Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
As a companion piece to our best Bob Dylan single song covers post, coming this Monday, it’s worth considering the myriad tribute albums to the bard of Duluth. To narrow that down at least marginally, we’ll focus on those by an individual band or artist (several Dylan sets appeared on our recent best tribute compilations countdown). There are a lot of them, many more even than you might imagine, encompassing all styles and stages of his ever-changing moods. So let’s start setting some real guidelines here…
We’ll rule out those put together retrospectively as a compilation, so no The Byrds Play Dylan or Postcards of the Hanging by The Grateful Dead. This piece only addresses those made for and released at one sitting. Space begets also a ruthlessness that further excludes participants put together solely and especially for one specific recording, so farewell the excellent Dylan’s Gospel and the intriguing Dylan Jazz. Finally, this is a Top Twenty list, squeezing out many further worthy gems like Joan Osborne’s Songs of Bob Dylan and Robbie Fulks’ 16, a track-by-track take on Street Legal that has some of the best individual songs, frustratingly alongside some decidedly not, perhaps due to the songs and not the singer. Finally, I felt it would be interesting/indulgent to add two essential bits of information about each record:
1. What is the deepest cut contained?
2: Does it feature “Like a Rolling Stone,” the benchmark Dylan song?
Will you disagree with my selections? Sure, and that’s fine, it’s what the comments area is for. Let me know what you think shouldn’t have missed the cut, and what shouldn’t have made it.
(By the way, there are some extraordinary records out there that fit my criteria, but could never truthfully expect to have made the cut, if still existing to enrich our listening pleasure. So spare a thought for Chris C & Swingin’ Danglers’ Farmhouse Tapes, for Guru Monkey’s Some Trains Don’t Pull No Gamblers, and for Nob Dylan and his Nobsoletes’s Positively 12 Stiff Dylans. Thanks to them for being there.)
20: Mountain/Masters of War (2007)
Quite how or why 2007 was deemed the right time for Leslie West to produce this definitive metal primer to Bob is quite the poser. West and his band were way past their glory days, and power trios of a decidedly retro bent were far from the flavor du jour. Yet it works. It shouldn’t, a brainstormed feedback frenzy of screeched vocals and howling guitars. But any lack in sensitivity within these renditions is more than made up for by self-belief. With heavy friends Warren Haynes and Ozzy Osbourne guesting, the latter blasting through a stonking title track, Masters of War blows the cobwebs off hoarier older songs like “Blowin’ in the Wind” and “Mr. Tambourine Man” in ways you may not anticipate.
Deep cut: “This Heart of Mine” (from Shot of Love)
LARS: yes, but dire, with Corky Laing vocals
19: The Persuasions/Knockin’ on Bob’s Door (2010)
Well, it was always going to be a matter of time before these venerable street corner doo-wop merchants would get to Bob. The Persuasions were active between 1962 and 2017, and one of their calling cards was always picking the less than obvious. Previous albums included a cappella Grateful Dead and Frank Zappa standards, so by the Persuasions’ standards, Dylan was positively mainstream. Knockin’ on Bob’s Door may not be something to pore over repeatedly, but it’s always an appealing aperitif when cropping up on random. This selection covers most of the usual culprits, songwise, but in a delightfully knowing fashion, fleshing out the words with flashbacks to the embellishments of other cover versions, replicating, say, keyboards, with vocal effects.
Deep cut: “Things Have Changed” (from Wonder Boys OST)
LARS: yes, offering as much of a nod to Al Kooper as to Bob
18. Ben Sidran/Dylan Different (2009)
Ben Sidran is one of those old school hepcats who just exudes cool and occupies a timeless parallel universe where berets and Gauloises are still in fashion. A onetime associate of Steve Miller and Boz Scaggs, Sidran found his jazzy stylings took him more in a solo direction and as an in-demand producer to the likes of Van Morrison and Rickie Lee Jones. With a Ph.D in African-American culture and music, he knows his groove backwards. A pleasing conversational vocal style, bluesy piano and horns accompany these songs as if they were written with these arrangements in mind. With Georgie Fame trading vocals, he can even make “Rainy Day Women #12 & 35,” my particular Dylan no-go area, into a basement dream.
