When folks have paid tribute to Merle Haggard recently, they’ve mostly picked the obvious songs: “Mama Tried” and “Okie From Muskogee.” But Grammy-nomined singer-songwriter John Fullbright – an actual Okie, unlike Merle – dug far deeper into the catalog, for the best Haggard cover yet. It’s an obscure song called “Sometimes I Dream,” from Haggard’s 1990 album Blue Jungle. How many people know Haggard albums from the ’90s?
In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
Merle Haggard died on April 6th, his 79th birthday. On another April 6th, eleven years earlier, he celebrated his birthday in Chicago, opening the spring run of Bob Dylan’s “Never Ending Tour.”
I don’t know what he did for most of that 66th birthday, but I do know how five minutes or so was spent. He was standing outside his tour bus, listening to a handful of Dylan obsessives sing “Happy Birthday” to him. I was one of them.
Follow all our Best of 2015 coverage (along with previous year-end lists) here.
I didn’t realize it until I began laying out our post, but this year’s Best Cover Songs list shares quite a few artists with last year’s. And some that showed up here the year before that. Jack White’s on his fourth appearance. And Jason Isbell and Hot Chip not only both reappear from last year, but have moved up in the rankings.
Though we’re always on the lookout for the new (and to be sure, there are plenty of first-timers here too), the number of repeat honorees illustrates how covering a song is a skill just like any other. The relative few artists who have mastered it can probably deliver worthy covers again and again.
How a great cover happens is something I’ve been thinking a lot about this year as I’ve been writing a series of articles diving deep into the creation of iconic cover songs through history (I posted two of them online, and the rest are being turned into a book). In every case the artist had just the right amount of reverence for the original song: honoring its intention without simply aping it. It’s a fine line, and one even otherwise able musicians can’t always walk. Plenty of iconic people don’t make good cover artists (I’d nominate U2 as an example: some revelatory covers of the band, but not a lot by them). Given the skill involved, perhaps it’s no surprise that someone who can do a good cover once can do it again.
So, to longtime readers, you will see some familiar names below. But you’ll also see a lot of new names, and they’re names you should remember. If the past is any guide, you may well see them again next year, and the year after that.
Click on over to page two to begin our countdown, and thanks for reading.
– Ray Padgett, Editor in Chief
(Illustration by Sarah Parkinson)
In the Spotlight showcases a cross-section of an artist’s cover work. View past installments, then post suggestions for future picks in the comments!
When you consider their longevity, the sheer number and variety of their live performances, and influences as diverse as bluegrass, country, soul, rock, psychedelia, blues, and jazz, it is likely that the Grateful Dead may have recorded and/or performed more covers than any other band that is best known for its original songs. (There’s probably a wedding band out there that has a bigger songbook, but that’s not really the point.) Grateful Dead fans have been trading and cataloging their favorite band’s performances since long before the idea of digital music and the Internet even existed, and now there are numerous databases available online — one of which shows 343 separate covers performed by the band (and solo projects and offshoots), including soundchecks and performances with guests.
Therefore, it is somewhat surprising that Cover Me has never turned its lovelight directly on the Grateful Dead. We have written numerous times about covers of Dead songs, but a quick review of the archives indicates that only three covers by the band have been featured—Bob Dylan’s “Desolation Row” and Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muskogee” and “Mama Tried.” So, that leaves us a mere 340 to choose from today. To make this project (inspired in part by Phil Lesh’s 75th birthday this Sunday and by the recent announcement of the band’s 50th anniversary shows in Chicago this summer) somewhat less insane, we will limit ourselves only to recordings or performances by the Grateful Dead, proper — no solo projects or anything from after the death of Jerry Garcia.
Will Oldham a.k.a. Bonnie “Prince” Billy is not only known as a man of many names, but also as an artist crossing many genres. Freak folk, Americana, indie rock, punk and roots are some of the labels put on his music. Out of the many sounds heard in his songs, alt-country and outlaw country may be some of the most influential. Oldham has often paid tribute to music he enjoys, but this time around he is honoring one of his major influences: American country music legend Merle Haggard.
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.