Welcome to Cover Me Q&A, where we take your questions about cover songs and answer them to the best of our ability.
Here at Cover Me Q&A, we’ll be taking questions about cover songs and giving as many different answers as we can. This will give us a chance to hold forth on covers we might not otherwise get to talk about, to give Cover Me readers a chance to learn more about individual staffers’ tastes and writing styles, and to provide an opportunity for some back-and-forth, as we’ll be taking requests (learn how to do so at feature’s end).
Today’s question, suggested by staffer Jordan Becker: What’s your favorite cover song based on a relative’s original?
The extended Wainwright/McGarrigle dynasty has to be one of the most celebrated family lineages in any form of music, blossoming first from the union of Loudon Wainwright III and Kate McGarrigle, each celebrated performers in their own right, Loudon solo and Kate with her sister Anna. The marriage produced both Rufus and Martha, who, taking on their father’s name, have both found fame. When that marriage ended, Wainwright moved on to marry Suzzy Roche, of the Roches fame, a quirky trio of singing sisters. Together they had a daughter, Lucy Wainwright Roche, who is now too a seasoned solo performer. She has also worked in tandem with her step-siblings.
Kate died in 2010, and it fell to her sister and children to convene a series of memorial concerts to celebrate her superlative talent. “First Born” was an obvious choice for the show, and it led by Rufus, who was indeed Kate’s firstborn. Maybe not the greatest song in her canon, but the love and affection that exudes from this live performance is palpable, especially the crack in Martha’s voice as she starts to sing. The emotion transcends the simplicity of the song, with a build from an almost Broadway opening pair of stanzas, until the full swell of Canadiana kicks in. (Is that a tear in my eye?)
Ziggy Marley and the Melody Makers’ 1991 album Jahmekya is an outlier in the band’s catalog in terms of sound. On the record, the band was aiming for a contemporary feel, fusing traditional reggae with elements of rap and electronic music. It was an experiment of sorts that did not always succeed. Now, thirty years after its release the whole thing feels more dated than much of their other material both earlier and later.
Still, I saw the group perform live in late August 1991 and spent the days and weeks leading up to the show with their music in constant rotation on my CD player. Given that I was 13-going-on-14 at the time, the album no doubt made a permanent impression. This may explain why the band’s cover of their father Bob Marley’s “Rainbow Country” immediately popped into my head when I was asked this question.
The Melody Makers, which featured four of Marley’s children, were never shy about covering their old man in concert. But on their albums they focused on original material. I was surprised to learn that on the nine studio albums they released between 1985 and 1999, “Rainbow Country” was the lone Bob Marley cover. (For the sake of completeness, I’ll note that the group’s first recording “Children Playing in the Streets” was written by their father. They also recorded a cover of the Impressions’ “People Get Ready,” a song their Dad recorded as a medley with his own classic, “One Love/People Get Ready.”)
While writing this piece, I realized that I had never actually heard the original. Recorded in the mid-’70s, “Rainbow Country” is a slow, horn-powered rocksteady tune that fits the definition of a deep cut. I could not find it on any of Bob Marley’s original studio albums from the era. Over the years, it has appeared on many of his endless sea of compilations.
The cover opens with a flash of ambient electronic sounds. The verse is held down by a highly- processed, synth-reggae groove. The song’s real strength is its vocals. It features a call and response between Ziggy and Stephen Marley and their sisters Sharon and Cedella, giving the song a distinct, gospel-like quality. Though far from a masterpiece, the track embodies the Melody Makers’ mission well. It kept their father’s spirit alive, while pushing forward into new territory and still “Jamming.”
As much as “Isolation,” the side-one closer from John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, clearly relates to John’s unhappiness to his post-Beatles life, its parallels to our current pandemic world are unavoidable. It certainly resonated that way when Sean Lennon performed it on Late Show with Stephen Colbert last October, in honor of his dad’s 80th birthday. Musicians’ kids often record acoustic versions of their parents’ music, but here Sean plugs in and uses his outside voice, because we really, really, really need to be outside.
When the offspring of a famous musician decides to follow in their parent’s footsteps, they usually take one of two routes: a) distance themselves from their parent and determinedly mark their own path, or b) devote their career to preserving their parent’s legacy. Vieux Farka Toure, son of the legendary Malian guitarist/singer-songwriter Ali Farka Toure, is a rare example of someone who has done both. However, the younger Toure’s music career almost never happened at all.