Deep cut: “On the Road Again” (from Bringing It All back Home)
17. Jef Lee Johnson/The Zimmerman Shadow (2009)
The murky world of where jazz and rock meet when it ain’t quite fusion. Johnson was an unclassifiable player with a prodigious output who never quite found fame, despite being playing sessions for acts as varied as George Duke and Sister Sledge. Juggling with too many ideas and influences at once, his amalgam of Hendrix, Prince and John Scofield could be a little too clever, but when he finds the space, his playing floats in a magical place. A largely instrumental album, The Zimmerman Shadow slipped out on a French label four years before Johnson’s death. Mainly workouts around the received melody, most are faithful enough to leave little doubt as to the source material, something some jazz based artists lose sight of. But he shouldn’t sing. (N.B. The final track is written by Johnson.)
Deep cut: “I Am a Lonesome Hobo” (from John Wesley Harding)
16. Odetta/Odetta Sings Dylan (1965)
If not the first-ever Dylan covers album, certainly the first by anybody already a star. Odetta was huge in the folk music revival of the ’50s into ’60s, and a celebrated bastion of the Civil Rights movement. Given Bob Dylan too started in this field, it was natural for her to look out his material, and a boost for him that she did. A curious vocal timbre to our now more sophisticated ears, she needs attuning into, with then echoes of the influence she had on later singers (Tracy Chapman, for one) becoming apparent. The backing is largely provided by Bruce Langhorne, who also played on early Dylan recordings, and is widely felt to be Mr. Tambourine Man, more for the large Turkish drum he played than for what else he may have brought to the party.
Deep cut: “Walkin’ Down the Line” (from Bootleg Series Vols. 1-3, Rare & Unreleased)
LARS: no (but, to be fair, Dylan didn’t release it until 5 months after this record)
15. Barbara Dickson/Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright (1992)
Another possibly overly pure voice, Barbara Dickson has had a strange trajectory. She started off in the Edinburgh folk clubs alongside Gerry Rafferty, then found greater acclaim after being sucked into the London stage network, working with Andrew Lloyd Webber amongst others. Thereafter she always deemed a bit twee and conventional, yet she has a distinctive voice, well used in interestingly different arrangements than most interpreters. When this album comes off, it is a triumph; where it doesn’t, as in the opening title track, it becomes a bit self-effacing, but still worth it for the successes. Echoes of Scottish trad mix with a competent production that brings in a veritable kitchen sink of somewhat dated styles, the ’80s synths sometimes strangely reminiscent of the music (if not the vocals) on Marianne Faithfull’s Broken English. Gerry Rafferty guests on “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” A surprising little gem of an album.
Deep cut: “Oxford Town” (from The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan)
14: Joan Baez/Any Day Now (1968)
To exclude Joan Baez from this list would err on sacrilege. She is arguably the default setting for Bob Dylan interpretations, there from the start and faithful to the end, long beyond their actual physical linkage. Her voice doesn’t appeal to all, it’s true, sometimes lapsing into shrill schoolgirl soprano. But, when dialed down a bit, her singing is the perfect conduit for his words. Any Day Now‘s high point, “Sad Eyed Lady of the Lowlands,” is just astonishing, worth a mention in its own right and could make you believe it was written for her. Some of the other songs one here possibly were, with the rest of the record veers between the same ethereal beauty and the slightly mawkish, but it has to be here, and is the best of her Dylan recordings. A double album, six of the songs had, at that time, never been performed by their author, with one, “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word,” never known to have been performed by Dylan to this very day.
Deep cut: “Love Is Just a Four-Letter Word” (see above)
13. Judy Collins/Judy Collins Sings Dylan (1993)
Possibly a surprise to see this rating so highly, leading three crystalline voiced interpreters in a row. I confess to have had some degree of reappraisal for Ms. Collins of late, her recent recordings with Stephen Stills a lockdown delight. The usual complaint is that she is just too damned polite for the earthier lyrics, but, y’know, she was there and can hold her own, I’m sure. I cast away my preconceptions and was pleasantly uplifted. Mainly piano based, Judy Collins Sings Dylan is all very tasteful, in a good way. Collins’ voice, especially in her lower register, is smokier than you expect, and occupies a similar space to Jennifer Warnes’ Famous Blue Raincoat. Skip the two or three overly saccharine tracks and just bask in the balm of the others.
