10. Phosphorescent – Too Sick to Pray
Any song from Phosphorescent’s beautiful 2009 tribute album To Willie could have made this list. Phosphorescent’s Matthew Houck largely chooses deeper cuts – no “Crazy” or “On the Road Again” here – and makes them feel like they must be Willie’s most-loved hits. On some songs, he incorporates light touches of electronica (his “Permanently Lonely” is also a must-hear), but “Too Sick to Pray” plays it more straight in the country-rock realm, guitar, piano, and gentle percussion backing up the star of the show: Houck’s singing. – Ray Padgett
9. Cake – Sad Songs And Waltzes
Cake closed out their album Fashion Nugget, an album made famous in part by another cover, with this Willie Nelson track. The Cake version has an even more pronounced “waltzy” feeling to it; the sparse guitar punctuates the time signature and the trumpet lazily drifts in and out in place of the slide guitar in the original. The song doesn’t go too far off the beaten path, just enough to make it a Cake song while still being a tribute. – Mike Misch
8. Radio Free Honduras – On The Road Again (Hoy de Gira Voy)
As you might have guessed from the subtitle, Radio Free Honduras’s “On the Road Again” is not in English. They don’t just take the song south of the border linguistically, either, bringing in flamenco horns and guitars as they joyfully holler along. – Ray Padgett
7. Walker Lukens – I Can Get Off on You
Released as a special vinyl release on Red Headed Stangers, an album exclusively available to Patreon subscribers, Walker Lukens uniquely covers nine Willie Nelson classics, including “The Party’s Over,” “Ain’t It Funny How Time Slips Away,” and the Waylon Jennings co-penned song “I Can Get Off On You.” Wrapping the song into a uniquely original quilt, Walker dispenses the guitars on “I Can Get Off On You” in favor of keyboards and a drum machine, creating an ethereal vibe that flutters in and around the delicately understated vocals. Mickey Rose, the secret weapon in his band The Sidearms, takes on the Waylon role to Walker’s Willie, with the two exhibiting smoldering chemistry, turning this into a love song of the highest order. – Walt Falconer
6. Smoking Popes – Valentine
For a pop-punk band like the Smoking Popes, the best way to approach a soft and tender ballad is with a racing pace and raunchy distortion. But the amiable “Ready?” at the start kinda reveals the softness below the bluster of the Popes’ sound. The band looks like they are having a good time with “Valentine,” from Willie’s 1993 Across the Borderline outing. In fact, the candy heart sweetness stuff in the song may be closer to their own sensibility than Willie’s. – Tom McDonald
5. Al Green – Funny How Time Slips Away
I don’t think that there’s a checklist as to what makes a great song — as Justice Potter Stewart said in a very different context, “I know it when I see it” — but one sign of greatness is that the song works well when performed in different styles. By that standard, “Funny How Time Slips Away” is a great song. Written by Nelson and recorded first by country singer Billy Walker, it is just as good (some might say better) in the soulful version by Al Green, from his great 1973 album Call Me. Of course, you could argue that every song is improved by having Al Green sing it. As Robert Christgau wrote, Green’s cover (and the album’s cover of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”) “prove Green could have beaten Ray Charles at the country game.” – Jordan Becker
4. Johnny Cash – Time of the Preacher
“Time of the Preacher” is another song from the aforementioned 1996 Twisted Willie tribute album. Johnny Cash takes a break from his American Recordings series, lending a world-weary vocal to the lead-off track from Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger. The voice is strong and forceful throughout the song and seems to strengthen even more as the grunge frenzy of guitar noise kicks into high gear. The performance rendered here certainly stands up to any of the subsequent Rick Rubin-produced tracks, and in some ways might be even more powerful. – Walt Falconer
3. The Hold Steady – I Gotta Get Drunk
On their 2014 covers EP Rags, the Hold Steady performed an appropriately sloppy bar-band version of “I Gotta Drunk” that sounds more like the Replacements than Willie. Rough and rowdy and about 40 percent guitar solo, it sounds like the soundtrack for sloshing beer on strangers and expecting to feel like shit in the morning. – Ray Padgett
2. Alison Krauss – I Never Cared for You
Originally written in 1964, “I Never Cared For You” was the only single Willie Nelson released for Monument Records, subsequently re-released in 1989’s A Horse Called Music, which yielded two songs that entered the top 10 on the Country Charts. Criminally, “I Never Cared For You” wasn’t one of them. The songwriting here is as good as Willie gets, with the haunting lyrics and the desperado-noir mariachi style production setting the perfect backdrop for the cowboy to ride away from a seemingly already lost love. Picking up the song as Alison Krauss does on 2017’s Windy City when she sings “your heart has been forewarned all men will lie to you,” this version almost becomes a call and response kiss-off anthem from a woman scorned to a man that never really cared for her in the first place. – Walt Falconer
1. Aretha Franklin – Night Life
When Aretha Franklin died, Willie Nelson tweeted out, “Aretha Franklin was the greatest gift and the voice of a generation. She could turn any song into a hymn. She will be greatly missed here on earth, but that band in heaven just got our Angel.” Nothing but the truth in that statement. And Willie would know – he benefited from being interpreted by Lady Soul just as surely as Otis Redding did. Listen to her pour her everything into “Night Life,” turning it from a lonely C&W musing to a fervent proclamation. – Patrick Robbins
Check out more installments in our monthly ‘Best Covers Ever’ series, including Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Madonna, and Neil Young.
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.”
My version of ” gravy” is sadly missing
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
has anyone ever tried to match (cover) the perfection of Pancho and Lefty w Merle?
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.”
Patrick, But what about songs Willie popularized but didn’t write? Are they on the list?
(looks list over)