Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
“Sam Stone,” from John Prine’s self-titled 1971 debut album, is considered one of the most depressing songs ever written. We’re not talking my-baby-left-me depressing here, understand; this is a song about a wounded war veteran suffering from PTSD and a heroin addiction, who grows remote from his family and winds up dying alone, with a chorus couplet so devastating (“There’s a hole in daddy’s arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin’ I suppose”) that even Johnny Cash flinched at it, altering the words in his own cover. When the Man in Black can’t bring himself to sing your lyrics, you know you’ve touched a nerve.
Yet there are still people choosing to sing the story of Sam Stone – in fact, it’s even available on Amazon in a karaoke version, perhaps so you can pick out the wet blanket who chooses to sing it and make a note to yourself not to invite him to the next party you throw. What is it that draws people to ease themselves into this bath of cold tears? Maybe because it gives singers the chance to sing something truly unforgettable, to share a message that, however unpleasant, needs to be shared. If you can tell a story like this in a way that draws people in, more power to you. Here are five who do just that.
Mike Whellans – Ballad of Sam Stone (John Prine cover)
A Better Class of Folk was a TV series in Scotland in the mid-70s, and the soundtrack it spawned featured a cover of “Sam Stone” by Mike Whellans. Retitled to sound a little more auld school, Stone’s story isn’t as dry here, and the lilt of Whellan’s accent gives it the slightest hint of cheer, the spoonful of sugar that helps the medicine go down in a most tolerable way.
Swamp Dogg – Sam Stone (John Prine cover)
Swamp Dogg’s cover of “Sam Stone” adds strings, Southern guitar, keyboards straight from the church, and a vocal that needs a supreme effort to hold its sobbing inside. This is soul music for souls that have been flayed within an inch of their lives, with an audience that’s all too unfortunately universal.
Laura Cantrell – Sam Stone (John Prine cover)
Future Soundtrack for America was a 2004 benefit album of unreleased music designed to raise funds for progressive organizations such as MoveOn.org. There were a few covers; one was “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too,” the campaign song that carried William Henry Harrison to his 31-day presidential term, as done by They Might Be Giants. Another was “Sam Stone” by Laura Cantrell, whose gender gives yet another different spin to Prine’s song – as allmusic.com puts it, “She could be the daughter Sam Stone never knew.”
Jamie and the Crazy Hearts – Sam Stone (John Prine cover)
Jamie and the Crazy Hearts are based in Europe, but you wouldn’t know it to listen to them – they give a sinister rawhide spin to “Sam Stone,” making it as compelling musically as it is lyrically. Let’s hope they expand their catalog beyond the EP this comes from, titled This Is How It Feels To Be Lonesome.
Al Kooper – Sam Stone (John Prine cover)
Al Kooper’s been called the Forrest Gump of rock music for his propensity to be around for so many great moments in music history, but that sells him short – he’s a mover and shaker, not just a benign presence. He covered “Sam Stone” with a full band for 1973’s Naked Songs, but this version, recorded at the Record Plant in 1974 and featuring him, his piano, and maybe a dozen lucky witnesses, rises high above that one, bringing Sam Stone closer to heaven than any amount of gold rolling through his veins ever could.