Deep cut: “Sweetheart Like You” (from Infidels)
LARS: yes, a graceful piano and harmonica deconstruct
12. Coulson, Dean, McGuinness, Flint/Lo and Behold (1972)
Sounding for all the world like a slightly less-polished version of the Band, this is a stormer of a record, made by a motley crew of experienced UK sidemen, possibly better known by the shorter name of McGuinness Flint for other releases. The fact that none of these songs were then much known, other than to people with access to the then-unreleased Basement Tapes. (Some of the songs are still free of their author’s own rendition.) How did they get a hold of these barely-heard classics? Well, bear in mind that Bob had once said that Manfred Mann did the best versions of his songs, one of the first bands or performers to get that compliment. Tom McGuinness had been a member of that band, and was thus perhaps party to the same sources that gave his old band “The Mighty Quinn.” I wonder sometimes: had they covered better known songs, would they have made more of an impact on the world? McGuinness and Flint later became members of The Blues Band, alongside ex-Manfred Mann singer and harpsman Paul Jones, and they are still not averse to the odd Dylan cover.
Deep cut: all of them!
LARS: no chance
11. Mary Lee’s Corvette/Blood on the Tracks, Arlene Grocery NYC (2002)
A divisive one, I’ll guess, as in WTF? Barely known New York singer releases a live track-by-track version of the record oft deemed to be his best. Somehow it is a stroke of genius. Ragged for sure, her scratchy hillbilly vocals and the only-just-there band gel and offer a recreation that is both faithful and faithless, a huge middle finger to any establishment. That Dylan himself appreciated it was in no doubt: he took the band out as his support shortly after. Her version of “Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts” is certainly unique: how many live recordings offer the microphone to random audience members to join in? And then still release the result? But, that out of the way, it still ends up as a terrific roustabout rendition. Although she and the band have made three other records, it is with this one that she will always be associated, it being no surprise that her debut, as a writer of books was also Dylan-centric, entitled Dreaming of Dylan; 115 Dreams About Bob.
Deep cut: from Blood on the Tracks??
LARS: nope, go figure
10. Charlie Daniels/Off the Grid: Doin’ it Dylan (2014)
With a lot more to him than songs about the devil playing fiddle, Charlie Daniels’ legacy stretches back to the ’50s and extends to the near-present, still active musically until his death last summer. His links with Dylan are many and various, not least with his friendship with early Dylan producer Bob Johnson. Indeed, Daniels himself played on the trio of Nashville records Bob made between 1969 and 1970 (Self Portrait, Nashville Skyline, and New Morning) before his success with his eponymous band. A perpetual and immediately recognizable figure on the Sounds of the South movement, Daniels’ style of fiddle-led country rock and his constant touring allied him into the jamband fraternity, even as his politics became progressively right of center. Whilst Wikipedia offers about three dozen recordings to his name, his own website lists myriad more, right up until (and beyond) his death last year. Off the Grid, as you might imagine, is more respectful of the melodies than the words, his vocals a rough and ready instrument. But the country arrangements, a delightful stew of fiddles, dobroes, honkytonk piano and similar, make this anything other than a quick bandwagon ride.
Deep cut: “Quinn the Eskimo” (from Self Portrait)
LARS: sadly, no, that had to wait for Deuces (2018), featuring Darius Rucker
9. Thea Gilmore/John Wesley Harding (2011)
Thea Gilmore is a well-respected British singer hovering between spiky singer-songwriter and folk: another of her projects was to provide voice and tunes for some posthumously discovered Sandy Denny songs. To celebrate the then 70th birthday celebrations of Bob Dylan, she covered John Wesley Harding in its entirety. But this is so much more than mere reproduction. In fact, with the original JWH being somewhat underproduced, with a slightly distant Dylan, Gilmore here fleshes out many of the songs, coating them with a more attractive sheen than before. This is no better demonstrated than on the original album’s best-known track, “All Along the Watchtower,” which eschews totally any temptation to replay either Dylan’s own version or any other better known, beyond clearly demonstrating she has both heard and studied each of them.(You know which one I mean.) There are a range of styles, from acoustic strummers to all-out rockers, the guitar of Robbie McIntosh combining, at times, with Gilmore’s voice to give a whole Chrissie Hynde/Pretenders vibe.
Deep cut: “The Ballad of Frankie Lee & Judas Priest” (from John Wesley Harding, clearly, but as only one other cover exists, from Jerry Garcia and David Grisman)
LARS: raises eyebrows…
8. Steve Gibbons/The Dylan Project (1998)
It seems against the spirit of this site to be including an out-and-out covers band, that is, a band purely existing to pay tribute to another, however allegedly good are the Australian Pink Floyd Show or Queen (sorry) might be. But an exception is here needed, down in part to the pedigree of the musicians, and in part to the astonishing near-Dylan that singer Steve Gibbons produces. Of course, he sounds nothing like Dylan, or at least not like any recent Dylan, as well as being in a slightly higher register. Plus, this album precedes his taking a band, with the same name, out on the road. And for any disappointed by the odd intonations of modern day Bob, or even erratic live arrangements, this is a package that can present peak period Dylan in a live setting, reliably, night after night. Gibbons, himself with his own pedigree to celebrate (world famous in Birmingham, UK, for over fifty years), has always sung the odd Dylan song in his own band. The rest of the project here is made up by the current rhythm section of Fairport Convention, abetted by PJ Wright on guitars & steel and by John “Rabbit” Bundrick on keyboards. Their embellishments add rather than detract, presenting well-remembered songs in new settings, straying never that far from how your memory is expecting. Gibbons now splits his time between solo shows, his own eponymous band, and this Project, a firm festival favorite. There is one Gibbons original on the record, but I challenge anyone to spot it, unprompted.