As fellow musician Corey Harris details in his book Jahtigui: The Life and Music of Ali Farka Toure, Toure Sr. was initially opposed to the idea of his son following him into the cutthroat music business. Despite this, Vieux was determined, and in 2001 secretly enrolled to learn music at Mali’s National School of the Arts. Eventually, Ali Farka accepted that his son had resolved to be a musician, and throughout 2004 and 2005 set about teaching him the ancient, hypnotic style that he himself had perfected and become famous for. Ali Farka Toure passed away in 2006.
These days, Vieux Farka Toure is very much his own man. He does, however, frequently make time for impassioned readings of his father’s songs in his live shows. This performance of “Ai Du,” from Ali Farka’s Talking Timbuktu album, is extra special due to featuring a rare outing for Toure Sr.’s unmistakable Seiwa Powersonic electric guitar. This is more than a cover version: it’s a conversation across time between father and son.
Given their at times tumultuous mother-daughter relationship, Lisa Simone’s cover of her mother’s “Hold No Grudge” holds plenty of ironic moments. “But a girl who’s been forgotten may forgive / But never once forget” seems to say it all. Despite the personal connection to the material, Lisa’s version is a little lighter than the original. It’s a straightforward confession, resigned even, without the backroom mystery and edge of pain that Nina seems to always evoke. However, there are still big moments of power when Lisa warns us that “crawling just ain’t my style” and that she ultimately does find it hard to forget even when giving up that grudge.
When Rosanne Cash’s husband Rodney Crowell suggested she record “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” for her 1987 album King’s Record Shop, she did so without knowing that her father had written it. “I mistakenly thought it was in the public domain, its true author lost in the mists of time,” she later said, adding with some chagrin, “an error that was made much of in the press later.” Johnny himself was so happy that his daughter covered a song of his for a reason other than it being a song of his that he took out a full page ad to express his delight.
There was another reason to celebrate Rosanne’s cover – it was especially good. “There are some songs of my dad’s that I can embody authentically,” she said, and the tale of the little dark-haired boy whose playing stole the hearts of all the girls proved to be one of them. After the first take, drummer Eddie Bayers told the band, “Pay attention, boys. We won’t pass this way again.” Randy Scruggs’ guitar line sealed the deal. No wonder Johnny called his daughter’s success with his song one of his life’s greatest fulfillments.
As a father, I can only imagine the sorrow that Steve Earle must have felt on the death of his son, Justin Townes Earle. That Justin died of a drug overdose must have made it even more painful for Steve, who struggled for much of his life with substance abuse issues. To make it even more difficult, both father and son shared careers as singers, songwriters and guitarists in the broad “Americana” genre, although Steve openly acknowledged that his son, in many ways, exceeded his own significant talents. As Steve told The New York Times, “His best songs were as good as anybody’s. He was a way better singer than I am, a way better guitar player, technically, than I am. His fingerpicking could be mind-blowing.” Although father and son were not always close, especially early in Justin’s life, as Steve’s drug abuse, jail time and touring kept them apart, they had reconciled and forged a close relationship.
Within weeks of Justin’s death, Steve recorded an album of covers of his son’s songs entitled JT (with one new Steve Earle song, discussing their last, sadly prescient, phone call the night of Justin’s death, as a poignant coda). As Steve wrote in the album’s liner notes, “For better or worse, right or wrong, I loved Justin Townes Earle more than anything else on this earth. That being said, I made this record, like every other record I’ve ever made… for me. It was the only way I knew to say goodbye.”
I suggested this Q&A after hearing one of the songs from JT, “Harlem River Blues” (which also happens to be probably my favorite of Justin’s songs, and not just because it features Jason Isbell on guitar), on the car radio. One of the things that makes this song so memorable is that is sung from the point of view of someone preparing to commit suicide— “I’m gonna go down/To the Harlem River to drown”—but the singer, and the arrangement, are upbeat and happy. Was that an attempt to just create some tension between the words and the music? Or was it recognition, as I was recently told by my sister, a mental health professional, that people who are suicidal often appear happy once they’ve made a plan because they believe their pain will soon be over? Since JTE was such a talented songwriter, I’ll go with the more intentional version.
