Last October, Chris Isaak released his excellent Sun Studios cover album (read our review) and he’s still promoting it in the new year. Last night he hit Conan for a performance, joined by O’Brien himself on guitar. The band performed a jumping take on Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire,” with Conan in a vintage nudie suit.
They Say It’s Your Birthday celebrates an artist’s special day with other people singing his or her songs. Let others do the work for a while. Happy birthday!
A happy 73rd birthday to Gordon Lightfoot, Canadian troubadour extraordinaire. From the age of five, when he made his performing debut in Sunday School with “I’m a Little Teapot,” he has spent his lifetime bringing music to the world, and the world has responded in kind with covers by the hundreds, from Elvis Presley on down. His songs are not generally happy songs – “Talk about your party tunes!” Dave Barry once commented about “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” – but they speak well to the human condition with a truly universal voice, and they led none other than Bob Dylan to say, “Gordon Lightfoot, every time I hear a song of his, it’s like I wish it would last forever.”
Before heading to Australia to open for The National, The Walkmen are in the midst of a September tour opening for Fleet Foxes in the U.S. The indie rockers are entering their second decade as a recording and touring band and are out supporting their sixth release, Lisbon. They plan on going into the studio this November to record a new album. While in Seattle last week, they stopped by KEXP radio for a live acoustic session.
Johnny Cash. He was many things in life and remains many things in legacy. One of the most important figures in the history of country music; a devoutly religious rebel; a black-clad troubadour; a classical paradox of a man. Throughout his career, he was defined by songs that were, all at once, violent and mournful, steady in sound and chaotic in spirit.
Cash walked the line (pun intended) of a brilliant and tumultuous time for country music and for popular music in general – the line between standards and covers, between singers and songwriters and singer-songwriters; between rebellion and redemption. The very concept of covers emerged from the dawn of the singer-songwriters, the folks whose songs were first and foremost associated with them. Gone, in most arenas of popular music, were the songs that every artist would take on to earn their chops and pay their respects.
Country music was one of the few genres where standards held strong alongside original material and covers remained the norm, alongside blues and folk and other such tradition-based music. As the years pass, though, traditions change and musicians are faced with new challenges and questions. Does an artist keep on recording songs written by their contemporaries? Do they take on new music from musicians generations younger than them? Do they stick to the themes and styles that their reputations were built on in the first place? Many artists trembled at the challenge, many faltered; but Johnny Cash, with his American Recordings series, had one answer to all of these questions: yes.
Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers served as Cash’s backing band on Unchained (American II), and Petty had this to say (from an Uncut interview) of the eclecticism that came to define the American series:
It was incredible. He was an interesting artist because he’s pictured as a country artist, but he wasn’t necessarily completely in that bag, you know. I always thought of him as a folk artist. Because he knew so much about folk music. And the country that he performed wasn’t really much like any other country that you’d heard. It was an unusual thing, his bag was pretty wide.
Released over the course of just over fifteen years, including two albums released posthumously, the American series remains a landmark not only in Cash’s career and in the history of country music, but in all popular music. All at once, it was old and new, traditional and revolutionary.
For those who aren’t altogether familiar with Cash’s music (or at least his American-era music), the distinguishing track of the series would seem to be American IV’s cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” While there is an inescapable accuracy to the assessment, it’s a limiting view and one that could likely cause folks to miss out on the enormous variety of the series.
While “Hurt” isn’t representative of the entire series of albums, it does indeed serve as a mark of distinction. As a whole, the albums reflect on many themes – remorse and violent anger; hopelessness and hope; loss and love and longing; fear and faith. Between the canonical series and Unearthed‘s four discs of outtakes, Cash covered everything ranging from the Beatles to Bob Marley, from Simon and Garfunkel to Neil Young to Biblical hymns and timeless ballads. With the covers in the vein of “Hurt,” however, Cash attacks his classic themes in entirely new ways. He retains his distinctive sound, both vocally and instrumentally, but he lets that sound sink its teeth deep into a different kind of source material.
Cash treats the American series with something of a slow-burning approach. As it is, “Hurt” seems like a radical cover four albums into the series, but the progression to American IV and beyond it shows the greatness of Cash’s covers to be as much a matter of timing and context as anything else. This is not a statement to diminish the covers, but rather to diminish the distinction between a Cash cover and a Cash classic. There is none.
Cash’s takes on newer music (new being relative to the vast span of his career and to the genres he takes on), fitting and transformative as they may be, are not wholly representative of the American series. They capture an aspect of his work’s progression, his consistent ability to do new things after half a century of making music, but they are not alone in doing so. He approaches the work of his contemporaries and his more direct heirs with the same care and the same familiarity as he brings to the more dramatic changes.
For a young artist, Iowa folk troubadour William Elliott Whitmore has a timeless sound. His thick, growly voice and affinity for acoustic guitar and banjo link him to the icons of country and folk, from Woody Guthrie to Ramblin’ Jack Elliott to parts of Bob Dylan’s early career. On his new album Field Songs, Whitmore appeals to the age old traditions of gospel-influenced bluegrass and southern work songs. Going even further to contextualize his work, William Elliot just released a pair of covers, taking on compositions by the legendary Johnny Cash and the more contemporary country group Red Meat.
When reviewing covers, we generally talk in terms of a particular artist, song, or album being covered. A covers album taking a broader look at a theme or genre comes along relatively rarely. There’s a free new two-disc collection out there that does just that, though, hitting the mark spot on. OndaDrops Vol 4: Oneway Ticket to Nowhere is a collection of contemporary artists covering American country outlaw singer-songwriters from the ’70s. United by the same desire for sincerity, and impatience with the rules and conventions of glitzy Nashville, modern folk/country artists perform songs about alcohol abuse, sleeping around, and living a life on the edge of society.
Live Collection brings together every live cover version we can find from a prolific artist.
Warren Zevon had paid his dues for years before his self-titled 1976 release would finally get him a fair amount of critical attention and a modest amount of airplay. In his first pass through L.A. he was a session musician and jingle writer, penned a few songs for the Turtles and released a forgettable solo debut in 1970. Then he spent a couple years on the road with the Everly Brothers, both together with Phil and Don and then with each of them solo, like a child of a divorce custody battle, as the brothers were beginning their estrangement. A self-imposed exile in Spain would follow and when Zevon returned to L.A. in late 1975, his pal Jackson Browne was there to help him get a record deal. Zevon had some things in common with his laid-back Asylum label contemporaries, but what separated his music from Browne, Linda Ronstadt and the Eagles was his ability to write caustic and satirical songs about unconventional people often in awkward situations.
Near the end of Bob Marley‘s life when cancer had begun to take it’s course he wrote “Redemption Song.” In a song that gives a glimpse into his dealing with mortality, he delivered one of the more widely covered acoustic spiritual ballads today. Some of the versions that ring true to the soul of the song include a haunting rendition by Johnny Cash & Joe Strummer and a live tribute by Lauryn Hill with Ziggy Marley.