Oct 092019
 

That’s A Cover? explores cover songs that you may have thought were originals.

waylon willie

It was forty years ago that Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings won a Grammy for Best Country Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocal for their “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys.” The year before, Nelson and Jennings had released the song on their debut collaboration Waylon and Willie. The song topped the country charts for four weeks in the spring of 1978, and its crossover appeal garnered it a #42 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. This was at the height of the outlaw country movement. That insurgent blend of country, rock, and pop redefined the genre and made it more palatable for those outside of Nashville who had a curiosity about honky tonks.

Of course, there is a much longer arc that connects country and rock and roll. That arc extends through Bob Dylan’s Nashville Skyline, Gram Parsons’ influence on The Rolling Stones, and the songcraft of Townes Van Zandt. But near the beginning of that arc was Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. It was there that a blend of country and rock music known as “rockabilly” came into being, with Sam Phillips as its enthusiastic producer and promoter. The rockabilly of the 1950s is where the story of “Mammas” starts.
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Oct 032019
 

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!

Son Volt

Uncle Tupelo was a seminal alt-country band whose debut album No Depression sparked the roots/Americana magazine by the same name. In the ashes of Jay Farrar and Jeff Tweedy’s relationship’s volatile demise in 1995, Farrar formed Son Volt. Today Americana purists hail Son Volt as the torchbearer of Uncle Tupelo’s legacy. But the band appears to be singing subterranean blues compared to Wilco’s stratospheric success.

They’ve been grinding it out in bars and nightclubs for nearly twenty-five years and have built a loyal cult following. Farrar has worn his politics on his sleeve more than Tweedy. Nowhere is that more apparent than in his scathing critique of the Donald Trump presidency in their newest album Union, released earlier this summer.

But at its core, Son Volt is a band that celebrates good roots music, one which samples widely to find songs that inform and reflect their sound. In light of their newest release, here is a sampling of cover songs that Son Volt has performed live. Son Volt most frequently plays Uncle Tupelo and Jay Farrar covers, but since Farrar is the frontman for Son Volt, it isn’t much fair to count those. It would be like The Heartbreakers performing “I Won’t Back Down” off of Tom Petty’s solo album Full Moon Fever.
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Aug 062019
 
tanya tucker the house

Life experience can transform a song. While Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails went deep into the emotional hell pit on “Hurt” in 1994, Johnny Cash’s 2002 cover took it even further, transforming the already heartbreaking into the emotionally devastating.

Like Cash, Tanya Tucker is a country legend. She was only 13 years old when she had her first hit record, 1972’s anthem “Delta Dawn.” And in the tradition of those “blessed” with huge success at a young age, she embarked in earnest on her mission to be country music’s wildest child. A female outlaw in the mold of Waylon and Willie, she became as famous for her partying, drinking, drug-taking, and relationship choices as she was for her music (check out her excellent, revealing autobiography Nickel Dreams for all the painful details). Continue reading »

Jul 102019
 

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!

Earlier this year, a young rapper named Lil Nas X found himself in an odd position. With rhymes about horses, tractors, cowboys, and Wrangler jeans, his song “Old Town Road” was blazing up the country charts. Then, suddenly, it was dropped from the list. Officials at Billboard claimed it was because the tune was not country enough. Some cried foul, some cried racism. Billy Ray Cyrus called it something else.

The country singer, who shook up Nashville himself with his 1992 hit “Achy Breaky Heart,” labelled Lil Nas X a true country outlaw. Cyrus took to Twitter, saying: “When I got thrown off the charts, Waylon Jennings said to me ‘Take this as a compliment’ means you’re doing something great! Only Outlaws are outlawed. Welcome to the club.”

With Lil Nax X’s blessing, Cyrus went into the studio to record some of the lyrics and an additional verse. Just like that, “Old Town Road (Remix)” was born. This time, they did not need the country charts. The song shot up to the top spot on Billboard’s Hot 100, where it has stayed for 13 weeks as of July 1. At age 57, Cyrus earned the first number one pop single of his career. But more importantly, the man known to many as Miley Cyrus’ dad has suddenly been blessed with cultural street cred. On June 23, the two performed the song at the BET Awards with the whole crowd singing and dancing along. It’s a type of cachet that has been eluding Cyrus since the “Achy Breaky” backlash of the early ‘90s.

I can’t help but feel somewhat vindicated by all this. You see, I have been a Billy Ray defender for decades. Yes, I know “Achy Breaky Heart” is corny and was overplayed to nth degree. But once you get beyond his many attempts to replicate his “Achy Breaky” success with equally cheesy sequels, he has many great songs that have held up well in the ensuing decades. Plus, Cyrus can really sing. His voice enables him to take on many subgenres of country, rock, pop, and now rap with equal ease.

As with any country singer, Cyrus has recorded a number of cover songs over the years, including two feminist anthems. Here’s a quick primer for those who dare to embrace Cyrus’ well-worn mullet.

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Jan 022019
 
cover songs 2018

We already counted down the 50 Best Cover Songs of 2018 but, inevitably, many of our staff’s personal favorites get left off. So, before we begin scouting for what might become the best cover of 2019, we share the best of the rest, an unranked hodgepodge of worthy covers that only just missed our year-end countdown. Continue reading »

Jan 102017
 

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!

donald fagen

“Don”. . . individualist. . . phys ed major . . . the thinker . . . journalist extraordinaire . . . jazz enthusiast . . . quotations for all occasions . . . “Harry the Horse.”

So said the 1965 South Brunswick High School yearbook (straight outta Monmouth Junction, NJ) about Donald Fagen. Over half a century later, it’s remarkable to see how much they got right. As half of Steely Dan, Fagen’s nonconformist ways were so counter to the culture that he couldn’t help building up a huge following of Others. His cerebral lyrics captured life moments in puzzling but definitive ways, and his jazz leanings put those musings across to the masses. And while his jock leanings and “Guys and Dolls” fandom may have taken a backseat, he’ll be quoted long after he’s gone, both by fans who don’t play music and fans who do.
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