Like any great songwriter, Warren Zevon wrote songs whose words resonate well beyond their release date. Los Angeles singer-songwriter Bhi Bhiman picked up on one such connection in Zevon’s classic “Lawyers, Guns, & Money,” find overtones of the various Trump family investigations, from the NRA-boosting Russian spy to Donald Trump, Jr. Bhiman writes of his new cover:
“Dave, let me thank you, because if it weren’t for you, I probably wouldn’t have known who Warren Zevon was,” Eddie Vedder told David Letterman at the Mark Twain prize ceremony. He’s not the only one. Letterman championed Zevon for years when few else would, inviting him back again and again to perform, sit in, and even lead the band when Paul Shaffer was away. In Zevon’s last Letterman appearance before his death – one of the greatest moments in late-night history (certainly one of the most tear-jerking) – he called Dave “the best friend my music’s ever had.”
So when Vedder showed up to honor Letterman at the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor ceremony, he wasn’t going to run through a standup routine. Instead, he paid tribute to Dave by paying tribute to Warren, covering “Keep Me In Your Heart” with Shaffer and his band. Zevon wrote any number of songs that would have been poignant under the circumstances – “Mutineer,” “Don’t Let Us Get Sick,” “Accidentally Like a Martyr,” etc – and “Keep Me In Your Heart” proves a beautiful choice. Watch it below.
In Memoriam pays tribute to those who have left this world, and the songs they left us to remember them by.
Willie Dixon was a talented stand-up bass player, producer, and occasional vocalist for Chess Records, but his greatest gift lay in his pen. One cursory glance at his song titles – “Back Door Man,” “Little Red Rooster,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” and “You Can’t Judge a Book By the Cover,” to name just a “Spoonful” – reveals what an impact he had not only on Chicago blues, but rock ‘n’ roll as well. No self-respecting sixties band with a blues foundation would dream of taking the stage without a working knowledge of Dixon’s songs, and he wrote more than 500 of them – songs that sounded immortal from the moment they were first created.
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)
Warren Zevon was one of the most underappreciated artists in his time, at least by the general public. Sure, “Werewolves of London” gets heavy rotation between “The Monster Mash” and “Ghostbusters” on radio stations in October, but the rest of his catalog goes mostly unnoticed.
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.