It must have been hard for Steve Earle to sing a song his recently dead son wrote about killing himself, especially when his death by overdose was essentially self-inflicted. And one which includes the line: “Tell my mama I love her, tell my father I tried.” But Steve retains the bouncy, happy feel and the choral background vocals of the original, and keeping with the difference between his own style and his son’s, makes it more of a country rocker, with fiddle and pedal steel guitar, and his own gruff voice replacing his son’s smoother instrument.
John Hiatt didn’t have to work too hard to cover his daughter Lilly’s “All Kinds of People.” He didn’t have to assemble and rehearse a full band, for one thing, preferring a stripped down version. More importantly, the song itself does much of the work–it’s got that John Prine or Tom Petty (or John Hiatt) quality of being both well-crafted and self-rejuvenating in the way it flows. Also, it’s a song written by an old soul, never mind the chronological age of the songwriter–so an older person’s voice naturally brings something useful to the song, a worn-down quality that matches the world-weary lyrics. I wouldn’t want to make too much of John’s revising his daughter’s key phrase in the chorus from “…it’s ripped me apart” to “it tears me apart,” but as touch-ups go it’s a good one. I wonder if Lilly agrees?
Lilly Hiatt’s cover of “You Must Go”–originally from her father’s outstanding 1995 album Walk On–tilts a little more toward the country side of the “country-rock” equation than her father did. She evokes Emmy Lou in some lines —a sweet and wistful sound where her father tended to go for a raw and roughened texture. The more down-home nature of Lilly’s recording is a nice alternative to her father’s more elaborate production—he brought in Gary Louris and Mark Olsen of the Jayhawks to sing the backing vocals on the original, and otherwise tended to amp up the song in ways it didn’t necessarily need. Which is not to imply Lilly’s cover is too modest or stripped down–there’s nice guitar work and harmonies on the track, and the effects she applies to the outro section unsettle the song rather beautifully.
I love Christmas music. It’s definitely a nostalgia thing; the happy holiday memories come flooding back when I hear Bing Crosby crooning “Silver Bells,” or Vince Guaraldi playing “Linus and Lucy.” I have a pretty extensive playlist of classic holiday hits mixed with indie covers, but in most cases the song is “traditional” in the sense that it’s part of the U.S. Christmas cultural canon. “All I Want for Christmas is You” is about the most recently written song to be included in my Holiday Playlist.
The Band put out “Christmas Must Be Tonight” in 1977, and while you might catch it on the radio now and again, it’s still a bit of a rarity to find on most Christmas playlists. It has more in common with The Band’s other hits than with most of the songs on the radio at the end of the year, but there’s something about it that grabbed me. Maybe it’s the way the line “It must be Christmas must be tonight” feels like a weird run-on sentence which seems to inevitably catch me off guard. In any case, Amy Helm, daughter of The Band drummer Levon Helm, has put together a really comfortable cover both in the live video here and in a great Spotify version here. The band feels loose and inviting and Helm’s voice blends well with the other singers in both versions. It’s not the most original cover, but it’s a nice counterpoint to the original and one that I find myself returning to.
In 1978, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings took “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” to the top of the country charts. Forty-plus years later, their babies didn’t grow up to be cowboys; they grew up to be singers and songwriters just like their dad(s). So the next generation of outlaws – that’s Lukas Nelson and Shooter Jennings – reprised their fathers’ big hit together for the soundtrack of the Netflix series The Ranch. The apples didn’t fall from their respective trees; the sound could almost be Willie and Waylon back in the heady early days of outlaw country. As Jennings – Shooter, that is – said when it was released, “Lukas and I had a great time in the studio. We came up with an alternate rhythm that changes the vibe a little bit from the original — that gave us the space to make it our own. He and I have had very close relationships with our fathers — they always were our Number One fans.”
Speaking of keeping it in the family, the song was originally written by a husband-and-wife duo, Ed and Patsy Bruce. Ed originally titled it “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Guitar Players” before Patsy suggested the crucial change (good thing, or the Nelson and Jennings clans would be very disappointed). Patsy now runs a songwriter-focused touring company with her son Trey Bruce. He’s a songwriter himself, though hasn’t covered his parents’ songs…yet. Or maybe his daughter will. She’s a singer-songwriter too, keeping the family business going. “Mammas Don’t Let Your Grandbabies Grow Up to Be Cowgirls”?
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