In a recent article in The New Yorker, writer and cultural critic Adam Gopnik made an unlikely musical analogy. He compared songwriter Cole Porter with both Chuck Berry and the Grateful Dead’s lyricist Robert Hunter, calling them “the three great lyricists of invented American speech.” He wrote: “Hunter, in songs like ‘Uncle John’s Band’ and ‘Friend of the Devil,’ invented a lost nineteenth-century world of runaway trains and pursuing sheriffs and brass bands playing by the riverside which somehow resonated as an available American reservoir of myth.”
Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question: What’s your favorite example of an artist “covering” their own song?
“Mountains of the Moon” is an obscure song, even by the standards of the Grateful Dead who had a habit of turning deep album cuts into concert staples. The group originally recorded it for their third studio album Aoxomoxoa (the name nobody can pronounce). Written by Jerry Garcia, Robert Hunter and Phil Lesh, the lyrics resemble a lost medieval ballad: “Cold mountain water/The jade merchant’s daughter/Mountains of the moon/ Bow and bend to me.” One can imagine Tyrion Lannister dancing to it on Game of Thrones.
The word “pioneer” is tossed around far too often. So-and-so pioneered the post-industrial-folk genre. Some other guy pioneered the playing-guitar-like-violin technique. Heh? If anyone has earned the title though, it’s Jesse McReynolds. This 81-year old mandolin player has been performing bluegrass for decades. He’s won just about every award there is to win and is currently performing his 45th year in the Grand Ole Opry.
McReynolds still tours and still releases albums. His latest is titled simply Songs of the Grateful Dead: A Tribute to Jerry Garcia & Robert Hunter. It contains twelve Dead songs both famous and obscure, transformed into mandolin-picked bluegrass. David Nelson and Stu Allen, both veterans of Jerry Garcia’s non-Dead bands join in, but McReynolds has an even bigger card up his sleeve: Dead lyricist Robert Hunter, who wrote final track “Day By Day” with McReynolds.