Deep cut: “Peggy Day” (from Nashville Skyline)
LARS: no, but covered by the Steve Gibbons Band in 1986 and by The Dylan Project in 2001
7. Willie Nile/Positively Bob (2017)
That nearly every song on Positively Bob starts with a meat and potatoes no nonsense chugalug bar band intro tells you what you’re getting from the start. And it is, mostly, wondrous, however ubiquitous the majority of the songs regaled here are. “Blowin’ in the Wind” even has a 1,2,3,4 that minds you to muse on what if Joey, Dee Dee et al had started out at the Bottom Line a decade before. But this is no thrashfest. Far from it; the arrangements are subtly inventive enough to shine new light on the obvious. It has me thinking of a pre-Band Hawks, with a little less polish and little more of “let’s just put the show on here.” There are mellower and more reflective moments: “I Want You” and “Every Grain of Sand” put in pointers towards the worth of checking out Nile’s own material. Nile has a pleasing weathered croak of a voice, with less nuance than than early Bob, but way more than recent Bob, which gives an attractive hint of how Dylan and the Hawks might play this stuff had the breaks never come. Dylan at CBGBs? Who’d be up for that!
Deep cut: “Abandoned Love” (from Biograph; originally a Desire outtake)
LARS: no (but I bet he has live)
6. Maria Muldaur/Heart of Mine: Love Songs of Bob Dylan (2006)
Like Baez and Collins above, Maria Muldaur has been around Bob from the start, playing those same coffeehouses. But her take is far removed from the reverence they apply, she choosing more to inject her own signature style, a smoky folk-blues hybrid, manipulating her delivery to suit her interpretation, often surprisingly, with the odd shift in gender added in for the appropriate effect. You expect sassy and that is what you get. Muldaur knows these songs backwards, sideways and inside out. The arrangements veer from gin joint blues, to Carribbean, with a little smacks of jazz wafting in on the breeze. Frankly (pun not intended but totally intended), did the arrangement of “Moonlight” give Dylan the idea of replaying the standards of Sinatra and co? Having the likes of Amos Garrett around to augment her regular band does no harm, and this sounds like a masterclass in the sounds of the South. Bonus points also accrue for the first acknowledged use of yodel in a Dylan song: if you thought the Byrds were as country as Dylan got, catch her “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” an attractive shift of expected for Muldaur.
Deep cut: “Golden Loom” (Bootleg Series, 1-3, another Desire outtake)
5. Tim O’Brien/Red on Blonde (1997)
Red on blonde? Tim O’Brien is defiantly ginger here in this selection, where this consummate roots musician plunders Dylan’s songbook, delivering confidently capable renditions that display an effortlessness of techniques across the spectrum of an acoustic Americana. However, being predominantly an accomplished mandolin player, the emphasis is bluegrass, and it is when he plows this farrow that the album comes alive. With workouts beginning with flurries of banjo, fiddle and mandolin, it is often a guess as to which song it will be, and often not quite the expected. “Subterranean Homesick Blues” is a tour de force of clog dance, hoofing as the rhythm, vocals over the top, that will either annoy or exhilarate. I love this stuff and it’s my list, so I’m going with exhilarated. Curveball selections like “God Gave Names To All the Animals” work, arguably, better than on their original, and “Farewell Angelina,” better known in the Baez than the Bob, sounds like a long-lost standard from the Appalachians.
