Feb 262021

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30. Neil Young – On the Road Again

“On the Road Again” is the song that really defines the life and times of Willie Nelson, as the road really is his home, his never-ending tour far exceeding that of a certain Mr. Dylan. Legend has it that he wrote the song virtually on demand, penning it onto an airline sick bag, when asked to provide a song for the film Honeysuckle Rose, wherein he played a grizzled country singer trying to make his way on the road. (That must have been a stretch, eh?) Neil Young, who has included Nelson’s sons Lukas and Micah on his recordings and toured with Lukas’s band Promise of the Real as his backing band, featured the song in his homage to vintage recording booth recordings, A Letter Home. The murky down-the-phone-line sound gives it the feel of a message being sent for the folks back home. – Seuras Og

29. The Lumineers – Pretty Paper

Willie Nelson originally wrote this song and later recorded it himself, but Roy Orbison first recorded it. Later, Nelson’s first Christmas album, with this song as the title track, was released in 1979. This cover is arguably even more sparse than Nelson’s traditionally simple arrangements (there is no harmonica peeking in, alas). The guitar and vocals are simple and even a bit muted, in line with some of the The Lumineers’ more somber songs. – Sara Stoudt

28. Madeleine Peyroux – Crazy

The specifics of how a then-struggling songwriter known as Hugh Nelson got superstar Patsy Cline to record “Crazy” are foggy, caused likely by memories clouded by alcohol and other substances, but the world is ultimately better off that she did. Not only did it become a huge crossover hit for Cline, but it kickstarted Nelson’s songwriting and performing career. Madeleine Peyroux covered the song for the soundtrack to a movie called Crazy, which was about neither Cline nor Nelson, but instead about Nashville guitarist Hank Garland, who played with Cline, but not on her version of “Crazy.” Peyroux’s cover is relatively faithful to the Cline version, but Peyroux’s vocals are a little jazzier, as befits a singer often compared to Billie Holiday. – Jordan Becker

27. Diane Schuur – Healing Hands of Time

Diane Schuur is best known as a jazz singer and pianist, blind from birth. Late in her recording career, she recorded The Gathering, a set of country standards in her jazz-inflected style, which gained some comparison with Ray Charles’ seminal Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, and not just because of their shared sightlessness. Eschewing the syrupy strings of Nelson’s 1994 original, Schuur injects a good deal more funk into it. Strangely, her vocal style and timbre is markedly similar to that of Nelson. The guitar, by the way, is that of Mark Knopfler. – Seuras Og

26. The Beautiful South – Valentine

Simple guitar and one voice start both versions of this earnest song. During the instrumental break, a lower-register string instrument, a cello perhaps, replaces the original’s violin. Although The Beautiful South’s vocalist has a smoother vocal style than Nelson does, the two versions result in the same romantic output. – Sara Stoudt

25. Jello Biafra ft. Life After Life – Still Is Still Moving to Me

The first of a few selections from the great 1996 tribute album Twisted Willie, which saw a host of punks and garage-rockers hollering through unhinged versions of Willie songs. Willie himself appears on a couple tracks. On this one, though, Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra pairs with Life After Life, a short-lived punk band from the Czech Republic (via San Francisco) on Biafra’s label Alternative Tentacles. – Ray Padgett

24. Raul Malo – Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground

Another song that Nelson wrote for the poorly-received movie Honeysuckle Rose, “Angel Flying Too Close To The Ground” is a love song that has many possible interpretations which made it to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart in 1981. Although Mavericks leader Raul Malo’s smooth, sonorous voice couldn’t be more different from Nelson’s “keening nasal baritone,” as the New York Times called it, they are both consummate song stylists. Malo’s cover, from his 2006 Peter Asher-produced album You’re Only Lonely, is a passionate, polished, almost gospel version of the song. – Jordan Becker

23. Tom Jones – Opportunity To Cry

This somewhat deep cut from Willie’s early days resurfaced on the Merle Haggard collaboration Pancho and Lefty in 1982. It seems on the surface to be an unlikely song choice for Tom Jones to pluck out for Long Lost Suitcase, the third in a series of records where producer Ethan Johns gives Tom Jones the Rick Rubin treatment. But, here, even at age 75, Sir Tom handles the unique cadences and delicate phrasings in the song with passion and aplomb turning the levels to 8 when needed and dialing them back below the red at just the right times. – Walt Falconer

22. Brenda Lee – I’m a Memory

Brenda Lee is a full-on legend and the only woman to be inducted into both the Rock And Roll and Country Music Halls of Fame. Her raw, rollicking, room-filling rasp remains one of the most beloved and instantly recognizable voices in music history. The original take of “I’m A Memory” from Willie’s 1971 album Willie Nelson And Family was a horn-driven, insanely poppy confection, the mood of the arrangement oddly contradicting the sad and wistful lyrical content. Brenda takes a different approach in her fabulous 1972 version, reshaping the song into a string-laden countrypolitan lament, serving up some of the most seductively wonderful humming you’re ever gonna hear this side of Nashville. – Hope Silverman

21. Marvin Gaye – Night Life

Marvin Gaye’s star was still in full-on ascent when Moods of Marvin Gaye came out in 1966; it featured “Ain’t That Peculiar” and “I’ll Be Doggone,” two upbeat R&B songs that were big hits. But Marvin could slow it down just as well, and no doubt he opened a lot of ears with his cover of “Night Life” on the same record. He sounds neither downtrodden nor resigned, more nightclub than saloon in his delivery, he knows his world and accepts his place in it with feeling. His laugh at the very end gives the song a little bounce of hope to go out on, and that’s as good a way to conclude it as any and better than a good few. – Patrick Robbins

The list continues on Page 3.

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  9 Responses to “The 30 Best Willie Nelson Covers Ever”

Comments (9)
  1. Don’t know how you missed Patsy Cline’s version of “Crazy”. I would also like to include Patty Griffin doing “Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground”.

    • As we said at the start of the post, “The first recording of a Willie song doesn’t count as the cover – even if that first recording wasn’t by Willie himself. Remember that before you get mad that Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” is not on this list.”

  2. My version of ” gravy” is sadly missing

  3. Loved Elvis’ “nude” rendition of “Ain’t It Funny” which I’d never heard before and the Rev’s version has long been a favorite, but my favorite version is the Al and Lyle duet from the Rhythm, Country and Blues recording, Here it is live from Letterman: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7TSf2zxRqkw

  4. has anyone ever tried to match (cover) the perfection of Pancho and Lefty w Merle?

  5. No “Always On My Mind” by the Pet Shop Boys? One of the best cover songs ever!

    • As we said at the start of the post, “We only included covers of songs Willie himself wrote, rather than songs he just popularized. That knocks out a few of his big hits: “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain,” “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys,” and “Always on My Mind” among them.”

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