The video for Guns N’ Roses’ “Estranged” is often described as one of the most bloated of all time. Commonly cited in these critiques is the massive scene where Axl Rose jumps off an oil tanker and swims with the dolphins, like James Bond meets Flipper. “With a staggering $4,000,000 price tag and near ten-minute runtime, “Estranged” is an extravagant and thrillingly misguided monument to Axl Rose’s own persecution complex,” wrote Noisey.
Laura Nyro was one of the unsung heroes of 1960s pop. Though the singer/songwriter released a number of albums, many of her most enduring songs were covers recorded by other artists such as Three Dog Night and Blood, Sweat & Tears. “She had a kaleidoscopic musical sensibility that fused elements of folk, soul, gospel and Broadway tradition into intensely introspective songs that transcended easy stylistic categorization,” The New York Times wrote when Nyro passed away in 1997.
In another world, Prince could have been a long-haired Southern outlaw. In an oral history of the film Purple Rain, these were Prince’s then-drummer Bobby Z’s recollections of the first time he heard the title track: “My first reaction was, ‘Wow, this is almost a country song.’ It had a different feel than anything we’d been rehearsing for the rest of the album.”
Time has proven Bobby Z correct, as “Purple Rain” has been covered by the likes of Dwight Yoakam, LeAnn Rimes, Darius Rucker, and Brad Paisley. The latest to give Prince’s masterwork a southern-fried makeover is the Allman Betts Band. During their tour opener on March 27 at the Brooklyn Bowl the band reinterpreted “Purple Rain” as a country-rock jam.
With origins dating back to the Reconstruction era, the epic tale of John Henry has been told countless times. In its many forms, the legend tells of a large black man working on the railroad who goes toe-to-toe with a machine to determine who could hammer the most steel into solid rock. Henry wins the battle, but loses his life in the process.
Many singers have taken on this struggle between man and machine, with versions crossing over boundaries of race, genre, language and recording technology. “‘John Henry’ has become an American song,” historian Scott Reynolds Nelson wrote in his book Ain’t Nothing But A Man: My Quest to Find the Real John Henry. “And every group that sings it leaves traces in the lines and the verses they add.”
In the spring of 1998, I reviewed the George Strait Country Music Festival for my college newspaper. Once I got past describing the cigarette and chewing tobacco giveaways in the parking lot, this is what I wrote about Strait’s set: “His style of music was much more traditional compared to the other performers on the bill. Complete with twangy guitars and dueling fiddles, he seemed to belt out hit after hit with the entire crowd singing along to songs about love, love lost, rodeos and even a ‘Song about the Heartland.’”
American Songwriter lists Wilco’s “Misunderstood” as frontman Jeff Tweedy’s best tune. The website writes: “It’s a song that identifies with the outsider and the downtrodden. In brief brush strokes, Tweedy paints a picture of a dreamer being choked to death by encroaching age and the dullness of small town life.” During a recent show in Chicago, Wilco’s hometown, Phil Lesh & the Terrapin Family Band reworked “Misunderstood” into a celebratory, sing-along anthem.