Deep cut: “Farewell Angelina” (Bootleg Series 1-3, a discard from Bringing It All Back Home)
4. Emma Swift/Blonde on the Tracks (2020)
The most recent album on this list, thus the only one with anything from Rough and Rowdy Ways, Blonde on the Tracks is an astonishingly constructed collection, betraying the age of Emma Swift, in that any song in the catalog gets equal billing, all there for her taking. With a breathy purity of tone, Swift often applies brakes to already slow songs, drawing extra pathos with the staggered delivery, with echoes, to my ears, of how Hope Sandoval/Mazzy Star might tackle the songbook. The arrangements shine with nuanced jangle, sweeps of steel and organ breaking out at integral moments, providing a cushion for Swift’s voice to slowly embalm you. In time this selection may seep slowly higher in the pantheon, it’s that good. She is Australian, that distance from the source maybe a helping her avoid repeating any expected correctness of rendition, with guitars courtesy Robyn Hitchcock, himself no stranger to reinterpreting Dylan.
Deep cut: “The Man In Me” (New Morning)
3. Janet Planet/Sings the Bob Dylan Songbook, Volume 1 (2010)
The joy of lists is that there is always one cut like this, the outfield outsider that baffles any context or considered individual notion. But is not the art of a cover about surprise and bluster, about taking away the expected and replacing with an unrealized, or a slant otherwise missed within the original? And not always giving something you necessarily like. If it can make you think, rather than recoil, is that not a purpose? Janet Planet does just that, recklessly setting about the palette with abandon. Backed by a fairly standard supper club band set-up, polished and competent, especially the bass, if also somewhat anonymous, she swoops on the notes like a bird of prey, enlivening the selection of standard cuts that set it apart from the numerous jazz equivalents. With a smooth voice, containing echoes of a silkier Mary Coughlan, she has an Irish sounding inflection, which maybe adds to the oft laid confusion with the similarly named ex Mrs. Van Morrison. Call this a guilty pleasure; I like this album more than I should, returning to it in the wee hours. Plus there is a whistling solo by Ms. Planet in closer “I’ll Be Your Baby Tonight,” something you don’t hear every day in the canon.
Deep cut: “Song to Woody” (Bob Dylan)
LARS: yes, but it’s the weakest track
2. Bettye LaVette/Things Have Changed (2018)
As this album starts, Bettye LaVette is asked she’s ready. She responds by kicking more raw R&B into these songs than they have ever had. She picks up the eclectic choices by the seat of their pants, gives them a good talking to, and sends them on the ride of their lives. And yeah, you can read ride into any which way you like. This veteran soulstress is having the time of her career, her experience and savvy deep enough to know the remit of these songs, to possess them with a confidence lesser talents might shrink from. The presence of a watertight band is clearly no hindrance, producer Steve Jordan leading from behind the drums, with Dylan sideman Larry Campbell supplying authenticity of tone on guitar. Frankly, he has to lift his game here, and he does. The songs are a mix of pearls both known and overlooked, but never has there been so much emotion in Dylan: his own take can sometimes seem slightly glib and even misogynistic, yet when they come from LaVette’s mouth, these very same words ooze longing and, yes, lust. A few of these songs, “Mama, You Been On My Mind” for one, have perhaps lost their sparkle since first appearance. Here they regain all that and more.
Deep cut: “Seeing the Real You At Last” (Empire Burlesque)
1. Bryan Ferry/Dylanesque (2007)
Okay, I accept, maybe not quite who you were expecting. But I submit that no one delivers better and nowhere is there a greater love of the songbook, the respect and understanding of the songs beyond compare, the delivery anything other than a slavish regurgitation of the originals. With a vocal style as immediately recognizable as the tributee’s, Bryan Ferry has never swayed from his thrall to Bob, even as Roxy Music drove a path far removed from singer-songwriter. The clues, however, were there, with “Hard Rain” opening his debut solo disc, and the creeping tendency for covers to appear on latter-day Roxy releases. I suspect many had begun to write Ferry off, as this record appeared, it instead a delight. It seems it wasn’t even planned, it taking shape independently from the interminable sessions for whichsoever record he was supposedly working on at the time, put together in the downtime. The energy of the performances is a blast. Sounding like much more fun than the usual relentless remakes and remodels of his own material, the extensive list of contributors manage to give the impression of being a single band, rather than a set of disparate performances. And what a band it is, with guitarists Robin Trower and Chris Spedding, Paul Carrack on keys, Andy Newmark on drums, and Guy Pratt on bass, all present for at least some of the time. Even Eno gets to add a trademark bleep or two. (And guess where Trower pops up, one of the more accomplished players in the school of Hendrix?) Ferry sounds positively relaxed, many of his archer affectations absent, even if the quaver, gentler now, is still center stage. Dylanesque rolls, romping through a mainly usual culprits selection, but restores vim to many an overfamiliar warhorse, Ferry himself included.
Deep cut: “Gates of Eden” (Bringing It All Back Home)