager Jon Landau. He was talking about “State Trooper,” a piece that studies the mindset of a killer who didn’t want to kill again, but knew he would if the opportunity presented itself. Jonah Tolchin’s treatment of the song is less relentless than Springsteen’s, but the jollities play very, very false.
Trampled by Turtles – Open All Night (Bruce Springsteen cover)
“Open All Night” features some of the same lyrics as “State Trooper,” not to mention the line that gives this tribute album its name. It also features the only electric guitar on the original Nebraska. What it doesn’t feature is a hard-driving bluegrass arrangement Trampled by Turtles gives it, sending the song headlong into a whole new world where it somehow belongs.
Joe Fletcher – Pink Cadillac (Bruce Springsteen cover)
As is his wont, Springsteen recorded a few tracks for Nebraska that, good as they were, didn’t fit the album he had in mind; they were set aside and, if they were lucky, reemerged later on. “Pink Cadillac” would eventually show up as the B-side to “Dancin’ in the Dark,” dressed in Peter Gunn refinery and sounding pretty damn badass. Joe Fletcher found a different kind of badass in his cover, giving it a ’40s country sound that takes the song to another place that plays house with the lyrics long before Elvis thought to do so.
You can purchase Long Distance Salvation for a mere fiver on Bandcamp.