Oct 232018
 
Dwight Yoakam

You would think Dwight Yoakam is as country as they come – he scored his first number-one single off an album called Buenas Noches from a Lonely Room. And when expressing excitement over his recent bluegrass album, he says (and sounds right saying), “Wee doggies!” How country is Dwight Yoakam? When he came caroling on Nashville’s doorstep in the late 1970s, Nashville basically pretended it wasn’t home. The genre was leaning more and more in the direction of pop-country, and here was someone who sounded like Merle Haggard. And Buck Owens (with whom Yoakam would collaborate). And Johnny Cash (who would call Yoakam his “favorite male artist”).

Still, there’s a reason Time once referred to Dwight Yoakam as a renaissance man. While his guitar arrangements and twang are country the core, the man himself represents a bounty of styles. After all, he didn’t give up when Nashville wasn’t receptive; he headed to LA. There, he played hillbilly music in punk and rock clubs – attracting, in part, a demographic of fans affectionately known as cowpunks – and it’s clear some osmosis of the scene took place.

The counterintuitive influence runs both ways. Just as punk and rock color his song selection, presentation, and interests (asked what he was listening to in a 2005 interview, he answered Green Day and Jack White), his rustic sound speaks to those far outside genre bounds. The compliments accompanying his music videos encompass dyed-in-the-wool Hank Williams fans and metalheads alike. This stylistic versatility of his coupled with a loyalty to roots helps explain the success he’s experienced in covering songs that, well, you’re not supposed to cover.
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Mar 022018
 
weird al polka medleys

When I interviewed “Weird Al” Yankovic about the polka covers medleys he does on every album, there were two he described as noble failures: “Hot Rocks Polka” (1989) and “Bohemian Polka” (1993). In both, he deviated from his traditional mashing up of a dozen different genres for a single-artist focus: the Rolling Stones and Queen (in their case one song, “Bohemian Rhapsody”).

“As much as I like going with the tried-and-true, after a while you want to see if something else is going to work,” he said in my book. “Both those polkas were sort of experiments. And both worked okay. But in general, I found that people tended to like the full-on random medleys better. Like the Stones thing was a nice tribute, but there wasn’t as much of a surprise going from song to song. It was like ‘Oh, and here’s another Stones song.’ And I think a big part of the humor in the medleys is the random, jarring juxtaposition of one song to the next, done polka-style. I thought ‘Well, I tried that, now let’s go back to what works.’” Continue reading »

Nov 142017
 
shinyribs cover

Kevin Russell knows his way around a cross-genre cover. Probably his best-known song is just that: The Gourds’ bluegrass version of “Gin and Juice.” In the early days of Napster, the tune went viral under another band’s name and…well, you’ll have read that chapter in my book to find out the rest. The Snoop Dogg cover gave the band a lot, but played a small role in their demise too.

Russell’s latest cover flips the “Gin and Juice” script in two ways: it hasn’t gone viral – or even been widely released – but he actually earned some money from it. It’s a solo ukulele take on Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls” recorded under his new performing name Shinyribs. He taped it last year to celebrate New Belgium Brewery’s 25th anniversary, but director Mike Woolf says it was rarely seen because the brewery never put the films online. Continue reading »

Nov 072017
 
the national ramones

The National have been covering regionally-appropriate songs on many of their tour stops: New Order in Manchester, Queen in London, etc. When I saw them in Queens last month, they played the Ramones’ “The KKK Took My Baby Away,” joking that Joey Ramone wrote it after his Queens neighbor Donald Trump stole his girlfriend. It was a blast to watch, but the shaky cell phone videos that surfaced didn’t quite live up to the live experience.

Luckily, the National have kept the song in their setlists (complete with the Trump joke). They tagged it onto the end of their recent KCRW Morning Becomes Eclectic performance – so now we finally have good video. “This is a true story,” Matt Berninger deadpans. Continue reading »

May 032016
 

Under the Radar shines a light on lesser-known cover artists. If you’re not listening to these folks, you should. Catch up on past installments here.

sister sparrow covers

“Our music is loud, fun, and it’s supposed to make you feel good.”

That’s straight from the mouth of Arleigh Kincheloe, the lead singer and Sister Sparrow to the collection of Dirty Birds that backs her up in this amazing rock/soul/funk band. Arleigh and her brother Jackson, who plays the prominently-featured harmonica for the ensemble, came from the Catskills to the band’s base of operations, Brooklyn. They formed in 2008, and by 2010 they had their self-titled debut album available. Since then, they’ve been road warriors, hitting venues and festivals all over the country. They’ve won listeners over the old-fashioned way: putting on the best damn shows they can and bringing to music to every pair of ears they can find.
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Feb 232016
 

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!

ben-harper

Ben Harper is the kind of artist who’s all too easy to miss. He’s not particularly flashy. He doesn’t make headlines for terrible behavior. In fact, he does the opposite: he’s involved in several charities supporting conservation, scholarship, and feeding the hungry. These are wonderful qualities for a human being and an artist to have, but they don’t necessarily help that artist stay in the public eye. What Harper also does, however, is bring his own brand of American music to fans around the world. During his career, he’s experimented with rock, folk, gospel, blues, country, reggae, and jazz, and proved himself equally adept at them all. He’s consistently delivered quality music for over two decades. It may be easy to miss him, but once discovered, he’s impossible to forget.

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